New address: 24 Farnsworth Street, Boston, MA 02210-1409.
“The struggle of today is not altogether for today; it is for
a vast future also.”
—Abraham Lincoln’s annual message to Congress, December 3, 1861
“The struggle of today is not altogether for today; it is for
a vast future also.”
—Abraham Lincoln’s annual message to Congress, December 3, 1861
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 battle-field 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
Growing up, I heard lots of stories about Auntie Mae, a
cherished friend of my father’s family.
Though she wasn’t a blood relative, her designation as “Auntie” hints at
how close she was to my Dad and to his family. She even babysat my Dad on occasions,
like when his parents and older siblings went to Alaska.
My grandfather and then my Dad (when he grew into adulthood) offered a
helping hand when she needed one.
Auntie Mae died early in my lifetime; I have one very early, vague
recollection of visiting her.
Auntie Mae’s father served with distinction in the Union army during the
Civil War. His name was Wallace W.
Johnson. During the pivotal second day of the
battle of Gettysburg, the twenty-year-old Sergeant
Johnson and his fellow soldiers in
the Sixth Pennsylvania Reserves arrived on the field of battle in the late
afternoon or early evening. Much of
the action on the second day of the battle focused on ferocious Confederate
attempts to over-run the Union Army’s exposed left flank anchored on a ridge
called Little Round Top. Sergeant
Johnson’s unit arrived in time to
help stop the Confederates’ final assault on Little Round Top.
Sergeant Johnson and his
comrades came under fire from Confederate sharpshooters concealed in a log house
that was behind Confederate lines.
Sharpshooters on both sides of the war had the ability to wreak havoc:
they could pick off the enemy at 1000 yards. So it became obvious that someone had to
do something to take these Confederate sharpshooters out of action. Sergeant Johnson and five others volunteered for the
assignment. The six men moved
stealthily toward the cabin but were quickly discovered. Somehow they kept moving forward in
spite of coming under heavy fire.
They rushed up to the house, knocked down barricades in front of the
door, and succeeded in overcoming or capturing the sharpshooters concealed
within the house. Even more
amazingly, they brought more than a dozen prisoners with them back to Union
Soon night fell over the field.
The Union’s left flank had held. As a result, the Union crucially still occupied the higher ground. The next day, Pickett’s famous charge
represented the “high water mark” of the Confederacy. The Confederate Army lost so much during
that charge and in the whole three-day battle at Gettysburg that it would never again be an
offensive fighting force. The
beginning of the end of the Civil War dawned at Gettysburg. Pickett’s charge ultimately failed for
many reasons; one surely was the extraordinary work done by Sergeant
Johnson and many others the day
before to retain the advantageous high ground on the field.
Thirty-seven years later, Sergeant
Johnson and his five comrades were
awarded the Medal of Honor for their bravery at Gettysburg. Sergeant Johnson died eleven years after that.
He passed on the Medal of Honor and another medal he won to Auntie
Mae. Having no children of her own,
she passed the medals onto my Dad.
Several years ago, my Dad decided that I would be a good steward for the
medals—probably because I had become a full-blown Civil War buff at an early
age. So for these past ten or
twelve years, the medals have mostly resided in my safe deposit box right here
Last spring it occurred to me that the medals deserve a better home. As someone shared at the Saturday
service, the medals never really belonged to my family. They passed through our family. We cared for them. But they belong not to us but to the
American people. It is time to give
them to the people. So I got in
touch with the museum staff at the Gettysburg National Military Park to see if they might be
interested. This past Monday, one
of my brothers and I traveled to the park and met with a curator and the
director of museum services. They
told us that up until the last couple of years, they didn’t have a single one of
the sixty-three Medals of Honor earned at Gettysburg in their collection. Then out of the blue a Medal of Honor
was donated. Sergeant
Johnson’s will soon become their
second. I am hoping to travel back
to the battlefield in the summer to donate the medals.
The museum staff pointed out on a map where Sergeant Johnson’s heroic act took place, so my brother and I
walked around in that part of the field.
