We Remember

| May 24, 2024

Memory is a funny thing. I can still remember the Bible verses that I recited at my confirmation and the complete text of the Gettysburg Address that I memorized in grade school. I recall puzzling over the meaning of four score, but I do not remember whether or not I understood the meaning of Lincoln’s famous address. Did I think that it was a speech, or did I understand it as part of a religious service? My memory fails me on this point.

The canny politician Lincoln knew his audience though, something that the other orator on that day, Edward Everett, did not. Everett spoke for two hours on the Peloponnesian War and battles in England, Germany, France, and Italy. Everett sought to impress a handful of classically educated elites and doubtless many of his auditors envied the dead by the second hour. Then or now, few people care about Pericles.

Virtually every American, literate or illiterate, understood the style and form of Lincoln’s 272-word address. He begins by quoting the Declaration’s assertion that “all men are created equal.” He then quickly ties the fate of the nation to Christian symbolism “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.” He evokes the Book of Common Prayer by asserting that “it is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.”

The fight against slavery was not just fitting and proper, but a fight between good and evil. Lincoln reminded Americans that ending slavery fulfilled the Declaration’s sacred covenant “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.” Our martyred president reminds us how “it is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us.”

America’s first patriots gave their lives for liberty. So too did the heroes at Gettysburg, Saint-Mihiel, Normandy, Midway, Heartbreak Ridge, Hamburger Hill, and so many of the other hallowed sites that are consecrated with their blood. Their sacrifice charged us with the duty --

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.

America is a more diverse place today, but the language of liberty continues to unite us through our common values. This Memorial Day I shall endeavor to remember Lincoln’s meaning as well as I can remember his words. It is fitting and proper that I do this.

* https://www.britannica.com/event/Gettysburg-Address