The rightful remembrance last November of the assassination of John F. Kennedy 50 years ago overshadowed the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Lincoln delivered his speech on Nov. 19, 1863, for the consecration of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, where Union forces had defeated the Confederates four and a half months earlier. The estimated death toll of the combined armies was between 46,000 and 51,000.

Lincoln’s 272-word speech remade America. It wasn’t the scheduled main address of the day. The renowned orator Edward Everett spoke majestically for two hours before Lincoln tossed off “a few appropriate remarks.” The president’s 10 sentences usurped Everett’s soaring rhetoric and became the true Gettysburg Address.

What Lincoln achieved in words was, as author Garry Wills put it, nothing less than the intellectual completion of what the guns of war had intended. You can still hear in the South echoes of resistance in phrases like “The War Between the States” or, more provocatively, “The War of Northern Aggression,” but the Gettysburg Address all but settled the meaning of the Civil War. As one newspaper editor claimed, Lincoln “undertook a new founding of the nation, to correct things felt to be imperfect in the founders’ own achievement.”

Before the war, the common way of talking about the Union was by using the word these — as in “these United States.” Lincoln’s profound underscoring of the one nation in the speech reshaped the way we speak of the country. Henceforth it would be “the United States,” shifting our understanding from severalty to unity.

Lincoln’s secular speech had spiritual overtones. He said, “… that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom ….” Lincoln scholar Ronald White points to the significance of the biblical allusions: “Under God” pointed backward and forward: back to “this nation,” which drew its breath from both political and religious sources, but also forward to a ‘new birth.’ Lincoln had come to see the Civil War as a ritual of purification. The old Union had to die. The old man had to die. Death became a transition to a new Union and a new humanity.”

Some roundly criticized Lincoln’s remarks as a betrayal of the letter of the Constitution. Men had died to preserve the intent of the founders, they claimed — an intent that included the proposition that African slaves were not men who were created equal. As St. Paul says, though, “the letter kills but the Spirit gives life.” Lincoln extended the phrase from the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” to include all men, not just free men. It was a short step from there to the idea that all men are also created free and always must be.

Whether in law or religion, there remains abiding tension between word and meaning, text and context, letter and spirit. The words of Constitution of the United States and the words of the Old and New Testaments of the Bible are never dead letters — they live anew as they are read and spoken in each new generation.

Lincoln aimed at forming “a more perfect union,” and people of faith are ambitious to see “God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” It’s a beautiful thing to behold when both of those lofty goals entwine.

Let’s have more such beauty.


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