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Editorial: A timeless address turns 150

When Abraham Lincoln accepted an invitation to speak at the dedication of the National Cemetery in Gettysburg 150 years ago, the country was very much in the throes of the Civil War. As president, he wanted to honor the men who had answered the nation’s call to serve in preserving the union between North and South and who had made the ultimate sacrifice in the rolling hills of Pennsylvania.

But he was not the keynote speaker for the ceremony. That distinction belonged to Edward Everett, overseer of Harvard University, whose illustrious career included serving as Harvard president, representing Massachusetts in both the U.S. House and Senate, as governor of Massachusetts and secretary of state.

Lincoln listened to those speaking before him, including Everett’s lengthy address, before delivering his own speech of less than 300 words.

Given the divide and politics of the time, reaction to the speech was predictable. The Chicago Tribune declared, “The dedicatory remarks by President Lincoln will live among the annals of the war” while the London Times said, “The ceremony was rendered ludicrous by some of the sallies of that poor President Lincoln. Anything more dull and commonplace it would not be easy to produce.”

And the southern press, of course, either ignored what Lincoln had said or put a negative slant on it.

Still, there was something about what Lincoln said that day that struck a spark within Americans. It may have been just a few, including Everett, who upon returning to Washington wrote the president, commending Lincoln for the “eloquent simplicity and appropriateness” of his address, who felt moved by what was said.

But over time, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address has come to be considered one of the best speeches in American history.

For us today, it serves as a reminder of some of our most basic ideals.

On that day, speaking in his high, reedy voice, Lincoln began:

“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.”

He went on, “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure.”

Since the Civil War, we have as a nation faced many difficulties and terrible times and yet our country has emerged together and strong.

As Lincoln said, “... 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 who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.”

Today, as the casualty lists from Afghanistan and elsewhere grow, that continues to be the case.

Are we dedicated to that unfinished work?

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