David Adler: From Lincoln at Gettysburg, lessons that live to this day

November 29, 2013 

Americans’ celebrations and commemorations of the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s magisterial Gettysburg Address, arguably the greatest speech in America’s history, might not have found widespread expression at Thanksgiving tables across the country, but its premises and challenges have created an enduring legacy for all those committed to the principles of republicanism.

David Leroy, former Idaho attorney general and energetic Lincoln scholar, justly noted on the occasion of the opening of the Lincoln Legacy Exhibit at the Idaho State Historical Society that Abraham Lincoln’s address represents the 16th president’s “legacy to the nation.”

Leroy and his wife, Nancy, have done more than anyone to educate Idahoans about Lincoln and his ties to the Gem State. The Leroys’ generous donation to the state archives of a massive collection of Lincoln artifacts and documents, and their promotion of statewide discussions of the life and career of Lincoln, represent their own legacy to Idaho.

“Lincoln never slept here,” Leroy told his audience, “but for generations of students soon to visit,” he said of the collection at the Archives Building, Lincoln “will live here.”

Lincoln’s eloquent, 272-word speech, a beautiful work of oratory that moves with the grace of biblical cadence, is unique in its brevity, an island in a sea buffeted by long-winded political remarks. Among other things, it affords every generation of American citizens an inspirational reminder of the foundational pillars of our system, first embedded in the public’s imagination by Thomas Jefferson, primary author of the Declaration of Independence.

Lincoln’s proclamation of a nation born of revolutionary principles — a “new nation conceived in liberty … and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” — stirs memories of those emboldened to challenge tyranny and to construct a government founded on premises that, until their time, had yet to be lifted from the pages of literature that urged the proposition that government should promote the welfare of the people.

For America’s founders, the assertions by academics and publicists in 17th century England that government should serve the interests of the people was anything but academic. They embraced those resolutions and marched them onto the battlefield. In our time, it represents a measuring stick by which to evaluate the programs, policies and actions of government officials, from Boise to Boston.

The Civil War, instigated by secessionist states, Lincoln observed, provided a brutal context for the principles of the founding — “a nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” Lincoln himself was not certain that the Union, and by implication the premises of the founding, would prevail. Indeed, the foundational principles of the Constitution — popular sovereignty and federal supremacy — were, during the Civil War, tested to the breaking point.

Which is why, precisely, that he stated at Gettysburg, in immortal words memorized and analyzed by students everywhere, that it is for “us the living” to ensure “that government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

Across a vista of two centuries, Americans of every stripe and color have engaged in heated discussion and debate about the direction of the nation. And rightly so, for that is what democracy contemplates.

But our differences aside, we are wise to recall in this season of Thanksgiving the teachings of Lincoln, who reminded us in his first inaugural address, in a plea to Southern states to remain in the Union, that we have more in common than that which divides us, something that we ought to remember when passions stoke the fires of ideology and political cause.

David Adler is the Cecil D. Andrus professor of public affairs at Boise State University, where he serves as director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy.

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