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Seven Score and Ten Years Ago

The Gettysburg Address at 150.

Nov 25, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 11 • By GARY SCHMITT
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For Lincoln, how the victory at Gettysburg was to be understood was still uncertain. While it was generally agreed that the Union’s success at both Gettysburg and Vicksburg virtually guaranteed the Confederacy would lose the war, it was also true that Meade’s failure to finish off Lee’s forces meant that the conflict would be, as Lincoln put it, “prolonged.” Nevertheless, the South was on its way to defeat—divided territorially by Union control of the Mississippi, strangled by blockade at sea, and short of men and materiel. The Union would be preserved.

But what did it mean to preserve the Union, and how was one to justify the immense sacrifices still to come in order to do so? Lincoln’s answer to both these questions was the Gettysburg Address.

In both tense and substance, that address moves its audience from the past—“Four score and seven years ago”—to the present—“we have come to dedicate a portion of that field”—to the future—“to the great task remaining before us.” In doing so, Lincoln subtly suggests that what once justified the Union—the principles found in the Declaration of Independence—are still relevant but no longer sufficient.

America’s history had demonstrated that the “inalienable” rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were not so “self-evident” that they could not be grossly violated in practice. What a “government of the people, by the people, for the people” would require as it moved forward was a renewed but active commitment to the “proposition” that all men were created equal. Human equality could not just be assumed; like propositions in geometry, it would need “the living
to be dedicated” to proving it true. This would be, Lincoln hoped, the Union’s new credo.

Lincoln understood that Meade’s success had given the United States a chance at “a new birth of freedom.” But it was up to his audience at Gettysburg and the generations that memorized Lincoln’s (intentionally short) speech to ensure that those who had fought and died there did not do so “in vain,” and that a fuller, more morally robust understanding of the Union’s victory would live on.

Gary Schmitt is director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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