On November 19, 1993, I spoke at Gettysburg. It was an afternoon talk, and moments before I arose to offer my presentation I realized that I would be speaking approximately during the same time of day as did Abraham Lincoln some 130 years prior to that moment, and that I would be doing so less than a mile from where he stood.
It was an eerie feeling.
I’ve reflected on what might have been going through Lincoln’s mind that day. He was anxious about the situation in East Tennessee, between Ambrose Burnside’s efforts to hold onto Knoxville and Ulysses S. Grant’s attempt to break the siege of Chattanooga. At the same time, when he spoke of “unfinished work” he may have been thinking of George G. Meade, who Lincoln held accountable (although perhaps not as much as he once did) of failing to finish the work he had commenced on this very battlefield during the first three days of July. At the same time he was already framing the outlines of a proposed reconstruction policy that he would present before Congress in three weeks; he must have been satisfied with the results of the 1863 elections, in which Republicans had regained much of what they had lost in the 1862 midterm contests.
For me, the last two sentences say it all:
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.
I think Lincoln’s words apply as much to us today as to his listeners 148 years ago. The new birth of freedom is still an unfinished work, in part because it continues to evolve. As we pause to honor those who gave the last full measure of devotion, we can do no less in order to insure that they did not die in vain.