Abraham Lincoln’s words and wisdom, from Springfield and New York to Gettysburg and Washington, serve to remind Americans today of the manner in which great statesmen confront challenges that threaten the very foundation of the republic. For a nation seeking remedies and solutions to the deep divisions and chasms that characterize and menace our politics, Lincoln’s speeches provide a valuable model of insights, temperament and behavior.
Lincoln’s magisterial Gettysburg Address more sharply resonates in our time than at any moment in American history since it was delivered Nov. 19, 1863. At Gettysburg, Lincoln laid bare the great challenge then, and perhaps still, facing the nation: whether the Union created in 1776 would survive, or whether it would “perish from the earth.”
In consecrating the cemetery at Gettysburg, site of one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War, Lincoln told an audience of some 15,000 people that the war represented a fundamental threat to the creation of the republic and challenged the living with “the great task” of ensuring that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Lincoln’s words transformed American democracy. They breathed life into the principles of the Declaration of Independence, charted a new political creed and expanded the horizon for our nation’s ideals, aspirations and civic responsibilities. His speech reflected an evolving intellect, grown rich, insightful and statesmanlike through extended study of the American founding and the debates and discussions that shaped it.
Lincoln’s emphasis at Gettysburg, that the nation had been conceived “in liberty” and “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” gave flight to the aspirational words in the Declaration and infused the Civil War with a moral cause, that of ending slavery. His immortal description of American democracy as a government of, by and for the people, reminded citizens of the very purpose of constitutional government, at its creation, and the civic duties borne by the citizens for whom the government was created. And the challenge that he laid down — to ensure government by the people — was a powerful reminder of the founders’ challenge to the citizenry. Benjamin Franklin articulated that challenge when, in reply to a question from a woman about the form of government created by the Constitutional Convention, said: “A Republic, madam, if you can keep it.”
Lincoln’s reminder of this “great task,” the duty of the citizenry to maintain American democracy, with its requisite defense of constitutional principles, speaks to the importance — in his time and ours -- of civic education and civic virtue. Lincoln once told Ulysses S. Grant that he agreed with Secretary of State William Seward that “there was always just enough virtue in the republic to save it; sometimes none to spare, but still enough to meet the emergency.”
There is a strong case to be made that American citizens in the 21st century do not yet possess sufficient understanding of constitutional principles and democratic values. There remains the additional question of whether contemporary Americans, like their founding fathers and mothers, and those at Gettysburg who, in Lincoln’s words, gave their lives “the last full measure of devotion,” have the burning desire to defend constitutional government.
Beyond Lincoln-at-Gettysburg, Lincoln’s first and second inaugural addresses offered words and wisdom that all Americans should take to heart as we seek ways to bridge the divisions that have torn our nation apart.
As he assumed the presidency and addressed the nation in his first inaugural, Lincoln in March of 1861 implored southerners to stay in the Union and to reject war. Lincoln appealed to “the better angels of our nature.” He spoke to the community of Americans, which is precisely the way that we should regard ourselves: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies.”
In this era of vitriol and the practice of personal destruction of those who oppose us, is there not appeal in Lincoln’s words?
In his second inaugural address in 1864, Lincoln offered a clear and simple mantra for bridging the political, social and cultural divisions that had torn the nation asunder: “With malice toward none with charity for all,” let us “bind up the nation’s wounds.”
Is this not a useful guide for citizens to follow as we begin the work of healing deep wounds?
As America seeks ways and means to overcome the bitter and cruel criticisms that have marked American dialogue these past few years, we can do worse than to look to Abraham Lincoln for advice. His speech at Gettysburg is a good start.
David Adler is president of The Alturas Institute. This "We the People" series is provided by the North Dakota Newspaper Association and Humanities North Dakota.