Speaking For Us
A few years ago my wife and I were up in the Catskills, visiting our daughter in summer camp. We stayed in a small fishing camp along the Delaware River. I was out one morning when I ran into an older gentleman who was pulling on his waders. He was probably in his seventies, great shock of white hair, weathered but handsome features.
He told me that this was the first year he was there without his wife. She has passed a few months before, and he missed her terribly. She didn’t much like fishing, but she always went along because she wanted to be with him. He’d been a bit wild when he was younger, but she stood by him, even when he didn’t deserve it. She was the one who went to church, and she was the one who kept things together. Now she was gone.
He seemed very alone, so we talked a little bit. I told him about my own father after we lost my mother, way too soon. My Dad always thought he would go first. He was the unhealthy one; the small stroke, the quintuple bypass. They had worked and planned together all these years, they had their first two grandchildren and another on the way, and she had been stolen from him. After the shock of the funeral wore off, he kept coming back to it, the injustice. Finally, we found something that helped. My Dad, by his own admission, was not without flaws, and not always an easy man to live with. When his time came, he would need someone to plead his case, someone who knew the inner good in him, someone who could not be denied. My mother, about as gentle a person as you could possibly find, would speak for him.
The old man with the nice white hair and the sad face looked up from his boots, shook his head and smiled at me. He reached up with his hand and touched my open palm.
I thought about that man today. July 4, 2013 is the 237th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and yesterday marked the end of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. We aren’t an old country at all. I have a baby picture of me with my great grandmother, who was forty when she emigrated from Russia in 1912. Born just a few years after Gettysburg, at a time when there were still people alive who came into this world as “Colonists.” Becoming a citizen, she shared in the inheritance of the efforts and sacrifices of all people, great and small, who preceded her.
Reading the whole text of the Declaration of Independence in an interesting experience. 1333 words long, it is as much a prosaic list of grievances; a lawyer’s bill of particulars justifying separation from the Crown, as it is an expression of great philosophical truths. It is perhaps fortunate that what we remember of it is the essence; “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Great and bold words for an uncertain time; 13 rag-tag colonies revolting against the greatest power in the world and demanding recognition as an independent republic. We tend to forget that a great many colonists were either hesitant or opposed outright. Jefferson, and the fifty-five other signers of the Declaration, assumed the right to speak for everyone, and in doing so, changed the world irrevocably.
87 years later, in November of 1863, Lincoln rose at an event far less portentous, the dedication of a cemetery at Gettysburg to memorialize those who had fallen in battle. He was preceded by the great orator, Edward Everett, who spoke for two hours. In 273 words, in a time so short that no picture could be taken of him standing at the podium, Lincoln redeemed the promise of the Declaration of Independence.
We are “a nation dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” We are tested, but the men at Gettysburg had proved equal to it. “(F)rom 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.”
The essential human dignity that only freedom can confirm was always in his thoughts. In 1858, during the Alton debate with Stephen Douglas, Lincoln framed freedom in its most elemental way. “That is the real issue. That is the issue that will continue in this country when these poor tongues of Judge Douglas and myself shall be silent. It is the eternal struggle between these two principles -- right and wrong -- throughout the world. They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time, and will ever continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity and the other the divine right of kings. It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops itself. It is the same spirit that says, 'You work and toil and earn bread, and I'll eat it.' No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.”
At Gettysburg, when Lincoln rose to speak, not much was expected of him. After Everett, perhaps not much was desired. But he demonstrated again how much he stands apart from the common run of politician who whips you up, tells you what to think and how to feel, speaks at you.
Lincoln knew us. He knew the “new birth of freedom” was the unbroken line from the Founders, to “the brave men, living and dead” at Gettysburg. Ultimately, it is to my great grandmother, who led her family here for it, and to me.
He knew the better angels of our nature, and, at a critical time, he spoke for us.
He still can, if we are willing to listen.