PORTLAND — Abraham Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg – those brief remarks to dedicate a cemetery for the soldiers who died in battle there – serves as a model for today’s leaders to speak to a divided country.

Though surrounded by a Northern audience, Lincoln shunned partisan rhetoric and addressed the entire nation. The speech is noteworthy for the topics left out.

No mention of the South, secession or slavery. No information about the outcome of the battle. No reference to any particular person or place. No inkling of Lincoln’s own feelings. No indication that 51,000 men slaughtered each other there in one of the bloodiest battles in history.

Rather, Lincoln used the occasion to craft a larger message that instilled significance into the deaths of these soldiers. The speech has but one topic: the nation and its preservation. All else has been subordinated to that goal. The fathers are the founders of the nation. The war is a test of whether the nation can survive. Liberty and equality are the chief characteristics of the nation. The soldiers gave their lives for the nation. God looks over the nation. And the living must resolve to preserve a self-governing nation.

Lincoln built his speech on values the entire nation shared, North as well as South, such as their mutual admiration for the Founding Fathers, many of whom were slave-holding Southerners; the principles of liberty and equality, while carefully avoiding any definition of those terms; the heroism of those who died in battle; the appropriateness of mourning the dead; a belief in God and a familiarity with biblical language, and an acceptance of the cycle of life – conception, birth, death and rebirth.

These values stirred up strong emotions in the audience, and Lincoln employs them to persuasive effect.


The speech tells the story of the nation past, present and future – from its founding, to the present war, to “the great task remaining before us.” It relies on the central metaphor of a nation conceived in liberty, born in equality, dying in a civil war and with the hope of rebirth in its preservation. There are but three characters in the story: the Founding Fathers, the brave soldiers and the citizens of the nation. By telling the story in the first person plural, Lincoln placed the audience into the story with all three characters playing critical roles.

The speech honors the dead, but Lincoln aimed to persuade the living. In fact, he placed a priority on action over words throughout the speech and obligated the living to take up the cause of preserving the nation to prevent the dead from having died in vain. Like the Founding Fathers and the brave soldiers, the living must also take action. In doing so, Lincoln offered the community a larger sense of purpose – to complete “the unfinished work” of the Founding Fathers and the soldiers.

In delivering perhaps the greatest piece of oratory in the country’s history, Lincoln deprecated the value of speech compared to the actions of the brave men who fought in battle. Words cannot dedicate this cemetery; the actions of the brave men “consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.”

But it is the rhythmic and repetitive words of this highly condensed speech that make us remember Gettysburg. And by relying solely on generic descriptors – fathers,≠ brave men, the living, the dead, the people, the world, this continent, nation, ground, earth and field – the words speak to future generations.

We also live in a country divided by political ideology – perhaps as much today as 150 years ago. We still hold firmly to beliefs in liberty and equality but suffer from a frayed social compact with escalating inequality. We cherish our self-governing country but are concerned that vast sums of money representing powerful interests are distorting a government of the people, by the people and for the people.

Our leaders today are called upon to find the words to bring the nation together in a common purpose by telling a story that not only instills in us a larger sense of purpose but obligates us to take action.


The commonplaces that Lincoln drew upon may not fully resonate with today’s citizens, but we are the heirs to a proud democratic tradition and share common concerns about our children’s future and that of our social, economic and physical environment.

Our shared values are available for our leaders to craft an inspiring vision for our generation – to take up Lincoln’s cause of creating the great democratic society and complete the work that those who have come before us have thus far so nobly advanced.

— Special to the Press Herald


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