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Today marks the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. To commemorate the occasion the Lincoln Library and Museum in Springfield invited famous and ordinary Americans to write reflections on the Address in 272 words. Many are now on display in an exhibit at the Museum. Inspired by that exhibit and by my time in Gettysburg as a college student, I offer my own reflection – in 272 words.
Long ago I spent four years living among the monuments and graves at Gettysburg. Walking the battlefield was oddly peaceful given the violent artifacts of iron and bone buried beneath the rolling hills. The arc of graves where Lincoln spoke lies mute, silencing tourists who wander among the flat stones weighted down with the suffering that took place nearby, while bits of remembered phrases rise up from old history lessons – “Four score and seven. . . . little note, nor long remember. . . . of the people, by the people, for the people. . . .”
Lincoln’s spare rhetoric passed over the details of battle, avoided mentioning slavery, and evaded the question of blame. Instead he took his audience back to the Declaration of Independence and to its noble propositions, still being tested in the uncertain and tortured unfolding of the nation’s laws and commitments. In so doing Lincoln gave his words a timeless quality, inviting future audiences to ponder the meaning of this national experiment.
Today those ancient propositions continue to be tested in the face of enduring racism, hostility to strangers, income inequality, privatization of public assets and responsibilities, a culture of violence, the frequent sacrifice of human and civil rights. Our battlefields are more political than martial, yet the contests we engage in still rage beneath the lure of the same moral vision Lincoln evoked over the graves of those who struggled there.
This anniversary brings me back to the places I wandered years ago. Amid the flaws so often apparent, the proposition conceived long ago remains compelling; the conviction that it must not perish continues to inspire.
John H. Thomas
November 19, 2013