Reflections on the 156th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address

Nov. 19 marks the 156th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, a speech that lasted only a few minutes yet has remained one of the most enduring statements of American principles and aspiration.

Delivered at the commemoration of the Gettysburg National Cemetery in Pennsylvania, Lincoln concluded his remarks by urging his fellow citizens to “highly resolve ... that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Zachary German, an assistant professor in the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership, teaches CEL 394, a course on the 16th president titled “Lincoln: Rhetoric, Thought, Statesmanship”. German also teaches in the school’s summer program, the Civic Leadership Institute, which welcomes more than 60 students from across Arizona to learn about the Constitution and Abraham Lincoln. ASU Now spoke with him about the lasting legacy of Lincoln's famous address and how it resonates today.

Question: Why is the message of the Gettysburg Address still relevant 156 years later?

Answer: As we continue to endure intense polarization and partisanship in our contemporary political life, the anniversary of the Gettysburg Address is a timely reminder of the common project to which we should seek to contribute together, and of the challenges that the project has always involved.  

The Gettysburg Address summons us to a deeper, more profound sense of our political identity, as a “nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” The task of living up to that identity is something that connects us to “our fathers,” to “the brave men” who shed their blood on the battlefield of Gettysburg and elsewhere, to our fellow citizens, and to generations to come whose future will be shaped, in meaningful ways, by our devotion to that task. 

Q: What lessons can modern Americans take from the speech?

A: According to Lincoln, the Civil War was a test of whether “that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” After all, a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to equality had been torn apart by the conflict over slavery. Government by the people had disintegrated into a war among the people; ballots had been replaced with bullets. When Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg, the nation was over two years into the bloodiest conflict of its history, and it still had nearly two more years before the war would cease. The nation almost didn’t survive the test that Lincoln described at Gettysburg. 

While Lincoln led the nation to the conclusion of the war, the test, in a broader sense, has never really ended. We’re always taking it — always in the midst of determining the extent to which a nation “so conceived and so dedicated” can persist. The dual challenge facing every generation is to preserve our union and to pursue its noble commitments at the same time. To equip us for that challenge, our current leaders, our future leaders, and all citizens would do well to read, talk, and think more about Lincoln.