Tuesday, November 19, 2013

"A little town in Pennsylvania, a place called Gettysburg"

Rhett Butler utters this description to Scarlett when she asks how much longer the war will go on. He says it won't be long now, there's "a little town in Pennsylvania, a place called Gettysburg" that will pretty much do it. When you watch Gone With the Wind it's a moment of real historical connection within the fiction.  We know it's considered the war's turning point, for the characters, it's just another battle to try to regain territory.

Four and a half months after the Union's "win," Abraham Lincoln dedicated a cemetery to battle dead on Nov. 19, 1863, one hundred and fifty years ago today.

The speech is prose poetry of Biblical beauty when the nation was just 87 years old.

But, in a larger sense, 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.

What strikes me today is the interplay of life and death, not surprising to dedicate a cemetery, but extra poignant in this week of the last day's of President John F. Kennedy's life fifty years ago.

Lincoln & Kennedy: Deeper Than the Old "List"
It's not surprising that a "list" of all the coincidences between our two great assassinated presidents became an Urban Legend. But there are deeper intersections.

We know that JKF was a genuine history buff, and that he asked Ted Sorensen to study the Gettysburg Address (among anther speeches) when drafting his own inaugural speech.

So November 19, 1963, the 100th anniversary, had some meaning for JFK personally, and politically as well. It is noted how presidents treat this anniversary. 

It's the math that makes this all a little chilling. If it hadn't a big anniversary year for the speech, the date would probably have gone unnoticed. But the spotlight was on, as it had been for Woodrow Wilson and the 50th anniversary, and FDR at the 75th anniversary in 1938, both of whom made official visits to the cemetery. The article of this history is titled, Obama Snubs 150th Anniversary of Gettysburg Address.

Kennedy did not make an official visit. The article said he "made only an unannounced visit with no speech." That made it a private thing,  a personal thing, to honor his predecessor's rhetorical and political brilliance. Perhaps he found inspiration anew, as many do, at the entreaty of what "the living" need to do to for the "unfinished work" and the "great task remaining before us." The stakes during the Civil War were as high as they could be: the continuation or disintegration of this nation. Kennedy had inherited the very best of the continuation of "we, the people."

All this focus on the living in the face of his scheduled trip to Dallas, his appointment in Samara. That's the important connection for me, of these two public servants, killed in the line of duty.

For the Living: Learn the Address!
To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, documentarian Ken Burns, along with numerous partners, has launched a national effort to encourage everyone in America to video record themselves reading or reciting the Abraham Lincoln's famous speech. The site is Learn the Address.

Here are the kids from a high school in Alabama. You can't beat that for what the speech is all about.

(Photo from USA Today story about the project)