Why kids, and politicians, should still memorize the Gettysburg Address

Jim Huffman Dean Emeritus, Lewis & Clark Law School
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150 years ago today President Abraham Lincoln spoke 277 words that, for generations, were memorized by students in schools across this great nation. Some of those former students, now drawing social security, still remember those immortal words. But given that civics education has been largely abandoned in our schools and memorization is now disdained as an educational tool, the vast majority of Americans will never have read the Gettysburg Address, let alone committed it to memory. Our nation is worse off for our neglect of Lincoln’s simple but profound message.

It was partly about honoring the 50,000 fathers and sons who died at Gettysburg. Human sacrifice on such a monstrous scale should be remembered for eternity. But that is not what makes Lincoln’s short address dedicating the final resting place of those slaughtered at the hands of their countrymen so worthy of our remembering. Hundreds of thousands have died on other battlefields and been commemorated in other moving and heartfelt, but long forgotten, speeches.

Lincoln’s Gettysburg address was thought worthy of engraving in the minds of young Americans, just as it is engraved on the walls of the Lincoln Memorial in our nation’s capital, because it states, in very few words, why those who mourned should resolve that their loved ones will not have perished in vain. It explained why the preservation of the Union was worth the horrific costs then being borne – why “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” should not be allowed to “perish from the earth.”

Many read those concluding words to convey that those who died at Gettysburg did so in defense of a constitutional union founded on democracy. But how could Lincoln have believed that democracy was, by itself, a cause worth dying for? The Confederacy was every bit as much a democracy as was the Union. Democratic governments had chosen secession and a president and congress had been elected.

To be sure, Lincoln believed in democratic rule, but not for its own sake. The nation Lincoln struggled to preserve was not founded in democracy. Rather, as he said in the opening sentence of his address, it was “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” For Lincoln and those who had come before from the very founding of the nation, democracy – “government of the people, by the people, for the people” – was not the end of government, but the means by which we have some hope of achieving equal liberty.

It is commonplace in modern America to assert that our constitution is centrally about democracy. It is also commonplace to suggest that liberty and equality are often in conflict. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address should stand as a reminder that both views are mistaken.

How can it be said that Lincoln defended a constitution founded on the idea that 50 percent plus one of the voters may dictate to those in the minority? The slavery he committed the lives of untold thousands to eradicating existed with just such majority support in the states of the Confederacy, and had existed previously in many northern states.

No, the union Lincoln struggled to sustain was founded in liberty. Liberty not just for some but for all, including those who had been allowed to be enslaved by tyrannous majorities. Without equality there could be no liberty.

Unlike many today, Lincoln did not understand that being created equal meant all were entitled to share equally in the wealth of the nation. Rather he understood that every individual stood equal before the law, without regard to race, religion or national origin. To live in a nation “conceived in Liberty” and “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” meant that not even a democratic government could deny equal liberty to any of its citizens.

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address echoes the similarly eloquent language of Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence written 87 years earlier. Governments are “instituted among men” to “secure” their “unalienable Rights,” wrote Jefferson. The nation that resulted was “conceived in Liberty” for all, affirmed Lincoln.

In light of the sorry state of modern American government, maybe we should go back to requiring our young people to memorize the words Lincoln spoke 150 years ago today. Or at least we might require it of those we elect to office.