Tuesday, November 19, 2013

THE GETTYSBURG ADDRESS:150 YEARS OF TRIUMPH AND TRAGEDY




PRESIDENT LINCOLN AND HIS MOST FAMOUS 272 WORDS
DELIVERED 150 YEARS AGO TODAY


TAGS: ANNIVERSARY GETTYSBURG ADDRESS, THE WAR BETWEEN THE STATES, OUR CIVIL WAR,

JIM CROW LAWS, CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT, AMERICAN HISTORY, WAR OF INDEPENDENCE,

BILL OF RIGHTS, THE UNITED STATES – A “YOUNG” COUNTRY,

NATIVE AMERICAN ANNIHILATION, MANIFEST DESTINY,

ETHNIC CLEANSING, “GENERATION GAP”, POST WWII AMERICA,

PATIENCE IS NOT OUR VIRTUE




(Tuesday November 19, 2013 Gettysburg, PA)  In the community of nations America is an infant.  The world over are countries with vast histories that stretch far back in antiquity.  So many societies, cultures and religions populate our planet all of whom are older than the United States of America.  Our War of Independence from the British Crown and the United Kingdom’s designs on our 13 original colonies began an experiment in Democratic governance; a Republic formed to be “of the people, by the people and for the people” founded on the inspired principle that “all men are created equal”.

Despite the lofty principles and intentions within 85 years our new nation found itself in a bloody, brutal Civil War.  While the precise reasons for that conflict remains subject to heated debate by historians, the fact of the matter that a segment of our own population, a bloc of States in the South sough secession from our Union.  The South did not believe that all men are created equally.  The slave trade that spanned the Middle Passage from what is today Senegal to southern ports particularly Charleston South Carolina carried an untold number of Africans to our shores to labor in the farms, fields and plantations in the south as slaves, to exist among us as “second class” citizens at best, as not deserving of the “unalienable rights” of a human being, or of being an “American”.   

Our Civil War tore the very fabric of our growing nation asunder exposing profound differences between the Union, Loyalist Troops from the north and the Confederate, Rebel Forces from the south. That these core differences could spark an armed conflict of unparalleled brutality at that time is evil testament to just how far apart the north was from the south on issues ranging from the Rights of the individual States, federal taxation and the economics of import and export.  What made our Civil War so unique in modern history is that when arms were taken up the most dominant impetus was in fact the legality and morality of slavery. 

Certainly the young United States was not the first country to practice slavery, to hold entire populations of race, color or creed in severe oppression.  Slavery is as old as time itself it seems.  But, the America landscape of the early 1880’s was indeed a fertile field on which to address the practice of slavery once and for all (or so it seemed).  Up until that time slavery had been endemic particularly in the south although history notes that most of our “Founding Fathers” used slave labor on their own estates.  When the growing concern over slavery reached fever pitch in the north and collided with some of the other factors already causing dissension in the south, the stage was set for an epic transformational battle that resonates still today.

150 years ago the Civil War was raging.  The deaths on each side were strewn horrifically on fields and pastures, near bigger cities and smaller towns that are now known as hollowed sites.  Union and Confederate blood was shed and seeped into the ground in places that up to that point had been almost anonymous.  Fort Sumter, Shiloh, Chancellorsville, Vicksburg, Antietam, Bull Run, Harper’s Ferry and many, many more locations accepted the blood of the dying into itself.  It was at such a site, a site that had seen brutal fighting in June 1863, Gettysburg Pennsylvania, that 150 years ago today President Abraham Lincoln travelled to.  A cemetery within sight of the fields of battle was to be dedicated, officially consecrated and the President was invited to deliver a few “remarks” for the occasion.  What our self-educated 16th President, born in a log cabin in Kentucky and raised in southern Illinois, spoke that day are forever immortalized not only as one of the finest tracts of political oratory in American history, but also as a timeless statement that addressed the hearts as well as the minds within earshot that afternoon.  That his 272 word long address made such an impact speaks volumes about Lincoln as a thinker and moralist; his remarks transcended mere politics and called on people of good will to reconsider the toll the War Between the States was taking on the country as a whole and families from Massachusetts to Mississippi.  (The complete text of The Gettysburg Address: http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/text-gettysburg-address-transmitted-ap-20936995.)

