Fireworks are sounding as I write this. I’m not a big fan of fireworks, even in happy times, but this year, the exercise feels forced, ironical, almost mocking. A moment of silence would be more appropriate for a republic on life support.
To exploit Independence Day, Donald John Trump—whose speechwriters must have watched North by Northwest on HBO Max rather than boned up on the history of the Lakota—repaired to South Dakota, where, in the shadow of Mount Rushmore, he slurred and snorted through one of the least rousing speeches in recent memory. The majestic backdrop was supposed to suggest that Trump belonged in the company of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and TR. Instead it only reinforced his smallness, his weakness, his abject unfitness, cowering pathetically beneath those American giants, whose glory he will never know.
Far better on the Fourth of July “Sunday Pages” to revisit one of the greatest (and shortest!) speeches in our history: the Gettysburg Address, delivered by President Abraham Lincoln on 19 November 1863. As Senator Charles Sumner would note at Lincoln’s funeral just a year and a half later, “Lincoln was mistaken that ‘the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here.’…The world noted at once what he said, and will never cease to remember it. The battle itself was less important than the speech.’”
It was our great fortune to have Lincoln as president during the Civil War, just as it was our great misfortune to have lost him before Reconstruction, which was overseen by feckless incompetents. The nation has never fully recovered from his assassination by the proto-MAGA John Wilkes Booth—who, if he were alive today, would be waxing rhapsodic about the tyranny of mask-wearing.
I’m going to stop now, as my introduction to the speech is longer than the speech, which is particularly resonant in the Age of Trump:
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 cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate, we cannot 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.
The president that conceived of, and believed in, these words, is widely regarded as the best of the 45 chief executives our nation has produced. This is why cities and towns and parks and streets and schools are named in his honor. This is why his name was chosen by Lincoln’s Bible and the Lincoln Project. This is why his austere visage is struck on our coinage, printed on our banknotes, and hewn in rock atop a mountain in South Dakota, where, two nights ago, our greatest president looked down from the heavens upon our worst.
Photo by Wknight94 via Wikipedia Commons.