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Lincoln’s words show what binds America

In Gettysburg Address, we see our shared history, linked future

It’s hard to imagine the depth of the burden that weighed down Abraham Lincoln 149 years ago today. America was engaged in a horrific civil war – a war that pitted states against states, families against families, even siblings against siblings. It was a war that became the mostly costly in terms of lives lost that America has ever seen.

More than 620,000 has been the official death count for years. That makes it America’s deadliest war. But historians this year, using better Census data, have recalculated the losses. Approximately 750,000 died, they say, maybe as many as 850,000. That would make the U.S. Civil War more deadly than all other U.S. wars combined. North Carolina, it is reported, led the Confederacy in the number of killed or injured with 20,602 casualties; Virginia was a distant second with 6,947.

The war wasn’t over on Nov. 19, 1863, but the toll was already devastating. And on that day, at Gettysburg, Pa., the scene of the pivotal Union victory at the Battle of Gettysburg just months before where 51,000 soldiers had been killed, wounded or captured, a national cemetery was being dedicated for war dead on both sides.

President Lincoln wasn’t even the main speaker for the day. Edward Everett, former president of Harvard University and one of the foremost orators of the time, had that honor. He had been both a U.S. senator and representative. He spoke for two hours before turning the podium over to Lincoln.

Lincoln’s two-minute speech was the more memorable, and was interrupted five times by applause.

A new movie on Lincoln that was released over the weekend will no doubt trigger renewed interest in the man, his views and the motivations for his actions as president. Whether he wanted to end slavery, preserve the union or both will be a perennial debate.

Still, the Gettysburg Address, as it is now known, provides perennial inspiration as well.

The words still encapsulate the essence of America, and why Americans of all ethnicities and every political persuasion fight to uphold the values and ideals the country has come to stand for. The speech not only harkens back to the country’s founding, taking note that “our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” but also that their work was “unfinished” and it is up to us to finish it.

Lincoln implored that we “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.”

In the polarized and divisive atmosphere in the country today, Lincoln’s words continue to have import.

They are apt reminders of what binds us rather than divides us. The words not only highlight what this country has endured and its citizens have sacrificed for a union borne of “the proposition that all men are created equal.” They spotlight the continual struggle to achieve that goal, and the commitment needed to ensure that our highest principles survive.

Politicians try to slice and dice us into competing constituencies – today more than ever. But as Americans, our history is shared and our futures are linked. The Gettysburg Address illuminates that.

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