I have returned from my time teaching at Gettysburgt and today is Super Tuesday, a day that will most likely establish who will be the Democratic and Republican nominees for President. Thus it is an important day and like any Election Day one that we should approach with a matter of solemn responsibility.
When I go to Gettysburg I always learn more than I teach. Part of this is because I am always reading, researching, writing, and exploring the subject so when I get there I look for things that I might have missed in previous visits. I enjoy the time with my students, not just on the battlefield staff ride, but in our table talk at ouch, dinner, and at the bar. But I think most importantly I am touched with the sense that what happened on that hallowed ground still matters today. At least I think that it should matter today if we honestly believe the words spoken by Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address:
“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.”
Those words, spoken on the site were Federal soldiers turned back the invading Confederate Army just a few months before were as revolutionary as when Thomas Jefferson penned the words “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. – That to secure these rights governments are instituted among men….”
Of course when Jefferson wrote them they were revolutionary, but they only guaranteed the rights of white men, primarily those who owned property, which in many cases in those early days included the human property of African American slaves. But just a year prior to speaking at Gettysburg, Lincoln issued the provisional Emancipation Proclamation, giving the Confederacy a last chance to end the war and free their slaves. This was followed by the issuance of the proclamation on January 1st 1863. Lincoln’s action was even more revolutionary than that of Jefferson, for he began the process of univerasalizing the understanding that “all men are created equal.” He followed this with the passage of the 13th Amendment. His allies in Congress passed the 14th Amendment after his assassination over the strident objections of President Andrew Johnson, and Ulysses Grant followed this by ensuring that the 15th Amendment was passed.
Of course it took many years of struggle to see the “proposition that all men are created equal” was extended to Native Americans, Women, and most recently Gays and Lesbians. Even so many people according to one recent survey said that they thought that some 13% of Americans disagreed with the Emanicaption Proclamation while 17% weren’t sure. Many others despise the 14th Amendment that provided citizenship rights to African Americans, the 15th Amendment which gave Blacks the right to vote, as well as the 19th Amendment which gave women the right to vote, and most recently the Oberfell v. Hodges decision which gave Gays the right to marry. Of course the precedent for most of the after decisions was found in the 14th Amendment.
Today our country is nearly as divided as it was before and during the Civil War, Lincoln said, “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” There are politicians, pundits and preachers who are intent on rolling back or eliminating the rights of others in order to preserve their privilege, and to crush the rights of others in doing so for the flimsiest of reasons. That my friends frightens me, but I do believe that the wrong will fail. Even so I do get concerned, but then I remember Lincoln’s words:
“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.”
When I walked among the graves the men men who fought and died to ensure those rights over the weekend I again felt that call, the call to embrace and fight for the new birth of freedom that Abraham Lincoln so eloquently spoke. Yes my friends, it is for us the living to be dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. If we do not do so what good are we?