Opinion: After 150 years, the Gettysburg Address still matters

LincolnIt was just ten sentences long. A mere 273 words delivered in less than three minutes. Yet the Gettysburg Address has resonated through history, finding relevance in every age.

In May 2003, I was researching history in Los Angeles. The news channels had cleared the decks for just one story. One hundred or so miles to the south, President George W. Bush trying to define his own place in history.

The USS Abraham Lincoln was stationed off San Diego after a long deployment, including action in the Bush/Blair war in the Gulf. Beneath a banner of “Mission Accomplished”, a jubilant Bush told the assembled crew and an attentive nation that major combat operations in the Iraq War had ended. In a speech that lacked humility, he said: “We have fought for the cause of liberty, and for the peace of the world.” Bush boasted of the precision of war, of how “new tactics and precision weapons [meant] the guilty have far more to fear from war than the innocent.” Seemingly oblivious to the huge cost in human life, he declared that war against terror, against Al Qaida, was being won.

That evening, I was propping up a bar off East Holly in Pasadena. The after-work crowd was always eclectic. I was researching history. Most of the guys I drank with worked in automotive spare parts. When Bush and Blair had launched their Gulf War a couple of months earlier, I was a lone voice protesting that it was wrong. There had been times when I had to drink alone as the patriotic bar crowd raged against the French and anyone who suggested that bombing Iraq was immoral and unpatriotic.

In May 2003, as the bar TV replayed Bush’s visit to the USS Abraham Lincoln, the patriotism of the bar crowd barely swelled. There had been a sea change among my friends. They had come to realise that war in Iraq was getting America nowhere. They thought that the human cost was too high. And they had learnt that Operation Iraqi Freedom was nothing much to do with liberty.

That’s where Abraham Lincoln was, 140 years earlier. 150 years ago today. America was engaged in a terrible slaughter and losing sight of why it was at war with itself.

It was a war that Lincoln had not wanted, but he knew he must win to preserve not just the Union but to abolish slavery. Ultimately, three quarters of a million soldiers and around 50,000 civilians died in those four years of slaughter. Several thousand died in the Battle of Gettysburg alone.

Lincoln had travelled to Gettysburg to commemorate the dead and dedicate a burial ground. He was all but second fiddle to Edward Everett, whose jingoistic and at times rambling speech drew the cheers of the crowd for two hours.

Lincoln spoke simply and with brevity. He didn’t attack the Confederates. He didn’t even mention slavery. He did not, he could not, speak of victory, which was two years and hundreds of thousands of deaths away.

Instead, he spoke of liberty, of all men being created equal. He talked of the dead with veneration:

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.

He told the crowd that the men buried at Gettysburg had not given their lives without purpose:

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.

Unlike Everett, unlike Bush, unlike so many other leaders of nations at war, there was no triumphalism in Lincoln’s speech. It was a simple statement of principles. Those that died had not done so in vain. They had died to defend liberty.

That’s why the Gettysburg Address still matters – to my friends at the bar in Pasadena and to me. That’s why so many Americans are recording their version of the Address.

I wish we could have a world without war. But if we cannot, let us fight without self-interest, let us win without triumphalism and let us do so only in Lincoln’s footsteps – in the cause of liberty.

* Andy Boddington is a Lib Dem councillor in Shropshire. He blogs at andybodders.co.uk.

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  • Paul In Twickenham 19th Nov '13 - 7:55pm

    Very well put, Andy.

    I think that everyone who hears it finds the honesty and directness of Lincoln’s speech affecting. I had the good fortune to be able to visit the Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, IL last summer, and would recommend it without hesitation. It is direct, engaging and never descends to hagiography. The circumstances and context of the Gettysburg Address are described in depth – and you are left with no doubt that Lincoln managed to articulate something incredibly profound at that critical moment in the history of the USA.

    And while travelling into The City today I was watching a remarkable BBC4 programme on the development of The Requiem as music. It concluded with Britten’s staggering War Requiem. Britten (a pacifist and conscientious objector) interspersed the text of The Requiem Mass with the poetry of Wilfrid Owen, and prefaced it with a quote from Owen : “My subject is War and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity… all a poet can do today is warn”. Sadly, it seems like every generation has to learn the lessons for itself.

