Perhaps the most famous speech Abraham Lincoln ever penned was the Gettysburg Address which only took a few minutes to deliver but which encapsulated the whole of what Lincoln believed the Civil War was all about. We have all heard it numerous times and as school children many of us had to memorize it. But I wonder how many people have read it slowly and pondered what Lincoln is really saying? Let’s consider the ending of the brief address where Lincoln notes that
“. . .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.”
Beautiful words. Pure poetry, like so many of Lincoln’s speeches. But, more to the point, it embraced the core of what Lincoln was convinced the war was being fought to protect — to wit, popular government, government of, by, and for the people. Not only is this conviction repeated twice in this brief Address, it permeated Lincoln’s speeches and correspondence throughout his presidency from the time he was elected until his terrible end. He was very much aware that he was himself “of the people.” During his presidency he awoke one morning and laughed (as he was often inclined to do) at a thought he had during the night. He had been called “common” in one of the many newspapers he read and he awoke with the perfect rejoinder: “Well I guess I am common, but God must love the common people because he made so many of us.” That was Lincoln. Each week, on Tuesdays, he opened the White House doors and stood for hours shaking hands with the “common people” to remind himself who he was and where he came from. A poor man with little education who worked by the sweat of his brow until he could raise himself by his own bootstraps to join a law firm and begin to practice law before entering politics.
When the war broke out, even before Lincoln had a chance to make the White House his home, he knew the war had to be fought to preserve the Union. As the months went by it became clear that it was really about slavery and the freedom of four million people who were being bought and sold in this country and denied their fundamental humanity. He became increasingly sympathetic with the slaves’ plight and stressed that their rights had also been guaranteed by the Declaration of Independence which loudly declared, in Jefferson’s words, that “all men are created equal.” And all must share the burden of self-government. He knew full well that America was the world’s first and most fragile experiment in popular government, built from the ground up, an experiment that would determine whether or not humans could govern themselves. This was what the war was all about in Lincoln’s mind. This was what his presidency was all about. This is what 630,000 men died to guarantee, as Lincoln saw it.
In light of these reflections on the thoughts of perhaps the greatest president this country has ever had — and assuredly one of the most extraordinary human beings of all time, the man Ulysses S. Grant called “the greatest man I ever knew”– it is deeply disturbing to acknowledge that today this grand experiment in popular government appears to be on the brink of failure. The “people” are now far removed from the seat of power and seem unconcerned; they care not that they have little or nothing to say about the machinations of an inept group of men and women in the Congress who are, for the most part, placed in office by wealthy special interests determined to see that their own private agendas are realized. Lincoln’s hope of a government of, by, and for the people — people like those who tramped all over Mary’s beautiful carpets in their muddy shoes at the Lincolns’ open houses — has become a government run by the corporations and a handful of wealthy individuals who give no thought whatever to the common people who are central to what this country is all about and worry only about their profits.
To be sure, something has gone terribly wrong. Dare we hope that at some point the people will realize what has been taken away from them and will rise up and take it back? Or have they been successfully benumbed by the entertainment industry to the point where they know all about, say, “deflate-gate” but nothing whatever about Watergate? To be sure, there are scattered pockets of concerned citizens and a few voices in the Congress that speak for what truly matters. Let us hope they are heard by increasing numbers of people and that what they have to say somehow brings this country back to what our forefathers intended this country to be — a government of the people, by the people, and for the people that shall not perish from the earth.