The Gettysburg Address at 150

11/21/2013 11:15 am ET | Updated Jan 25, 2014

Lincoln's Oratory Masterpiece Heralded The Modern Age Of America

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on 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 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 Ídid here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here 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, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

- Abraham Lincoln, 16th president of the United States, November 19, 1863

One-hundred and fifty years ago on the day this hits the streets, Abraham Lincoln presented his address on the hallowed grounds of an American massacre. With a slight tremor in his voice, one that had the tendency to screech into strange registers when emoting, his words "echoed through the hills". He read from his fifth draft, hardly peering up, and never breaking a stoic resolve. When he was finished, the silence, it was reported, lasted an excruciatingly long time. It was the silence, one witness remarked to a New York City reporter, "of the dead."

Only five months earlier, just beyond the incline where Lincoln stood, the Union Army met General Lee's Confederate charges over a three-day period of the most horrific slaughter ever realized on American soil. Until then, the Civil War had been in doubt. Despite riches and industrial strength and overwhelming human numbers, the devastation had dragged on for three gory years. Gettysburg changed that. Lincoln knew it. His words echo it.

At 278 words, it is a masterwork in brevity. Not one wasted; each a pillar for the next. It is less address than prayer; an American poem. Mostly, it is an invocation of the heretofore empty promise penned by Thomas Jefferson in his Declaration of Independence. The idea that a man who owned human beings from a place that thrived economically on the egregiousness of slavery would dare aspire to such lofty notions as "All men are created equal" and not in the eyes of law or sovereign or bloodline, but by an omniscient being grasping at the very notion of liberty.

Before Lincoln, before Gettysburg, and before those 278 words, that was all it was -- rhetoric reaching pathetically at a dream. It was word, not deed. This is why Lincoln's pronouncement, leaving nary a sliver for interpretation that "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here" would realize the truth of Jefferson's vision. Eleven months after the Emancipation Proclamation, which would begin to dismantle our national disgrace, the inhuman bondage which would make a mockery of the lie that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is available to all, these words would float like a distant bugle call over the fields of battle.

It was with these deeds and words that this nation known as America was founded. Not in Philadelphia or Concord or those dark years between our extrication from the British Empire and 600,000 sacrificed from the moment the first cannon ball slammed into the ramparts of Fort Sumner. It is Lincoln's "unfinished work" that is before a nation so full of Jefferson's promise, and long after a lunatic actor put a bullet in the 16th president's skull it remains, as it would remain then. The genocide of Native Americans and the long struggles for African Americans and immigrants and women and so many that succeeded them.

"The great task at hand" is always at hand.

This is why the Gettysburg Address is not a point in history; it is history. Therefore it moves, like time. Not to be shoved in a canister or placed behind glass. That is for fallen nations and buried ideals. Lincoln's words were not and are not a command or a call to duty. It was and is not a rousing rhetorical spire or a solemn dedication to the blessings bestowed on his office, his nation, his place in the pantheon of the American God.

The Gettysburg Address was and is still the wish, the hope, and the vision of America as a concept, Jefferson's dream come alive to evolve and continue to seek what its author once mused are "our better angels." It is without question the greatest set of ideas ever uttered by an American citizen about the density of our purported ideal that we indeed "always 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."