Tuesday, May 22, 2018
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Historian: Lincoln's speech assured unity, freedom for all


Re-enactor John Voehl of Denver walks through rows of empty seats after the ceremony marking the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettyburg Address in Gettysburg, Pa.


GETTYSBURG, Pa. — Without Abraham Lincoln’s words and leadership, Americans likely would be citizens of two or more nations in a “Disunited States.”

That was the message Tuesday from historian James McPherson during his keynote address at the 150th anniversary commemoration of Mr. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

In his brief speech, Mr. Lincoln made the case for keeping the republic together and for living up to the claim in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.” Mr. Lincoln’s efforts to end enslavement of 4 million blacks helped to assure that all Americans remain free, Mr. McPherson said. A Pulitzer Prize winner, Mr. McPherson is professor emeritus of U.S. history at Princeton University.

Mr. Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg four months after the bloodiest battle of the Civil War was fought there. The occasion was the dedication on Nov. 19, 1863, of a national cemetery where about 3,500 of those killed in the fight were buried. Hundreds were never identified. They since have been joined by 2,500 other service members who fought in the nation’s other conflicts and some family members.

Bryce Stenzel said he and two friends came from New Ulm, Minn., to Adams County, Pennsylvania, to be part of the commemoration events.

In his two-minute address, Mr. Lincoln reminded his listeners that they owed a duty to the soldiers who died there to assure that “government of the people, by the people, for the people” would endure.

“You have to do more than just lay down some bouquets of flowers,” Mr. Stenzel said. “You have to be ready to fight for national principles.”

Mr. Stenzel and his friends, Bill Harris and John Fritsche, were dressed in the uniforms of the Minnesota Home Guard, who fought Native Americans from the Dakota tribe during a frontier war in 1862.

They were among the thousands of people who crowded into the National Cemetery under mostly sunny skies. Many were re-enactors wearing uniforms of Civil War military units or civilian clothing from that era. Their ranks included at least a dozen people portraying Mr. Lincoln.

National Park Service historian John Heiser said Tuesday’s temperatures in the 40s and blue-sky conditions were similar to those of 150 years ago. At least 10,000 people were present for the 1863 dedication, he said.

The National Park Service set out 3,500 chairs for Tuesday’s Dedication Day ceremony, which took place very close to the original event’s location. Every chair was filled by the time the program started at 10 a.m., and many hundreds more people stood around the stage.

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell shared the role of keynote speaker with Mr. McPherson. Neither Ms. Jewell nor Mr. McPherson came close to making a two-hour speech such as the one Edward Everett delivered at the cemetery dedication in 1863. Mr. Lincoln followed Mr. Everett.

Ms. Jewell pledged to keep her remarks to no more than the 272 words Mr. Lincoln used in his speech.

The United States is still on a journey to assure that all men and women are treated equally, she said. That journey is helped along by the words spoken by patriots who include Nathan Hale, Franklin Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, Flight 93 passenger Todd Beamer, and Mr. Lincoln, she said.

Park Ranger Morgan Brooks read greetings sent by President Obama, who declined an invitation to attend the sesquicentennial event. Mr. Obama wrote that he sometimes goes into the room in the White House that Mr. Lincoln used as his office. In that room is a copy of the Gettysburg Address in Mr. Lincoln’s hand. “What Lincoln understood ... was that this self-evident truth [that all men are created equal] was not self-executed,” Mr. Obama wrote. It had required “blood drawn by a sword to achieve it.”

Speaking in a high tenor voice with a Midwestern twang, Lincoln presenter James Getty delivered the 16th president’s original speech.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the son of an immigrant father from Sicily, administered the oath of allegiance to 16 people from 13 nations who became citizens during the program.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Len Barcousky is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.

Contact him at: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 724-772-0184.

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