  • A Social Liberal 19th Nov '13 - 11:01pm

    Notwithstanding Lincolns speech which I agree was elegent and powerful, I have to take issue with the misdirection in the article of civilian cost in the war fighting. To illustrate this I will ask a few questions.

    What was the civilian cost in the symetric stage of the war in Iraq?
    Was this excessive under the Rome Statute (principle of proportionality) (Article 8(2)(b)(iv) which evolved from the 1949 Geneva conventions?
    Would the cost have been higher or lower had not the Republican Guard not arranged its defense amidst the civilian population in direct contravention of those conventions?
    How many bodies filled the mass graves that Saddam and his psychopathic son scattered around Iraq?
    Would Saddam have succeeded in his aim of perpetrating genoside against the Marsh Arabs?

  • Simon Banks 20th Nov '13 - 6:33pm

    Andy correctly states that the mood of Americans on the Iraq war had changed. Barack Obama was almost a lone voice opposing it from the start: four years later, his record on the issue helped get him the Democratic presidential nomination.

    A Social Liberal is right about the horrors of Saddam’s rule, but ignores the deaths and suffering since through the continuing conflicts and failure to form an effective Iraqi government, consequences an intelligent analysis would have predicted before the war was begun.We should also consider that the war was not launched to help Iraqis suffering under dictatorship, but under a false prospectus about weapons of mass destruction and for reasons we could long debate. But I don’t think this post should be about totting up the balance sheet for the war in Iraq. The greatness of Lincoln’s address (condemned by “The Times” as dishonouring a solemn occasion, since they hadn’t read the speech properly and looked down on Lincoln’s social origins) was that Lincoln understood suffering and did not try to divert attention from it.

    The American Civil War was a bloody and hugely important conflict, and the victory of the Union was by no means assured: it had more people, ships and industry, but to win it had to conquer a vast and often wild area, while to win the Confederacy had only to avoid complete defeat. As late as 1864 Confederate success seemed likely as Lincoln seemed to be heading for defeat in his re-election race.

    Americans appreciate the importance of this conflict and the battlefields are well-preserved and furnished with good information for visitors. By comparison, our Civil War, a conflict proportionately more bloody and of huge importance too, is widely ignored or subjected to silly stereotypes. We drove a motorway spur through part of the battlefield of Naseby, and I hope the battlefield of Marston Moor looks more appropriate than when I visited it, when a big rubbish tip was sited right next to the 19th century memorial.

  • Richard Underhill 19th Jul '17 - 9:48pm

    The film “Lincoln” is available on DVD for £2.50 from Kent County Library. It covers the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the constitution of the USA during the Civil War, with the Confederate states in armed rebellion. Having won a general election and passed the Senate there were not enough votes for Lincoln’s party to achieve the legal abolition of slavery without the support of twenty members of the opposition in the House of Representatives.
    There are parallels with the Kennedy-Johnson era, except that the parties have changed places. Lighting was by candles. 600,000 dead, plus one.

  • Richard Underhill 24th Jul '17 - 3:36pm

    “Lincoln was viewed by abolitionists as a champion for human liberty. Republicans linked Lincoln’s name to their party. Many, though not all, in the South considered Lincoln as a man of outstanding ability. Historians have said he was “a classical liberal” in the 19th century sense. Allen C. Guelzo states that Lincoln was a:
    classical liberal democrat—an enemy of artificial hierarchy, a friend to trade and business as ennobling and enabling, and an American counterpart to Mill, Cobden, and Bright (whose portrait Lincoln hung in his White House office). .. In the 21st century, President Barack Obama named Lincoln his favorite president and insisted on using Lincoln’s Bible for his swearing in of office at both his inaugurations.”

  • Richard Underhill 24th Jul '17 - 3:52pm

    How does Guantanamo Bay relate to “jurisdiction” as in the 13th amendment to the US constitution? What does Jurisdiction mean in the American language?

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