TODAY marks the 150th Anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, given by Abraham Lincoln to commemorate the sacrifices of the soldiers who died at the battle of Gettysburg from the 1st to the 3rd of July, 1863. Lincoln’s address was famously short, with the President actually speaking for just over two minutes, but with those two minutes he efficiently summarised the values of the Union and what he considered to be the fundamental principles of American liberty.
Passages from the speech are an iconic part of American dialogue, oft repeated and referenced. It is this speech that is inscribed on the walls of the Lincoln Memorial. The phrases ‘four score and seven years ago’ and ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’ are famous across the world, taught in schools and mulled over by academics. Nine books have been written on the speech, a fact that is somewhat ironic given the speech is famous for its brevity.
Gettysburg was the bloodiest battle of the American Civil War, and is considered by many as the turning point of the conflict. The Union defeat of the Confederate forces in the Summer of 1863 proved the high water mark of southern successes. While the conflict was to continue for another two years, the tide of war had been turned against the secessionists.
Slavery was the divisive issue that led directly to the outbreak of war, although whether it was the primary cause remains controversial. The northern states, known as the Union, fought for the abolition of slavery and for the maintenance of the United States as a single nation. The Confederacy was made up of southern states and fought for the retention of slavery and the right to self-government. The conflict lasted from April 1861 to May 1865 and resulted in a Union victory, but at an eventual cost of 750,000 lives (not including civilians).
Lincoln’s speech reaffirms that slavery was at the heart of the conflict, stating that America was a ‘new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.’ This passage can be applied beyond the remits of slavery, and this is one of the reasons the speech remains one of the most important declarations of freedom and democracy to this day. Of course it is a sign of the times that Lincoln only applied his rights to ‘men’, but the fundamental principle of equality is one that is obvious in its morality but frequently lacking in its application, even in the States. For example, in only 15 of America’s 50 states is gay marriage legal.
Beyond his appeals for equality for all, Lincoln also addresses what has proven to be a rather contemporary concern: unity. The American political system is still incredibly divided, and one need look no further than the government shutdown of September/October this year. Elements of the Republican party tried to kill Barack Obama’s health care reform by refusing to pass the budget (an issue distinct from the health reform bill) through congress. The resulting political standoff resulted in the shutdown of non-essential government offices, the sending home of 800,000 civil servants and millions of dollars worth of losses for the American economy. Political brinkmanship is clearly still alive and well in America, and indeed flourishes in some state. After Mitt Romney lost the presidential election, various appeals for the secession of individual states totalled 675,000 votes on the White House website. That was only last year, not 1863. As Charles M. Blow remarked in the New York Times, ‘We are moving toward two Americas with contrasting – and increasingly codified – concepts of liberty. Can such a nation long endure?’
There has, of course, been progress. Today’s Anniversary of the Gettysburg Address will be held in a much more inclusive America. 100 years ago African Americans were not allowed to attend the Gettysburg commemoration, whereas today the President’s father was Kenyan. But it seems to me there is still much left to be done to truly live up to Lincoln’s hopes for equality for all. As for unity, it is hard not to conclude, given the fructuous nature of the two dominant political parties relations, that much has really changed in the last 150 years.