One of the unexpected intellectual delights of grad school thus far has been the opportunity to re-engage with Abraham Lincoln. We’ve been spending a bit of time with his speeches, most importantly the Gettysburg Address. (Feel free to take five for a quick re-read.)
We’ve been reading Garry Wills’ masterful book “Lincoln at Gettysburg” which had just been published when I last took an American history class in 1992. It’s a masterful analysis and contextualization of the speech, worth reading for so many reasons, but the insight I like the best is Wills’ analysis of how Lincoln uses the Gettysburg Address to literally redefine the fundamental notion of what America is and where it grounds its political and moral legitimacy.
What Lincoln did in the Gettysburg Address was to ground the idea of America not in the Constitution, a necessarily flawed and incomplete set of rules, but in the Declaration of Independence, a document that lays out a forward-looking vision of human rights grounded in the inherent dignity of each individual.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” This is a transcending and universal statement of ideals, and the task of succeeding generations (Lincoln’s and ours) is to ever more closely align reality with that bold ambition.