November 18, 2013 2 Comments
I wonder how many actually heard his words that day. Was the crowd murmuring? Were they attentive? Could those at the back of the crowd hear? Some 20,000 had gathered in all directions around a raised platform. Surely they heard the Birgfield Band play, and they must have been respectfully silent as Thomas H. Stockton, former chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives, delivered a prayer.
But in the beautiful but hazy autumn day, did they grow weary and restless by mid-afternoon? After Edward Everett, a former senator and president of Harvard, delivered the day’s primary address — a two-hour speech of more than 13,000 words — were they still listening when the nation’s president rose to offer his remarks of dedication?
Only four months had passed since the battle that had marred the land where they stood — the land they had gathered to dedicate. Carcasses of fallen horses still littered the grass, rotting in the autumn sun. And thousands of hastily buried soldiers, some of their limbs protruding through the cold soil, covered the landscape. Certainly, the pain of families, both Southern and Northern, was still acute. A war still raged.
Lincoln himself was hurting, a mourning band rounding his sleeve. He knew the pain of losing sons.
When Lincoln stood on the platform, it must have felt anticlimactic, a relief almost. The ceremony was ending. His remarks, brief as promised, would be less than 300 words. In them, he spoke a truth that has echoed through the centuries, that is a distillation of what we should all embrace: All men are created equal and that is a noble and worthy goal of a nation.
Buried in his address was another truth, equally potent: What we say has far less impact than what we do. Words may spur us. Words may inspire us, but Lincoln said: “The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.”
In words filled with elegance and grace, Lincoln voiced an essential truth. Only by deeds is any cause “nobly advanced.” It is in the deeds — not the words — that we move forward, that we make progress, that we change the future.
On Nov. 19, 1863, Lincoln said to remember and to act, because, he said, there is “unfinished work” and “a great task remaining.”
Today, 150 years later, it is still true. There is unfinished work. Everywhere.
To learn more about Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, visit: http://pabook.libraries.psu.edu/palitmap/GettysburgAddress.html