Saturday, August 8, 2009

"Four score and seven years ago...."

"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." On the train ride to Gettysburg, Lincoln scribbled that powerful opening line of a speech he was scheduled to deliver at the dedication of a 17-acre cemetery to bury many of the 50,000 casualties on both sides who fell during the momentous battle that was fought there. Lincoln kept his remarks simple, knowing that the keynote address would be Mr. Edward Everett's, a politician with a formidable reputation as a lecturer and orator. After Mr. Everett had spoken for nearly two hours, the President stepped forward to share the words he had written. It took him just 2 minutes, and received only sporadic and scattered applause. Afterwards he whispered to an aide, "That speech went sour."

The following day Edward Everett wrote to the President. "I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours," he wrote, "as you did in two minutes." President Lincoln replied, "In our respective parts yesterday, you could not have been excused to make a short address, nor I a long one. I am pleased to know that, in your judgment, the little I did say was not entirely a failure." Abe was a master of understatement. The Gettysburg Address has come down through history as one of the greatest speeches ever written, while Edward Everett is best remembered as the man who spoke before Lincoln on that sad day.

The Civil War was a terrible test for a relatively new country divided against itself over the issue of preserving the Union and the difficult issue of slavery. The Union and the Confederacy each believed its way was best, and spilled the blood of around 650,000 men before the smoke cleared. The war should have been a short one except that the South was blessed with gifted fighting generals like Lee, Jackson, Longstreet and Stuart whose audacious strategies nearly defeated the Union, while the North was saddled with cautious, clueless generals like George Mc Clellan whose high opinion of himself and stubborn refusal to fight frustrated President Lincoln at every turn, until fighting generals like Grant, Sherman, Sheridan and Kearney turned the tide of battle and eventually took key Southern cities like Richmond and Vicksburg.

The period following the war was another test for the country. When Lee surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse, Grant showed him and his men great respect as he knew Lee's reputation and what his armies had accomplished on the battlefield despite overwhelming odds. Confederate soldiers were allowed to keep their horses, an important concession since many of them had farms and needed the animals for work. When Lee mentioned that his men had been without rations for several days, the Union commander arranged for 25,000 rations to be sent to the hungry Confederates. The Gentleman's Agreement: Appomattox Court House, Virginia, Lincoln was determined to treat the South fairly after the war, but his assassination put an end to that.

This period in our country's history was an extremely difficult one...maybe the hardest time in the history of America for any President. Few men could have endured the pressures from the press, the politicians and the people to end the war. Other wars fought by America were against foreign adversaries, but the Civil War pitted brother against brother, and there could be no real winner. One has only to look at pictures of Lincoln before and after the war to know the terrible toll it must have taken on him. How sad that just when the terrible conflict had come to an end, and the country had begun the healing process, that a fanatic like John Wilkes Booth could take from the American people the best President we would ever have.

When I look at the political scene today, what with the scandals, corruption and greed, I can only wonder whether there is any politician out there worthy of polishing Lincoln's boots. His integrity, intelligence, empathy, wit and statesmanship put him in a class of one. George Washington was another great President, but even he did not have to preside over the country at a time when Americans fought each other. I'm no historian, but my short list of other great Presidents includes Teddy Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan. America is not perfect, but in my view it is still the best place in the world. We deserve great leaders, and must use our right to vote responsibly to elect them. Here's what a great leader sounds like: Lincoln's Gettysburg Address


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association

JP 8/8/9

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