Ironicschmoozer’s Weblog


Sermon 11/9/2008: Lincoln at Gettysburg

Roger Jones                                    November 9, 2008
Family Minister                            UU Society of Sacramento, CA

Lincoln at Gettysburg: Words that Changed America

Hymns:      #162, “Gonna Lay Down My Sword and Shield,” #16, “’Tis a Gift to Be Simple,”
#108, “My Life Flows on in Endless Song.”

Reading         from Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier (Vintage Books, 1998)

Charles Frazier’s 1998 novel Cold Mountain is the story of a wounded southern Confederate soldier who walks out of a military hospital, gives up on the noble cause of war against the Union, and heads home to his beloved.  Along his episodic journey he stays at the rural home of a reclusive woman who keeps goats.
“Not a soul he had met in some time drew him out as this goatwoman did, and so he told her what was in his heart.  The shame he felt now to think of his zeal in [1861] to go off and fight the downtrodden mill workers of the Federal army, men so ignorant it took many lessons to convince them to load their cartridges ball foremost.  These were the foes, so numberless that not even their own government put much value to them.  They just ran them at you for years on end, and there seemed no shortage.  You could kill them down until you grew heartsick, and they would still keep ranking up to march southward.”

Reading  (followed by the playing of Taps)

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon 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 here on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of it 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 can never forget what they did here. It is for us, the living, rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they have, thus far, so nobly carried on. 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 here gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom; and that this government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

[Taps]

