On Consecrated Ground

This speech, from November 19,1863.  You know the words:

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.  We are met here on a great battle-field of that war.  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.  It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But in a larger sense 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.  The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.

It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they 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, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

Although it was Lincoln’s specific task to dedicate the burial ground at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, he was looking beyond the occasion of the moment toward a future whose shape he could not see, and speaking these words to that generation.  We who are not now engaged in a civil war but who remember his eloquence need to remind ourselves that it is not only from the wartime dead that we should draw inspiration and devotion.  All of us–indeed, millions of us across this land–have a connection by blood and friendship to millions of others who have raised us, taught us, served us, and loved us before they passed away.  We have a connection to them and a debt to them that may be best paid by being the kind of thinking, tolerant, compassionate human beings they wished us to be.  The process of becoming better than we are, although it is often slow, painful, and even invisible to our own eyes, is inherently transforming, both to us and to those around us.  What emerges from that dedication, no matter how humble the step we take may be, is nothing less than what President Lincoln called “the new birth of freedom”–the gift our country bestows upon all of us every day to act as we choose in working and loving, in doing good things for our neighbors and for ourselves, in remembrance of all those who have come before us.

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