Tim Pennings: Veterans Day: Our obligation to the citizens of today – HollandSentinel.com
Today is Veterans Day. My fifth grade teacher helped me appreciate the sacrifice of veterans by requiring that we memorize the Gettysburg Address. I still recite it, trying to say it as I think Lincoln would have.
Its memorization is worth the effort. Lincoln was the secondary speaker at Gettysburg. The main speech, given by Edward Everett, a famous orator and former secretary of state, was two hours long. Then Lincoln spoke, giving his speech in two minutes. Everett wrote to Lincoln the next day, “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes.”
Lincoln was able to distill the essence of the U.S. experiment in democracy into 273 words because he had been thinking and living it nonstop in the crucible of a conflict — a conflict which threatened to tear the union apart. The vision of our country — past, present and future — crystallized in his mind.
If you find it and read it, you’ll notice something strange. In this elegant, succinct, smooth-flowing address, there is a pair of sentences that seems awkward and redundant. The reason, I think, is these two sentences form the focal point and the focal joint of the address. This transitional thought was so important to Lincoln, he essentially said it twice.
The first part of the speech tells of the sacrifice of the soldiers and the ceremony to honor them. Then comes “but.” “But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hollow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it far about our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here (turned out to be false!), but it can never forget what they did here.”
So Lincoln is making the point that ceremony and speeches and gravestones are not adequate. He does not allow the listeners — then or now — to get easily off the hook with a simple day of remembrance. Observing Veterans Day is not enough. What, then, is our obligation?
Then comes his answer, repeated twice for emphasis: “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.”
For Lincoln, the essential way to honor the sacrifice of veterans was not by giving speeches and putting flowers on their graves, but by resolving to devote ourselves to “the great task remaining before us.”
But what is that great task? And how do we devote ourselves to it?
Lincoln answered the first question. Quite simply, the great task is that we keep government of the people, by the people, for the people from perishing. This is no small task. At the time of Lincoln’s speech, these United States had been a nation for less than a century. In fact, before the Civil War, the “United States” was considered a plural. Folks said, “The United States are. …” Only after the War of the Rebellion did people begin to say “The United States is. …“ The Civil War welded us together.
We have now been a union for over two centuries, but we still should not take our existence for granted. It is clear from history that democracy is not necessarily a stable state. It needs to be conscientiously groomed and maintained.
How? Having just finished Walter Isaacson’s biography of Ben Franklin, it’s striking that the essential element Franklin brought to the Constitutional Convention that laid our foundation is the same quality of mind we vitally need now: The moral duty to consider opposing views and to compromise. It stemmed simply from his realization that he was fallible.
Franklin also had unwavering faith in the middle class. Power should reside with the people — with all the people, not just the wealthy and elite. He likely would have approved of our recent election of the first president in 40 years who didn’t attend an Ivy League school. Indeed, it was Franklin’s sort of vision that eventually brought a self-educated rail-splitter from the Midwest to the White House. A gangly commoner who charges us to take the torch from the veterans and carry it forward.
— Community Columnist Tim Pennings is a resident of Holland and can be contacted at [email protected]. Previous columns can be found at timothypennings.blogspot.com.