Walking on the hallowed ground where Sergeant Johnson fought, I was amazed to think how close we
are to the Civil War and to the end of slavery. Sergeant Johnson’s daughter babysat my Dad! I met her! The graying face of Johnson staring from a photograph we have speaks of a
distant era, but the feeling of distance is deceiving. We are not very far removed from the
President-elect Obama lifted up the same truth in his victory speech when
he talked about the 106-year-old Ann Nixon Cooper and all that she had witnessed
in her long life before she voted on November 4: woman’s suffrage, “the despair
in the dust bowl, and Depression across the land,” bombs falling on “our harbor”
and “the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma”, a
wall falling in Berlin. Ann Nixon Cooper, removed from slavery
by just one generation and unable to vote for much of her life because of racism
and sexism, voted in the 2008 election that brought an American of African
descent to office.
It felt appropriate to visit Gettysburg barely a week before this Tuesday’s
historic Inauguration. Without a
victory at Gettysburg, the Union probably would not have won the war. And if the Union had not won the war, it seems unlikely we would have
arrived at the point of inaugurating our first African American president.
Sure, the Civil War was just a beginning. It left in its wake far too much
unfinished business. Rather than
ushering in a new birth of freedom as Lincoln hoped, a hundred years of bitter
segregation, lynching, poll taxes and tests and a myriad of other expressions of
bigotry followed. The fiftieth
anniversary commemoration at Gettysburg, which took place less than two
years after Sergeant Johnson died,
showed how far we had to go.
Confederate and white Union veterans met as friends on the hallowed
field, but absent and forgotten were the black comrades who did so much to win
the war. South and North were mired in
segregation so fierce that an objective observer would have assumed the South
had won the war. The dream of
equality was nowhere to be seen at that reunion.
And so it took Martin Luther King,
Jr. and the other Civil Rights era heroes and Shirley Chisholm and Jesse Jackson
and Colin Powell and of course Barack Obama (to name just a few) to further the
stalled work begun in the Civil War.
And of course it took the nearly sixty-seven million voters who voted for
Obama to bring us to this week’s historic Inauguration.
So on Tuesday, a friend of
Sergeant Johnson’s daughter and his
son will watch the Inauguration.
The new occupants of the White House—a house built partly by the labor of
be a man born of a white Kansan mother and a Kenyan father, a woman herself
descended from slaves, and their two daughters. While the task advanced at Little Round
Top (and Vicksburg and the Wilderness and
Appomatox Courthouse and Montgomery and
Selma) will by
no means be completed on Tuesday, it does represent a giant step forward. This giant step has been a long time in
coming: there is no doubt about that.
Yet many of us honestly are amazed it came at all in our lifetimes.
As Barack Obama takes the oath of office on Tuesday, my thoughts will
partly be back at Gettysburg, and at Montgomery and Selma.
The Civil War and the Civil Rights movement continue to live on
powerfully in the collective memory of this nation. And towering over that memory are the
twin figures of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. On Monday—Inauguration Eve—we celebrate
the birthday of Dr. King. And next
month, we celebrate the two hundredth anniversary of Lincoln’s birth. Today, an Inaugural event on the steps
of the Lincoln Memorial—the same steps from which King electrified the nation
with his “I Have a Dream” speech—will pay tribute to both of these towering
That Lincoln continues to tower over our nation has
been so evident these past two years.
A resident of Illinois, Sen. Obama chose the old state capitol building
in Springfield as the backdrop for declaring his candidacy—a building in which
Lincoln served, a building located just a few blocks from Lincoln’s home. From beginning to end of the campaign,
Obama echoed Lincoln’s dream of bringing together in unity
our disparate nation. These
sentiments were at the forefront of Obama’s victory speech in Chicago when he quoted Lincoln’s inaugural speeches: “We are not
enemies, but friends.” “Though
passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.” And he alluded to the Gettysburg Address
when he lifted up “the millions of Americans who volunteered, and organized, and
proved that, more than two centuries later, a government of the people, by the
people and for the people has not perished from this Earth.” The Lincoln theme has continued in the transition as Obama has
gone about the important work of assembling his cabinet: he has been guided by
decision to create a team out of his political rivals. The photograph in the front of the Post-Crescent today captures beautifully
Obama’s connection with Lincoln: the photograph
shows Obama from behind as he looks up at Lincoln’s mighty statue in the Lincoln
Why does Abraham Lincoln still
matter so much, to Obama and to our nation? He still matters because of four things:
his words, his political skill, his leadership, and—most of all—his ideas.
