Boy, did Abe Lincoln get it wrong.
When he rose to speak at the dedication of the national cemetery in Gettysburg on Nov. 19, 1863, he predicted, “The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here…” As amazing as it may seem to encounter a national figure who isn’t totally consumed with a sense of self-importance, Lincoln had every reason to believe what he said, at least about his contributions to the ceremony that day.
Although he was the sitting president, he was not there to deliver the Gettysburg address. That honor went to Edward Everett of Massachusetts, whose two-hour “oration,” as it was described in the event program, was widely praised. Judgment of Mr. Lincoln’s 10 sentences fell along partisan lines. One Chicago paper intoned, “The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat and dishwatery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States.” (And modern presidents think they have it bad.)
Actually, Mr. Lincoln was half right. The world did little note, nor long remember what Mr. Everett said, but the Lincoln address is rightly viewed as a defining element of American history.
A funny thing, this patriotism business. It comes and goes, waxes and wanes. Some days it’s all the rage, the next totally passÃ . It flooded the nation post 9/11 after ebbing to historical lows in the Vietnam era. Patriotic fervor frequently follows generational lines, and there’s no surprise there. The concepts of country, family, flag mean most to those who’ve lived through troubled times and worked the hardest for them.
We won’t preach here that Memorial Day means far more than hot dogs, parades and the unofficial start of the summer season. If anyone hasn’t gotten that message by now, they never will. Fortunately, it’s not an either/or proposition. Why not celebrate the return of nice weather and seasonal fun? Given the national mood of the past few years, that sounds like a pretty good idea. Why not also remember those who, as Mr. Lincoln said, “gave the last full measure of devotion”?
We think the 16th president would agree that in both cases, “it is altogether proper and fitting that we should do this.”