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The Gettysburg Address and ‘Why the Civil War Still Matters’

The Gettysburg Address and ‘Why the Civil War Still Matters’


Key Questions: What is the legacy of the Gettysburg Address and the Civil War? Does it still matter today?

We honor the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address this month by matching it with two opinion pieces that offer opposing perspectives on the legacy of Abraham Lincoln’s famous speech.

In this comparison, one author celebrates how far we have come since the Civil War; the other bemoans how divided we still are.


Background: One hundred and fifty years ago this month, President Abraham Lincoln addressed the nation at the site where the Civil War’s deadliest battle had occurred. In just 272 words that took him a bit more than two minutes to deliver, Lincoln declared:


Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

 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.


We suggest two very different perspectives to pair with Lincoln’s famous speech. Robert Hicks in “Why the Civil War Still Matters” considers this year’s anniversary as a testament to how much we have changed as a country. Even more important, he believes the war “sealed us as a nation” and consecrated “the ‘unfinished work’ to guarantee ‘that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.’”


Charles Blow takes a different view in “Lincoln, Liberty and Two Americas.” He makes the case that “this country finds itself increasingly divided,” and that the growing gap between liberals and conservatives, or rich and not rich, for example, has “geographic contours” that reveal “two Americas with two contrasting — and increasingly codified — concepts of liberty.” He concludes his piece by asking, “Can such a nation long endure?”


Excerpt 1: From “Why the Civil War Still Matters,” by Robert Hicks

 …Does the Civil War still matter as anything more than long-ago history?

 Fifty years ago, at the war’s centennial, America was a much different place. Legal discrimination was still the norm in the South. A white, middle-class culture dominated society. The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act had not yet rewritten our demographics. The last-known Civil War veteran had died only a few years earlier, and the children and grandchildren of veterans carried within them the still-fresh memories of the national cataclysm.

 All of that is now gone, replaced by a society that is more tolerant, more integrated, more varied in its demographics and culture. The memory of the war, at least as it was commemorated in the early 1960s, would seem to have no place.

 …What meaning does the war have in our multiethnic, multivalent society?

 For one thing, it matters as a reflection of how much America has changed. Robert Penn Warren called the war the “American oracle,” meaning that it told us who we are — and, by corollary, reflected the changing nature of America.

 Indeed, how we remember the war is a marker for who we are as a nation. In 1913, at the 50th anniversary of Gettysburg, thousands of black veterans were excluded from the ceremony, while white Union and Confederate veterans mingled in a show of regional reconciliation, made possible by a national consensus to ignore the plight of black Americans.

 Even a decade ago, it seemed as if those who dismissed slavery as simply “one of the factors” that led us to dissolve into a blood bath would forever have a voice in any conversation about the war.

 In contrast, recent sesquicentennial events have taken pains to more accurately portray the contributions made by blacks to the war, while pro-Southern revisionists have been relegated to the dustbin of history — a reflection of the more inclusive society we have become. As we examine what it means to be America, we can find no better historical register than the memory of the Civil War and how it has morphed over time.

 Then again, these changes also imply that the war is less important than it used to be; it drives fewer passionate debates, and maybe — given that one side of those debates usually defended the Confederacy — that’s a good thing.

But there is an even more important reason the war matters. If the line to immigrate into this country is longer than those in every other country on earth, it is because of the Civil War.

 It is true, technically speaking, that the United States was founded with the ratification of the Constitution. And it’s true that in the early 19th century it was a beacon of liberty for some — mostly northern European whites.

 But the Civil War sealed us as a nation. The novelist and historian Shelby Foote said that before the war our representatives abroad referred to us as “these” United States, but after we became “the” United States. Somehow, as divided as we were, even as the war ended, we have become more than New Yorkers and Tennesseans, Texans and Californians.

 …True, we have not arrived at our final destination as either a nation or as a people. Yet we have much to commemorate. Everything that has come about since the war is linked to that bloody mess and its outcome and aftermath. The American Century, the Greatest Generation and all the rest are somehow born out of the sacrifice of those 750,000 men and boys. None of it has been perfect, but I wouldn’t want to be here without it.


Excerpt 2: From “Lincoln, Liberty and Two Americas,” by Charles M. Blow

 “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”

 Those are the opening words of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and they seem eerily prescient today because once again this country finds itself increasingly divided and pondering the future of this great union and the very ideas of liberty and equality for all.

The gap is growing between liberals and conservatives, the rich and the not rich, intergenerational privilege and new-immigrant power, patriarchy and gender equality, the expanders of liberty and the withholders of it. And that gap, which has geographic contours — the densely populated coastal states versus the less densely populated states of the Rocky Mountains, Mississippi Delta and Great Plains — threatens the very concept of a United States and is pushing conservatives, left quaking after this month’s election, to extremes.

 Some have even moved to make our divisions absolute. The Daily Caller reported last week “more than 675,000 digital signatures appeared on 69 separate secession petitions covering all 50 states,” according to its analysis of requests made through the White House’s “We the People” online petition system.

 According to The Daily Caller, “Petitions from Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas residents have accrued at least 25,000 signatures, the number the Obama administration says it will reward with a staff review of online proposals.” President Obama lost all those states, except Florida, in November.

 The former Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul took to his Congressional Web site to laud the petitions of those bent on leaving the union, writing that “secession is a deeply American principle.” He continued: “If the possibility of secession is completely off the table there is nothing to stop the federal government from continuing to encroach on our liberties and no recourse for those who are sick and tired of it.”

 The Internet has been lit up with the incongruity of Lincoln’s party becoming the party of secessionists.

 But even putting secession aside, it is ever more clear that red states are becoming more ideologically strident and creating a regional quasi country within the greater one. They are rushing to enact restrictive laws on everything from voting to women’s health issues….

 We are moving toward two Americas with two contrasting — and increasingly codified — concepts of liberty. Can such a nation long endure?


For Writing or Discussion

 1. What is Lincoln saying in the Gettysburg Address? What is the significance he sees in the great battle that was fought on that very site? What is he asking of the nation?

2. Is this speech still relevant today? If so, how? Can you find something in the news to which the words or ideas in it might still apply?

 3. Why does Mr. Hicks say the Civil War still matters? What does he see as the most important legacy of the war?

 4. What relevance does Mr. Blow see in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address? Why does he say Lincoln’s words “seem eerily prescient today?”

 5. Compare these two Opinion pieces. On what points do they agree? Where do they disagree? Cite evidence from the texts to support your answer.

 6. What do you think is the legacy of the Gettysburg Address and the Civil War? Does the war still matter today? Does the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address show how much our nation has progressed since the Civil War? Does it show how strong our democratic values are? Or does it remind us how divided we still are as a nation?