As Americans prepare to celebrate Independence Day, July 4th, it is important that we reflect on the tremendous sacrifices that hundreds of thousands of Americans have paid to secure and protect the freedoms declared as our God-given right by our forefathers on the first July 4 in 1776.
As we approach this Fourth of July, we also commemorate the 150th anniversary of the greatest blood sacrifice on the altar of freedom that ever took place on American soil, the battle of Gettysburg. For three days, July 1-3, 1863, the Army in Northern Virginia (70,000 men) and the Army of the Potomac (94,000 men) collided in a three-day struggle that haunts and captivates us to this day. These three days of desperate combat resulted in 46,000 estimated causalities, killed, wounded, and missing – all of them Americans, North and South.
The nation's fate was hanging in the balance. If Lee had won at Gettysburg it is extremely doubtful that Lincoln would have been re-elected and the Union would have survived.
Such a terrible loss of life characterized America's Civil War battles. In many ways it was the first "modern" war with far more lethal weapons than those used in previous wars. The unprecedented and unexpected losses traumatized the mothers, fathers, spouses, children, relatives, and neighbors of these dead and maimed men.
It was left to our nation's greatest president, Abraham Lincoln, to explain and articulate for the American people, and the world, the meaning of such terrible and tragic sacrifice.
President Lincoln traveled to Gettysburg the following November to dedicate a cemetery "for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live." President Lincoln was not the main attraction for the day. That honor was accorded to Edward Everett, the former governor and senator from Massachusetts and a former U.S. Secretary of State. A nationally famous orator in an era of great of orators, he spoke for two hours. Lincoln spoke for about two minutes. What is known to posterity as Lincoln's Gettysburg Address was a mere 271 words long. People were shocked by its brevity.
Soon, however, its nobility and greatness captivated the nation and inspired a new commitment, "to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced."
As Edward Everett himself later stated in a letter to President Lincoln, "I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes."
Surely Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, speech of its length in the English language. As one who had ancestors fighting on both sides (the product of being a descendant from ancestors that settled in Massachusetts and Virginia respectively in the 17th Century), Lincoln's speech still moves me to tears every time I read it or hear recited.
When people ask me about American exceptionalism, I direct them to the Declaration of Independence and to the Gettysburg Address. In a very real sense, the Gettysburg Address is a commentary on the eternal truths put forth in the Declaration that we celebrate on July 4th. "Fourscore and seven years ago," Lincoln declared, "Our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." Having referred to the Declaration's universal truths upon which America is based, the ideals that inspired men to fight and die, Lincoln then pivots to the living:
"It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to the 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."
Whenever I hear or read these words I am compelled to say, "Amen" and to be extremely grateful that as an American I am the beneficiary of such beliefs and the sacrifices of those who have gone before me.
I challenge us all, as Americans, to read the Gettysburg Address this July 4th holiday, ponder the tremendous sacrifices that inspired it, and rededicate ourselves to the task of preserving, defending, and expanding those universal ideals entrusted to our safe keeping by the sacrifices of so many who have gone before us.
God bless the United States of America and the God-given freedoms for which she stands.