Tuesday, November 19th was the 155th anniversary of the Gettysburg address, a short speech given by President Abraham Lincoln to dedicate a section of battlefield as a cemetery for casualties of the Civil War.
It was his most famous speech, being required for memorization for generations of American school children and still, I daresay, recognizable to many. It enshrined the big idea behind our nation and reminds us of it even to this day: “…our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal…
“…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.”
Those words still encapsulate the concept of America, even when it seems the American ideal is dead and that our forefathers’ resolution might, in fact, have been in vain. Even when we wonder if government of the people, by the people, and for the people will perish from the earth.
It is easy, in 2018, one hundred and fifty four years after the Civil War ended, to sit in our easy chairs and read those words, forgetting that they were spoken when the continuance of that government was the least likely it had ever been. They were spoken over the bodies of men who had actually died to defend that American ideal, while we despair that the end is near from reading about some elections that didn’t go our way, for example.
In these times of political strife, we can learn a lot from President Lincoln’s confidence and resilience. He was convinced that the American ideal would persist, even in the midst of a war over its’ central tenant: “that all men are created equal.”
Let’s look back a little farther into History for another snapshot of Lincoln’s outlook. Here is a segment of Lincoln’s Proclamation of a Day of Thanksgiving and Praise from October 3, 1863:
“ In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity… peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict… Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People.”
It’s worth remembering that when Lincoln gave this proclamation, he was not carrying on a tradition. Days of Thanksgiving had, until this point, been the business of the states; this was the first call for a nationwide day of Thanksgiving in decades.
That this call for the nation to thank and praise God in the midst of hardship and strife was spontaneous, and not expected as it is of our presidents now, lends it that much more importance.
In the midst of the bloody and tragic Civil War, Lincoln recognized God’s continued blessings.
We are not in a civil war (that’s something to be thankful for in itself), but we are in what is recognized as one of the most divided times of our country. We are in a political conflict where both sides are moving away from the middle and each other, and the incivility sometimes leaks into everyday life.
But Lincoln’s proclamation is a great inspiration for the attitude we ought to have: in spite of the division in our country and the personal hardships we may be going through, there are so many ways that God has blessed us.
Let this Thanksgiving be the beginning of a resolution to dig a little deeper for gratitude to God.
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