What was the Civil War about? Lincoln's speech makes plain that it was a struggle for the Union, but not the Union alone. It was also a struggle for freedom and the notion of government by consent. Lincoln's speech sums up the great themes of our republican tradition: of liberty under law, of human dignity and human rights, of the heritage we received from our founding fathers. While the Southern rebels fought for their own particular culture and their own particular institutions -- above all the peculiar institution of chattel slavery -- the Union was fighting for its own existence and for the idea of free, republican government.
And key to this notion of republican government was an idea that formed the basis of Lincoln's political philosophy -- the idea of the equality of all men. Not the squalid egalitarianism of the ideologue, with its uniformity and dull conformity, with its equality of squalor. Instead, Lincoln at the beginning of his speech described the equality that he saw at the heart of the American experiment: the equality that was embraced by the Founders of our nation and expressed in the Declaration of Independence. While human beings differ in talent and ability and drive, we share a common humanity, a common nature that we all share, given to us in our creation by God. It was upon this ground that the struggle for the Union took place.
Here's the text of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon 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 it, as a final resting place for those who died here, that the nation might life. This we may, in all propriety do. 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 hallowed it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here; while it can never forget what they did here.
It is rather for us, the living, to be dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that, from these honored dead we take increased devotion to the cause for which they here, gave the last full measure of their devotion -- that we here highly resolve these dead shall not have died in vain; that the nation, 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.This text used to be a staple of American education. It should be restored to its rightful place in the civic education of our people.