Sermon:  Words that Changed America

Many ago I happened to be in Washington, DC, on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, February 12.  I took the subway across town to the Lincoln Memorial to attend the annual commemoration of his birthday.  At one point in the ceremony, as we all stood on the marble steps in a cold, wet wind, a young male African American elementary school student from a local school recited the words we just heard, the Gettysburg address.  I never had to memorize it, but elders have told me that years ago children did have to learn the address by heart.
Lincoln gave that speech in a dedication ceremony of the cemetery at he site of the Battle of Gettysburg on November 18, 1863—a week from Tuesday will be the 145th anniversary of the ceremony.
Military cemeteries and war memorials are quiet places with rich landscaping and refined architecture. They can be so peaceful.  They can lull us into forgetting the true human cost of any war and any battle—the chaos and confusion, the slaughter and suffering.  The costs of the Battle of Gettysburg were horrendous.
This battle was a three-day-long human sacrifice.  It left 50,000 men dead, wounded or missing.  General Lee’s Confederate troops lost the battle, but it was hardly a proud victory for the Union soldiers, led in the battle by General Meade.  The results were so terrible that both generals offered to resign from their respective posts, but their resignations were not accepted.  Neither president could afford the loss of morale this would have caused.
General Meade’s forces moved on soon after winning.  They did a sloppy job of clearing the battlefield.  Several thousand human bodies and 5,000 dead horses were scattered over the ground.  The horse carcasses had to be burned.  For the human remains, it was left to the surviving soldiers, Confederate prisoners, and some residents of Gettysburg to create a makeshift burial ground.  In the words of historian Gary Wills, “Shoveling and retching by turns,” the survivors left a slight shallow covering of dirt over the bodies.   They placed boards in the dirt over the graves of the dead Union soldiers, with the names and whatever troop identifications they could find.  They did not, however, try to figure out what troops or units the Confederate dead belonged to.
What they left behind must have made life almost unbearable for the 2,500 residents of Gettysburg.  With only a slight covering of dirt over the bodies, the July heat made the air repugnant.  One witness said hogs were digging up corpses.  Relatives of soldiers would go to Gettysburg to try to dig up the bodies and the possessions of their loved ones.  Local residents “had to plant around the bodies in their gardens, or brace themselves to move the rotting corpses.”
Because of this mess, the governor of Pennsylvania appointed a Gettysburg banker to establish a cemetery to give the men a proper burial.  An interstate commission collected funds from all the states in the Union for the land and the burial.  The banker received bids from 34 contractors for the reburial job.  The goal was to dig up and move 100 bodies a day and to catalogue their possessions.  The winning bid was $1.59 per body, the highest of the bids was $8 each. Unfortunately, the reburial was not completed by the time of the dedication ceremony in November.  The Federal government provided the caskets.  A Scottish trained architect named William Saunders designed the grounds, which took up 17 acres of land.
Somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 people came for the ceremony, and it was three hours long.
The obvious choice for the main speaker was Edward Everett, a great orator.  Everett had finished Harvard and become a minister at a prestigious Unitarian church before he was 20.  He had been a professor of ancient Greek at Harvard and then the college’s president.  He had also served as a congressman, senator, governor of Massachusetts, and U. S. secretary of state.  He had given orations to dedicate the battles of Lexington and Concord, and other revolutionary war sites.  It was said that Everett spoke with an “unearthly magic.”
He spoke for two hours.  Audiences expected that in the middle of the 19th century. In his book Lincoln at Gettysburg, Gary Wills writes that it was a kind of “performance art,” a “large-scale solemn act.”   The ceremony had been delayed for a month –just so Everett could finish his research.  And when he stood up to speak he made a big show of putting his full printed text down on a table beside him, and never looked at it once. In a rambling speech, he gave a fact-filled historical narrative of the military campaign as it had led up to the battle of Gettysburg.  He harshly attacked the southern enemy.  He analyzed the causes and theories of war, and the possible outcomes.  He included constitutional analysis and a comparison of the American way of democracy with the politics of ancient Athens.  His powerful performance may have suited this occasion of national crisis and grieving, and it was reported to have held the listeners “spell bound,” but it was not long remembered.  Perhaps he rambled on too much.
Lincoln’s gift, on the other hand, was that he packed a lot in his remarks.  In only 272 words he was able to draw from classical Greek rhetoric, the Holy Bible, the Declaration of Independence, and images from nature, which suggested rebirth and renewal.  It lasted no more than three minutes, even with Lincoln’s reading it slowly and dramatically, and with five interruptions by applause. Even the minister delivering the prayer that day took longer than Lincoln did.
There are numerous legends about when Lincoln wrote his remarks, what he wrote them on, and whether he had written them down at all before the event.  He probably did.  He composed all his speeches thoughtfully, according to Wills, and was reluctant to improvise.
A week before the dedication, Lincoln met with William Saunders, the cemetery’s architect. Saunders explained that, contrary to other military cemetery designs, his plan for Gettysburg evoked the principle of equality.  Soldiers were reburied in sections along with others from their home states, and the curves of the land enabled him to avoid giving priority to any state.  Likewise, no favor was given to the ranks of the fallen men.  Officers were buried alongside enlisted men.  In death, all retained equal importance.  You can see this same principle in designer Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in Washington.  Its dark granite walls are covered with the names of all those we lost, but not their ranks.  As I recall, the only order of the names on those walls is the order in which the people died.