FROM 1863 TO 2013

Considering time in a strictly linear chronologic sense we are not too far removed from our Civil War.  We can look around the world at simmering and boiling conflicts that have a history measured in centuries.  My great Grandfather was born in 1861, the first year of our Civil War.  Just two generations removed from the fighting it is small wonder that in many regards so little has changed and what change has transpired was won long after the Confederate Troops surrendered at the Courthouse in Appomattox Virginia.   By the time Union General Ulysses S. Grant and Confederate General Robert E. Lee met at that inauspicious hamlet over 620,000 troops had been felled in battle making it the bloodiest war in our history.  Never again will such a war be seen; the means and methods, so primitive by the standards of warfare today, are locked in the past as well they should be.

Casting our gaze to far off conflicts in lands we may be unfamiliar with we see wars and bloodshed that appear as alien and shocking to us today as the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima appeared to the Japanese in 1945.  The sudden implosion of the once considered mighty USSR in 1990 unleashed decades of pent up hostility of ethnic and religious conflicts between people who had peacefully coexisted while under the iron fist of Soviet rule.  The term “ethnic cleansing” was introduced into the lexicon of geopolitics.  What had been an intact “nation” under Soviet rule, Yugoslavia quickly disintegrated; absent the yoke of the Soviets, Yugoslavians immediately dispersed into their pre-Soviet nationalities; the process that came to be known as “Balkanization” polarized populations and caused years of one “hot war” after another.  Once the uniting force behind the Soviet States vanished and the 50 years of the “Cold War” between the USSR and the USA evaporated into the cloudy mist of history, the old rivalries reared their ugly, blood thirsty heads.

In the early 1990’s the world, in the form of the United Nations, sat idly by as old tribal hostilities in African nations such as Rwanda became appalling killing fields for rival tribes.  One can basically spin a model globe and may be hard pressed to locate a region that has not or does not to this day, be a battleground for a hot or cold war.  The entire world as it sometimes seems is engulfed in wars we, as Americans barely understand nor do we care to.  Americans believe we are exceptional and, in many ways we are indeed exceptional.  However we can also be arrogant and isolationist but such is our prerogative.  We can cast an unfeeling critical eye at some distant conflict and feel content in our superiority.  We are civilized while those foreign to us are easily and too readily seen as barbaric heathens living and fighting battles from the darkest days of The Crusades.  We are willing and able to unleash our military might when it serves our “national interests” with little or no regard for the history of the places we elbow our way into around the world.  But perhaps our biggest blind spot is right here at home.

Yes, we fought our Civil War from 1881 to 1885 yet it took an additional 100 years for any modicum of real appreciable change to occur in our society as it regarded former slave and their off spring.  The challenges facing the African-American population were daunting and often lethal.  While “Jim Crow” laws basically gave a legal coat of whitewash to the darkest aspects of life particularly in the south for African-Americans, it was not until the mid-1950’s that federal law began to dismantle what had been systematic discrimination, segregation, oppression and throughout the country.  As hundreds of thousands of former slaves and their families took to the “Dixie Highway” north towards destinations like Chicago, Detroit, Gary and the densely populated urban centers in the northeast seeking freedom from the south and jobs, they often had their hopes cruelly crushed.  In many parts of the Union they were simply not welcome.  It would take until 1963 for legislation to grant African-Americans the right to vote and over the ensuing five years more and more landmark rulings by the United States Supreme Court to address the plight of this long suffering population. 

We have also had our dark chapter in the ledger of ethnic cleansing.  From our earliest settlements on this continent and on until our unbridled expansion extended from coast to coast we systematically annihilated the Native population who had been living here for centuries.  This fact gets nowhere near the attention as does the matter of slavery while in many ways it was an epic campaign to rid an entire race from their native homes and land in the name of our “Manifest Destiny”.  The total death toll will never be known.  Those Natives who did survive were forced to live on small “reservations” and to this day those very same reservations remain the only pockets of the majority of Native’s inhabit.  Our own history is not all that much different from that of countries we like to look down on.  The biggest difference may be that we managed to condense all our brutality into the span of approximately 400 to 500 years.  Even after winning our independence from the United Kingdom and officially became the United States, we were guilty of atrocities that are the shame it should be.

