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These dead shall not die in vain

Published in Blog on May 30, 2023 by Jakob Fay

Up to 51,000 Americans were dead or wounded.

The three-day Battle of Gettysburg had ravaged the war-torn nation. It was one of the deadliest conflicts in human history, and the burden of consoling those left behind fell upon the 16th president.  

Abraham Lincoln carried a heavy weight with him always. In addition to the crushing responsibility of leading the not-so-United States through civil war—the “mighty scourge of war”—he had lost a beloved son during the war years and was often an “unwell,” “melancholy” person.

Nevertheless, he would not give up on his duty to the Union. The cause of liberty, in Lincoln’s mind, must prevail.

Four months after the horrific battle, the Commander in Chief was summoned to Gettysburg to honor the heroes who there laid down their lives. He was preceded by Edward Everett, widely known as one of the greatest orators of his day. Everett spoke for two hours, and all from memory. Lincoln spoke for two minutes, but only his speech has been committed to the nation’s memory.

“Four score and seven years ago,” the president began, “our fathers brought forth on 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 on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, 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,” he concluded, “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 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. 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.”

With that, Lincoln sat down. The crowd was confused. The brevity of the president’s remarks caught them off guard, and applause was scattered.

But in that unassuming moment, Lincoln changed history, painting a timeless portrait of patriot heroism for all Americans to cherish.

He had summed up the essence of why American heroes in every generation fight and die for their country. His words encapsulated sacrifice, courage, and what it means to be American.

He had touched on something transcendent.

Above all, Lincoln described why we must never stop fighting for America. We, as inheritors of that celestial object called liberty, stand on the grounds of those who have gone before us. That ground is stained with their blood. They are buried in it. The flag they planted in that ground is the same flag we hail and fight for today.

Two hundred and sixty years ago, Lincoln charged us to consider the sacred ground we stand on—and the heroes who consecrated it—and “take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.”

Lincoln’s generation made its choice: they would not let the dead die in vain. Now, that choice is ours. We hold in our hearts that for which countless nameless heroes have died. Will we let it go to waste?

Or will we too “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”?

They have nobly advanced the cause thus far. May we finish it. 

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