The Gettysburg Address, Part Three (Lincoln's Big 'But')
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 battlefield 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” may be the most powerful word in the English language. This “but” in particular is a BIG, BIG BUT. And it belongs to President Lincoln.
I like it, and I cannot lie.
“Gary, you’re such a great guy. You’re funny, you’re smart, and it’s been such an amazing four months together. Any girl would be lucky to have you… BUT--”
You know what’s coming, don’t you?
“Ms. Booker, we appreciate your hard work over the past year and your creativity with kids. You’ve handled some tough circumstances as you prepared them for their CRTs… BUT--”
“But” can overturn everything that’s come before. And yet, whatever follows is generally more powerful as a result, like pulling back on the rubber band before letting it go. Here, Lincoln uses his big “but” to give his message sudden gravitas:
But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate -- we cannot consecrate -- we cannot hallow -- this ground.
What beautiful sentence structure. He’s already hit us with repeated uses of “dedicate.” Either he needs a thesaurus, or he’s intentionally establishing a theme before revealing his true thesis.
“Dedicate” can cover quite a range. You can dedicate a book to your spouse. A tree to a deceased co-worker. A building to a donor. It can be fairly casual, like requesting a song on the radio for Marcia Stiflewagon (who looks awkward in a dress but kinda hot in her weightlifting gear) or rather serious, like the baby dedications mentioned previously.
He just told us it was “fitting and proper” to dedicate this ground, but now, apparently, “in a larger sense” we can’t really dedicate it at all.
Lincoln simultaneously takes things up a few notches. We can’t “consecrate” this land either. There are fewer examples of things commonly “consecrated” – sacramental bread, wine, marriages, etc. It’s getting all spiritual up in Gettysburg – and they were only about 90 seconds into his speech.
And then there’s that third step.
We can’t “hallow” this ground. That’s a tough one. No one uses this word in normal conversation. There’s Halloween, but few of us know the etymology behind that offhand. More recently, there was Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows with the cool jewelry, but that doesn’t really help us nail it down either.
Not so long ago, across Oklahoma, daily school announcements included group recitation of the “Lord’s Prayer,” right after the Pledge of Allegiance. (Hey, they were different times.) A few districts may have gone rogue and
incorporated some brazenly modern version, like the NIV, but most used the King James, which began like this:
“Our Father, which art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name…”
The name of Jehovah (Yahweh) was so sacred, one did not say it aloud. You don’t tug on Superman’s cape, you don’t draw cartoons of Mohammed, and you don’t speak this particular name of God lightly – let alone “in vain.” Like touching the Ark of the Covenant or entering the Holy of Holies without proper cleansing, some things were so divine as to be dangerous.
Holy can be serious business.
We’re suddenly in sanctified territory – and rather unexpectedly. Why, Mr. President? Why can’t we do this?
The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.
This part is difficult for modern minds. Even those of us who are Sunday-go-to-Meetin’ types don’t really do “sacred” any more. We live in cynical, coarse times. Few things are truly holy to most of us – not in most reverent sense of the word. But this was before The Book of Mormon. Before Southpark. Even before George Carlin and Lenny Bruce.
What, exactly, did these “brave men” do to “consecrate” that ground?
They came, they fought, they died, all for a hypothesis about men being created equal, according to Lincoln. But more specifically, most of them shed their blood. They bled into the soil – literally. And in the Christian faith (for by now it’s obvious this is Lincoln’s chosen framework), blood has power.
In the Old Testament, sin and failure were purged through animal sacrifice. The rules regarding what you could and couldn’t do with blood were rather detailed. In the New, it was Jesus on the Cross who offered redemption. Subsequent discussions of this sacrifice often specifically reference the shedding of blood, as any visit to an old school hymn-singin’ church will remind you:
"Would you be free from your burden of sin? There’s power in the blood, power in the blood…”
“Are you washed in the Blood? In the soul-cleansing blood of the Lamb?”
“What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus…”
Lincoln is calling up the most sacred imagery of the Christian faith – one everyone in his audience understood and most practiced on at least a superficial level. He’s declaring the soil on which they stand – in which these men were now buried – to be “consecrated” by the blood spilled there defending their hypothesis.
“We’re here with words, and songs, and good intentions, sure!” he says. “But they died here, violently and valiantly, for this cause. What in the world could we add with words?”
The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.
One wonders if Lincoln had any idea how ironic that part would prove to be.
So if those gathered together couldn’t dedicate the ground, why were they there? What could they do?
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’s a mouthful, and the hardest part for students to memorize when they’re reciting it to the class for extra credit. Lincoln’s word-weaving turns the purpose of the occasion, the war, and the entire nation inside out – bringing to the foreground the ideals that nation still espoused, but had long since negated through abuse and neglect.
And now it was on “us the living” to pick up where the dead could not. To prove that hypothesis for which they gave their lives – for which they shed their blood. What are 10,000 martyrs worth to you, citizens? What do these ideals truly mean, now that it’s up to you?
Put down your corn dogs and tiny Union flags, kids – the President just called us out. And he did it without actually saying anything we didn’t already agree with.
Baby ‘Merica was born 87 years ago, in Liberty, and dedicated to a hypothesis – that all men are created equal. In youth, it was noble and pure and full of the idealism captured in the Declaration of Independence – our national birth certificate. Growing pains brought complications, and we began compromising those ideals for the most pragmatic reasons… little realizing that such leaven almost always leavens the entire loaf.
And now, through the resulting war with ourselves, we’ve died. Many literally, the rest emotionally and spiritually. Blood has washed the ground, re-consecrating us and making possible the realization of that hypothesis – we CAN build and maintain a nation founded on the principle that all men are created equal.
that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom –
Lazarus, John Baptizing in the Jordan, Jesus emerging from the tomb – it’s all about the rebirth, baby. There’s a reason we hunt eggs (of all things) on Easter.
In the church, we call it being “born again.” It’s a thing.
and that government of the people, by the people, for the people,
He never says it, but it couldn’t be more clear. For a speech that doesn’t mention slavery even once, it’s perhaps the single most powerful refutation of the institution in our history.
shall not perish from the earth.
Things are different once you’re born again. You’re purified, more true to what you were created to be, and you don’t die a second time.
Because you’re different. Because you’re better. Because you’re dedicated, consecrated, and sanctified. And because you’re ready to live out your ideals more abundantly.
Of course you don’t keep it to yourself. You pass along the good news to others – that any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can in fact “long endure.” That message only has credibility, of course, if you’re walking out those national values yourself.
A century and a half later, it’s worth asking whether we’re still collectively living those founding claims and remain on the road to eternal (national) life. The alternatives, whatever they entail, are no doubt… less than ideal.
RELATED POST: The Gettysburg Address, Part One (After Everett)