150 years ago today, Abraham Lincoln spoke his famous address at the dedication of the Gettysburg cemetery. This speech clarified the goals of the Civil War by broadening the notion of who “We the people” were, first mentioned at the beginning of the Preamble of the Constitution. This “government of the people, by the people, for the people” declared at the end of the Gettysburg Address, was now an inclusive notion of “people” meant to hold persons of color as well— popular sovereignty writ large. This is the “new birth of freedom” with which we have been grappling ever since.
The words of the Gettysburg Address continue to inspire and move us. These words embody the democratic impulse at its purest and most passionate. The Gettysburg Address reads the Declaration of Independence into the Constitution, articulating equality and freedom for “all men.” Perhaps more practically, these words read the Preamble into the heart of the Constitution itself, manifesting in the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments which emerge out of this “new birth of freedom.”
Quite an accomplishment for a mere 272 words.
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
November 19, 1863