Wisely, Lincoln insisted to his staff that they take the train to Gettysburg the day before the dedication, in case the hordes of travelers would cause him to miss the event.  Even so, he arrived late for dinner the night before the ceremony.  It’s likely that Edward Everett showed him a copy of his own oration in the house in which they both stayed.  This was a normal courtesy to avoid awkwardness for the president.  It is likely that Lincoln finished or revised his remarks in that house.
Lincoln’s remarks were not only compact, they were restrained.  While Everett lashed out at the enemy, Lincoln withheld his passions.  Everett praised by name many of the soldiers who had fought in the battle, and he mentioned past battles and historic dates.  Lincoln mentioned no individuals and no dates.  He didn’t even name the battle or the cemetery they were dedicating.  He spoke of “this ground” and “these dead.”  He made it universal.
The reading today from the novel Cold Mountain is an example of how the war devastated and destroyed the lives or the souls of real, individual human beings. Lincoln, by speaking universally, generally, abstractly, he gave a larger meaning to the individual sacrifices.
According to him, the meaning of the sacrifice was to enact and extend the proposition of the Declaration of Independence.  You might say Lincoln put a new spin on the Declaration’s assertion, “All men are created equal,” words written four score and seven years earlier by Thomas Jefferson.  Even as he wrote these words, Thomas Jefferson held human beings as property. According to Gary Wills, by those words Jefferson meant only to justify the break with British colonial rule, not to argue for universal human equality or liberation.  By using the words “all men are created equal” Jefferson’s Declaration asserted that Americans did not need kings or nobles to make decisions about issues of public importance. When Jefferson spoke of equality, he did not mean what we mean today.  To see this, we need only look at the U. S. Constitution.  It did not originally establish the idea of equality among people.  Consider that the Constitution came only two decades after the Declaration, when most of the signers of the Declaration were still alive, and Constitution accepted and allowed slavery.  Of course, Americans can amend the Constitution, and we can change laws.  But the Declaration cannot be amended, ever.  It can only be understood in a different way.
At Gettysburg, Lincoln said the Civil War was a test of our nation, to see if a country founded on the concept of equality could last.  Afterwards, the Chicago Times newspaper criticized Lincoln for declaring that America is about equality.  The newspaper noted that the Constitution did not mention equality and that it tolerated slavery.  The soldiers gave their lives to defend the Constitution, not the Declaration, the newspaper said, and Lincoln had betrayed their memory to say otherwise!
Lincoln said the Declaration puts forth a faith which stands forever:  we are equal, we are endowed with certain unalienable rights:  life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  In his years of debating, even before his presidency, Lincoln had kept pointing out the full extent of what this meant.  If all men are created equal, he asked, then what does this say about the fact that our laws allow some to hold others in slavery?
Lincoln asserted that the signers of the Declaration of Independence had set up a moral standard for us. Lincoln said that standard should be “constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence.”
Lincoln concluded with the phrase “this government of the people, by the people, for the people.”  In doing so, he borrowed words of Theodore Parker, a famous Unitarian preacher and abolitionist.   Parker had written a similar phrase in 1850; Lincoln tightened the wording and, by using it, he made this phrase famous forever.
Last Tuesday night, in his victory speech, President-elect Obama referred to the “arc of history.”  This was a reference to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Dr. King inherited these words from Theodore Parker also.   Like Lincoln, King shortened and improved the phrase and gave it new life.  In 1853, Parker had said: “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways…. But from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.”
President Lincoln consoled a war-weary Union by reminding it of the principle for which it was sacrificing so many of its sons.  He used his three minutes to reinvent our national purpose:  to make the word “equality” include all people, not just a few.  Ever since, Americans have engaged in struggles to extend the embrace of equality to include more people and liberate more lives. Of course, he may not have envisioned all the kinds of people who would make a claim on this idea of equality in the years ahead.  He may or may not have considered, for example, that women deserved the right to vote. Yet now we see clearly that extending equality demands nothing less than universal voting rights for all citizens. It took more than 50 years after Lincoln for the nation to grant that right.  One of our current struggles to extend the embrace of equality is that of and for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons.
This election year, in California’s battle over Proposition 8, thousands of people have given hours and hours of toil and tens of millions of dollars to defend the principle of equality and to protect the practice of fairness.   It’s been heartbreaking to see the proponents of Proposition 8 get 52% of the vote.  It was an outrage to see the religious right use distortions and scare tactics to prevail in the denial of marriage equality under the California constitution.
The principle that all people are created with equal and inherent worth and dignity is a fragile one.  It will always be a fragile principle.  It will take vigilance to protect it, and courage to extend it, as it always has.  And it has always taken time.
Today we are farther out on the moral arc of the universe than our forebears were, and we can look back and appreciate where it has moved and where it now is bending.  But the moral arc bends only by our own hands, our work, our words, our courage and our perseverance.
Theodore Parker, President Lincoln, and Dr. King couldn’t see all that the arc of history would carry along with it as it was bending, but they knew it bends toward justice.
They and others in the universal struggle for freedom have sacrificed so much, even their lives. By their words, their work, and their lives they showed their faith in the founding principle of this country, and they showed their faith in us to keep looking forward.
With gratitude for their words, their work, and their lives, let us keep faith with all of them, and with one another.  Amen.

[Note:  please do not circulate on the internet or post on another website; a printed copy is okay.]

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