Obama’s victory speech was a reminder that words still do matter. So was his speech last spring on racism,
a speech which not only rescued his candidacy from the dustbin of Rev. Wright’s
“God damn America!” but also articulated and
advanced America’s self-understanding of its racist history. Writing about his victory speech a few
days afterward, James Wood of the New
A theatre critic once memorably
complained of a bad play that it had not been a good night out for the English
language. Among other triumphs,
last Tuesday night was a very good night for the English language. A movement in American politics hostile
to the possession and the possibility of words—it had repeatedly disparaged
Barack Obama as “just a person of words”—was not only defeated but embarrassed
by a victory speech eloquent in echo, allusion, and counterpoint.
More than any president before him save perhaps Thomas Jefferson,
understood the power and promise of words.
In the Gettysburg Address he modestly downplayed the significance of his
words—it wasn’t they, after all, that turned back Pickett’s Charge or the
assault on Little Round Top. But
make no mistake: he meant for his few but very carefully crafted words to
fundamentally recast the American experiment. With a two-to-three minute speech, he
intended nothing less than the rewriting of the American creed. With those 272 words, he successfully
cleansed the Constitution of its catastrophic waffling on slavery and inserted
instead the proposition that all are created equal as the centerpiece of the
American creed. As Gary Wills writes about the onlookers at Gettysburg that day:
The crowd departed with a new
thing in its ideological luggage, that new constitution Lincoln had substituted for
the one they brought there with them.
They walked off, from those curving graves on a hillside, under a changed
sky, into a different America.
He used words “to complete the work of the guns” at
Gettysburg. Without those words, I don’t know that
we’d be at the point of having an African American move into the White
House. How much more power could
still matters because he was a politician with extraordinary skills. What made this all the more
remarkable—and surprising to his rivals who continually underestimated him—was
that he showed little evidence of this in his mostly unsuccessful political life
prior to the presidential campaign.
His detailed knowledge of the electoral map—which went down to the level
of counties and even precincts—may be unrivaled among presidents. Assembling a cabinet largely made up of
talented (and egotistical) rivals who thought he as a bumbling idiot was a
stroke of genius. But making it
work without the cabinet falling into a dysfunctional mess required even more
political skill. So did conducting
the long and difficult war without totally losing the American public. All presidents since, when confronted
with crises of their own, have looked back at the Lincoln political playbook for ideas and
And Lincoln was equally gifted as a leader. He was skilled at improvisation—an
important leadership quality especially in a time of crisis. And he successfully balanced many
competing needs and interests.
Winning the Civil War required a constantly delicate balancing act. He is sometimes faulted for not issuing
the Emancipation Declaration sooner, but he knew that to do so would risk
pushing the border
states into the Confederacy—and that their defection
might well be a death blow to the Union cause. But then he knew when the political (not
to mention military) positives of the Emancipation Declaration outweighed the
potential negatives. As Mario Cuomo
points out in his book Why Lincoln
Matters (which inspired this sermon), Lincoln knew when to be aggressive and when to
be conciliatory. He also balanced a willingness to hear
differing opinions with decisiveness.
Maybe most importantly, he combined a grand vision for where he wanted
the country to head with a keen sense of what the very next concrete steps were
to get there. As Cuomo notes,
Lincoln had a
vision of the future that was “large, inspiring, clear, and achievable.” He had tenacity, courage, appeared
even-keeled, and knew how to be out front but not too far out front of the
And most importantly, Lincoln still matters
because of his ideas. In recent
years he has been rightfully faulted for the racism that pervaded much of his
thinking. While this racism was not
uncommon at the time, there were certainly many Abolitionists who were far ahead
of Lincoln in
overcoming racism. As Cuomo
asserts, Lincoln’s views on race would disqualify him
for office today. But fortunately
the better angels of his nature eventually won out, and he moved from more
racism to less racism in his final years.
Those words about all being created equal began to take a firmer hold in
his heart and mind.
What Lincoln sought most of all
was a central idea worthy of this nation.
In the idea of equality, he found
such an idea. This is the great
idea he articulated at Gettysburg. This is the great idea which became
central to the Civil War and led to the abolition of slavery. This is the idea for which he was
killed. This is the idea that
fueled the sacred work of the Civil Rights movement. And two hundred years after Lincoln’s birth, this is
the idea that will be embodied so powerfully on Tuesday in the person of Barack
Obama, and, even more importantly, in the nation that looked past its racism and
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Last updated on Monday, March 25, 2013.
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