Lincoln’s brief words remind us what’s important this Memorial Day
Published 5:46 pm Tuesday, May 19, 2015
As our country approaches its most solemn national holiday, Memorial Day, about the best thing that could be said is that our ultimate treasure, the lives of our sons and daughters, are not lost in vain. Abraham Lincoln put forth that sentiment in his most famous speech, the Gettysburg Address.
Our Memorial Day was born out of that struggle between our states. There is no absolute consensus as to the origin of the specific day, but the movement to remember those Civil War losses led to what was first known as Decoration Day. The graves of the dead soldiers from both sides would be decorated with flowers and flags. They would be remembered.
Lincoln’s purpose that day was to be a very short part of a long program, and he was. The main dedicatory speech for the Gettysburg cemetery was given by Edward Everett, a Massachusetts politician, pastor and orator. His speech was two hours in length. After he spoke, President Lincoln’s “few appropriate remarks” took two minutes. Guess whose words are remembered?
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In those two minutes, Lincoln spoke many memorable phrases. He began with a reference to our most precious Declaration of Independence. Our country’s experiment in allowing that “all men [people] are created equal” is foundational. We have not been perfect in that pursuit, but we continue to take aim at that proposition.
He spoke of the war which had come as a test to the greatness of our nation. Our Civil War was a defining moment, and, but for the grace of God, we could have easily devolved into many different nations. Thankfully, we survived the test, but at great cost.
The estimates of battlefield deaths during the Civil War is over 600,000, the most of any war in U.S. history. When the total population of the 1860s United States is considered (31 million), that statistic is staggering.
Our population today is at least 10 times 31 million. If the same percentage of deaths occurred today in a war, the fatalities would number over six million!
President Lincoln approached his task of bringing appropriate remarks somberly. He had to have been saddened by the prolonged struggle between the states and the great number of deaths. There is also the speculation that his physical condition was beginning to deteriorate because of a mild case of smallpox. Let it be said, though, that no sad and weakened man ever made a greater use of two minutes. Our modern politicians could certainly learn something from Lincoln’s address.
Pertaining to the approach of Memorial Day, I move to the final paragraph of the short speech. Lincoln acknowledges that all of our external attempts to honor the brave men and women who have died in the defense of our liberty can never equal their valor.
All the fancy words we speak cannot increase the value of their sacrifices. Our words, as heartfelt and genuine as they may be, pale in comparison to their lives which have been cut short. Lincoln said their actions are more eloquent than any dedicatory speech. However, we can do something that will honor their sacrifices appropriately. We can do our best to make certain that their lives were not wasted. He spoke of resolve. Lincoln pleaded that we, a nation under God, would be reborn.
Oh how I wish we could hear from someone who would inspire us to the heights that a man did “seven score and 12 years ago.”