By Wendy Swanson
Sunday, December 12, 2021
The Dedication Day ceremony at Gettysburg National Cemetery takes place each year on November 19, the anniversary of Lincoln's iconic words. The above photograph shows the rostrum which hosts the event's speakers. This year the morning dawned sunny but cold and windy (the keynote speaker said his fingers were so cold he had difficulty turning the pages on his prepared talk). Still the faithful came to remember.
Gettysburg’s annual Dedication Day ceremony provides the opportunity to reflect upon the words and legacy of Lincoln’s iconic address, given there in 1863. Central to such reflection is the ceremony’s keynote address, given traditionally by a historian, leader or other national figure. Recent keynotes have covered a variety of topics ranging from education to historical monuments, all while confirming Lincoln’s relevancy today.
This year’s ceremony continued in that tradition. The keynote speaker, historian Gary Gallagher, finds this moment in our nation’s history an appropriate time to revisit Lincoln at Gettysburg. Specifically, he took to task those opinions heard so frequently these days that “current political and cultural divisions in the country resemble those of the 19th century.” Rather, he stated “such a comparison ignores American history.”
Gallagher himself observes “no unprecedented breakdown in national civility today” and is convinced that “current conditions pale in comparison” to those of Lincoln’s time. Speaking from the perspective of an historian who has studied the 19th century, he emphatically declared that “we are not fatally divided.” Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg “2 ½ years into a period of seismic upheaval, one that resulted in open warfare that had claimed a vast toil in lives.” The speaker opined that “no political issue today even approaches that of slavery in terms of political divisiveness. Slavery, after all, was the key to the violence and social upheaval that led to Lincoln’s 1863 Gettysburg visit.”
Gallagher (shown in the photo to the left) offered further thoughts on those Americans who don’t know their history. Such a lack of knowledge, he believes, “often gets in the way of fruitful public debate on issues with ties to our past.” Moreover, he added that those “with a more certain sense of our history know that almost nothing is new; we have overcome immense problems in the past and almost certainly will do so again.”
Important too, in the speaker’s opinion, is what the Address conveys about “the value and promise of a republic.” Revisiting Lincoln’s time enables those living today to better understand “why the citizens at the time believed they had a unique system, one worthy of great sacrifice to preserve.” Many today do not consider our nation exemplary. However, Americans of Lincoln’s time did. They believed that not only was "the future of the republic at stake during this period of upheaval but also that of democracy in the western world.”
To them, "the nation provided a direct say in the government, one which offered the possibility – but not a guarantee – of economic advancement.” Gettysburg’s speaker, Abraham Lincoln, illustrated that such progress was attainable. Standards in place, considered restrictive today, were far ahead of other major western nations. Americans “were not trapped in the rigid class framework, seen throughout Europe, which prohibited social and economic movement.“ To these Americans, the country did offer “the last best hope of earth.”
Lincoln’s wording does not mention the term "emancipation" but instead “covers a wide spectrum” of important issues. He understood the need to “end slavery without alienating the millions of Americans who cared little about this issue.” The words “a new birth of freedom” could pertain to the circumstances of many Americans, "extending to their own personal freedom."
Lincoln, in closing his Address, directed listeners to the Constitution’s preamble and to the people, as a source of authority, not the states. In penning the Address, Lincoln repeatedly emphasized the word people. The people had forged the governing instruments for the new nation, one that was still “a work in progress.” Citizens were obligated to a republic that conveyed great benefits. Thus, the citizen soldiers honored in the Address had fought and died for their country. That the nation had citizen soldiers, not professionals, was a concept that set it apart from other countries.
Gallagher proclaimed that Lincoln’s tribute to “an exceptional but imperfect republic” is still timely today. He explained that the “founding fathers provided the mechanism to improve their work, leaving the details to the people and the elected representatives.” At a great cost Lincoln’s generation “achieved a victory to ensure the nation was no longer burdened by slavery and did not perish from the earth.” Gallagher reminded listeners that it falls to us, as it has to previous generations, to ensure the republic remains an improving work in progress.
Following the keynote speech, acclaimed actor Stephen Lang provided an impassioned and bold recitation of the Gettysburg Address. His presentation, building on Gallagher’s remarks, stressed the repetition and emphasis on the word people in the Address. Once again, Lincoln’s words – through the presentations by Gallagher and Lang – provided those present, whether in-person or online, much food for thought and reflection as they contemplate today’s issues.
If you would like to hear Gallagher’s address in its entirety, followed by Lang’s stirring presentation, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5u2F3y7IXjs
(Photo credit: The Gettysburg Foundation.)