At Gettysburg, Lincoln described the nation’s origin, its civil war and its future with a poetic concision not heard since the first chapter of Genesis. We do not call his words a speech, as in a farewell speech. It was an address delivered to all the American people at a pivotal moment to describe what he hoped would come after the war. He spoke of “unfinished business.”
All will agree that the unfinished business included Nov. 4, 2008, the day the American people elected a black man into their presidency. This came 54 years after the judicial branch decided in Brown v. Board of Education that racially segregated public schools were unconstitutional, and 43 years after the legislative branch passed the Voting Rights Act. “All men,” Lincoln said in the address’s first sentence, “are created equal.”
What Lincoln said next matters most for those living in the here and now, and who are so at odds over the nation’s direction and governing ideas.
In the moment before he spoke the address’s final, famous words—that government of, by and for the people “shall not perish from the earth,” he uttered what may be its most potent phrase. “This nation,” Lincoln said, will have “a new birth of freedom.”