Abraham Lincoln understood this important truth: America’s greatness was neither an accident nor an entitlement. Whatever greatness was in this nation was, by the grace of God, an achievement of our forebears; an inheritance received through no merit of our own to be passed on to posterity out of duty, if not charity. Thus, the first, most important disposition of Americans should be humble gratitude.
Lincoln spoke beautifully of this debt of gratitude in one of his first public speeches, his “Lyceum Address,” given in Springfield, Illinois in 1838. He was 28 years old:
We find ourselves under the government of a system of political institutions, conducing more essentially to the ends of civil and religious liberty, than any of which the history of former times tells us. We, when mounting the stage of existence, found ourselves the legal inheritors of these fundamental blessings. We toiled not in the acquirement or establishment of them–they are a legacy bequeathed us, by a once hardy, brave, and patriotic, but now lamented and departed race of ancestors. Their’s was the task (and nobly they performed it) to possess themselves, and through themselves, us, of this goodly land; and to uprear upon its hills and its valleys, a political edifice of liberty and equal rights; ’tis ours only, to transmit these, the former, unprofaned by the foot of an invader; the latter, undecayed by the lapse of time and untorn by usurpation, to the latest generation that fate shall permit the world to know. This task of gratitude to our fathers, justice to ourselves, duty to posterity, and love for our species in general, all imperatively require us faithfully to perform.
Lincoln would mention this task again in his most famous address, delivered at Gettysburg 150 years ago today.
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.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from 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.
You’ve probably heard that President Obama missed a few word in reciting the address recently. Two words, to be exact: ”under God.” Not every existing version of the Gettysburg Address includes the words “under God,” but most do. (Including the one kept in the Lincoln Bedroom at the White House; the only copy signed and dated by Lincoln himself.) Maybe the President omitted the words on purpose. Maybe not. Maybe the words weren’t on the teleprompter and the President pulled a Ron Burgundy. Who knows.
But let’s not let two words President Obama didn’t say distract from recalling and taking to heart–with gratitude–the 271 words President Lincoln did say. Above all, let’s pray for our nation–and, yes, for our leaders–that we might faithfully undertake that great task of preservation; that task “of gratitude to our fathers, justice to ourselves, duty to posterity, and love for our species in general.”