PATIENCE IS NOT OUR VIRTUE

We are many things as a country, a society and a culture.  Often, on the world stage we appear as the spoiled precocious child wreaking havoc in front of our more mature thoughtful elders.  In a sense we are that child.  After all, we are only 237 years old while others we share this planet with are thousands of years our seniors.  We were able to develop so rapidly, so freely that we have no tolerance for our critics no matter how wise or well-meaning they are.  This is to our detriment; this lack of respect for our geopolitical elders does not serve us well in the short or long term.  In many ways it has been our separation afforded by the two oceans that has engendered a feeling of safe isolationism and self-reliance. We came to this place seeking religious freedom; we fought off the unfair yoke of the British realm and found here a bountiful, beautiful land well-endowed by natural resources just at the first rung on the ladder of the Industrial Age.  If timing is everything we sure did time it right.  But, time, or at least our perception of it is a bit skewed.

Like a precocious child prodigy earning a Ph.D. by the age 14 may have no tolerance for those not as gifted, America has often be as intolerant primarily with ourselves.  In the 1960’s the term generation Gap was introduced into our lexicon.  In that period of time the gap was caused by the rapidly changing mores and morals between adults and their children.  The WWII generation found themselves parenting children who defied the long accepted societal obligations and flaunted their disdain for the “establishment”; any of the institutions that had occupied a pedestal and commanded unquestioned respect.  These draft card and bra burning long haired disrespectful freaks were tearing the country apart as they demanded vocally and vigorously for the causes they claimed to believe in.  That was how their parents saw it.  Their parents had lived through the crushing poverty of the Great Depression, eagerly enlisted in the military after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, returned home and got about the business of building lives, families and a country.

When the Civil Rights movement exploded into the nation’s conscience the “hippies” demanded justice and na├»vely expected their voices to be heard.  They had no patience because they had never developed any; they hadn’t needed to.  Their lives were peaceful and smooth sailing as it was for most Americans in the post WWII era. What they learned quickly though was that real change takes time – often a great deal of time.  By the hundreds of thousands from coast to coast they demonstrated to end the war in Viet Nam, to afford African- Americans the same rights they enjoyed and took up all manner of causes of social justice.  Change did eventually come but it was born in the blood and deaths of so very many. 

Today we have a twice elected President who is an African-American.  Many thought this milestone; this fact alone would somehow erase all the racial tensions that still exist in our society.  It is a ludicrous idea, another example of our collective impatience and faulty appreciation of time. 

We have taken a long way around from where we started 2000 words ago.  Now, we return to the starting point, the significance of this date in our history.  The Civil War raged on for two more bloody years after Lincoln gave his Gettysburg Address.  That the Union prevailed was more attributable to its superior industrial might to produce the weaponry of combat and control the all-important infrastructure of the railroads than it was a matter of military victory.  It devolved into a war of attrition by the time it was concluded and while the Union remained intact as the United States, evidence of true victory was difficult to identify.  Clearly the Civil War did not right all the wrongs that victimized African-Americans and all the legislative and judicial actions that have been enacted can never alter a person’s thinking.  It is striking that today’s Republican Party, the Party that likes to call itself the “Party of Lincoln” has been fully engaged in widespread disenfranchising of African-American voters often employing the same tactics like poll taxes and voter ID cards that were used in the Jim Crow era.  The Republicans have so aggressively gerrymandered congressional districts in their favor that they will likely retain their seats until they decide to leave Congress. 

In spite of the challenges it is important to conclude on a positive note.  America has come a long way in the last 150 years and we still have a way to go until some of the more intractable ailments in our society can be treated if not cured.  There is a generation of young American growing up and coming of age and the only President they have seen in the White House in their young lives is an African-American.  Too many who fought for so long never lived to see this day and it is in their spirit and honor we pay special homage to our 16th President, Abraham Lincoln and his inspired oratory about the sanctity of life and the scourge of conflict.













Complete text of the remarks delivered by President Lincoln on November 19, 1863:


The Declaration of Independence:


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