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by Nathaniel Philbrick

February 12, 2009

Thank you Mr. Lincoln

I read a column in the paper this morning by David Grubin. He recounted how his sixth grade teacher had used Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address as a punishment for children who spoke out of turn. Mr. Grubin said that he must have written the address at least 100 times by the time he reached the seventh grade. I too remember standing at the blackboard in the one room country school and writing the Gettysburg Address, but not as a punishment, but as a learning experience.

My teacher was not the Mrs. Wright that Mr. Grubin names but my very own sister, Lyla. I have always felt that she was one of the best teachers that I ever had. She wanted us to make the words of this document something that we would own in our minds and hearts and so we memorized the words and wrote them on the board. “Four score and seven years ago. . .” I can feel the chalk and smell it in my memory. It was always so nice to get a new piece of chalk and it was so sad when we wrote too hard or dropped it and it broke. We used it all up until there was just a little nubbin left. And we wrote and rubbed out and rewrote until we had it right.

”. . . our forefathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” This wasn’t the way we spoke and we hadn’t heard some of these words before but they lifted our hearts and made us want to know more about this man and our county. My sister loved history and she made us want to know more.

“Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” Our country, at this time, was in a war and these words became more significant as we thought about the possibility that perhaps our country may not 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.” This was even more poignant, because we know that someone very dear to our sister, our teacher, had been killed. He had indeed given his life that our nation based on these principles would survive.

“But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate - we cannot consecrate - we cannot hallow - this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.” We understood a little about death, and dying, and burying. We had been privileged from an early age to participate in all of the passages of life from the safety and security of our family and the church. We had held little babies from their earliest days, we had attended weddings and watched baptisms and foot washing and had seen people grow old and die and even experienced the death of young people. My mother would make up a bouquet from her garden and take it to the service. We would observe the grief and the sadness and be comforted by the faith of those who suffered loss.

“The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.” The world didn’t note nor long remember the principle speaker’s words. The principal speaker was the renowned orator, Edward Everett and as was common for the day, his detailed speech lasted for over two hours. Later on he remarked to President Lincoln, "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." Of course neither the president, nor anyone else knew that children and adults would be memorizing his words and writing them many, many years later.

“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.” As we face a new struggle, in our nation, these words challenge us to continue to be one nation, under God, determined that the brave men and women who have given the last full measure of devotion, not only at Gettysburg, but in Europe and the South Pacific and Vietnam and Korea and Iraq and Afghanistan and everywhere they have died, will not have died in vain.

It was just 10 sentences, 272 words but there is a something about them that makes them stand the test of time.

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