A collection of Gettysburg royalty – Park Superintendent Steve Sims, Gettysburg College President Robert Iuliano, Gettysburg Foundation President Wayne Motts, Lincoln Fellowship President The Reverend Steve Herr, and Gettysburg Forum chair Harold Holzer – together with superstar historians John Meacham and Dr. Allen Guelzo, gathered in the National Cemetery today to celebrate the 159th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
The annual Dedication Day ceremony is one of Gettysburg’s most durable traditions, dating back to 1938. Past speakers have included presidents (Truman and Eisenhower), Supreme Court justices (Scalia and O’Connor), authors (Carl Sandberg, Shelby Foote, Gary Gallagher), and TV and film personalities (Ken Burns, Stephen Spielberg, LeVar Burton).
The ceremony began with a wreath laying at the Soldiers National Monument and then continued at the brick speaker’s stand known as the Rostrum in the National Cemetery where a crowd of several hundred people had gathered.
In brief remarks, Sims commented that “national cemeteries have a protected atmosphere of peace, calm, and reflection. We ensure the dignity of the final resting place of those who gave their lives for their country.”
“Each soldier who died here has a story and we should not ever forget those stories. . . . Their sacrifice had meaning and continues to have meaning,” said Motts.
Iuliano noted with pride that the Gettysburg College community has been involved since the first day of the battle. “On July 1, 1863, our college stood in the midst of two great battles. And after the battle, our alumnus, David Wills invited the president to come make “a few appropriate remarks” and “our students and faculty walked to the square and walked with the president for the ceremony.”
In his featured speech, Guelzo extolled the speech and pointed to its present day relevance. “In 272 terse and simple words, he laid out the past (‘four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth …’), present (‘now we are engaged in a great civil war …’), and future (“we here highly resolve …’), and it was a sensation from the beginning.”
Guelzo went on to note that Lincoln also “laid out three fundamental elements of a democracy: consent (‘government of the people’), . . . people’s voice in the affairs of the nation (‘by the people’), . . . and a government serves the interests of the people (‘for the people’). . . . Without these three distinctives, you have no democracy.”
“Lincoln’s address was a huge consecrated essay on why the American democracy had been founded, why it was worth sacrificing to preserve, and what we could anticipate if it emerged whole from the conflict. It would be a ‘new birth of freedom,’” said Guelzo.
“But we today are not sure that we are equal to the task of preserving democracy. . . . We here hold the power and bear the responsibility . . . Lincoln reminds us that it is we who must dedicate ourselves, we who must highly resolve, we who must decide if a democracy can survive the forces that despise it,” he said.
In brief remarks before he recited the Gettysburg Address, Meacham observed that “Lincoln kept the American experiment in self-government alive when all seemed lost. . . . Ordinary people, black and white, sacrificed to preserve the Union. . . . Many of those are buried here. We are here to commemorate their deeds. We pray for the repose of their souls and the strength to be worthy of their sacrifices and to be worthy stewards as well of Lincoln’s ultimate vision of the nation that the Declaration of Independence must be paramount and that democracy must survive and thrive. . . . Abraham Lincoln and the honored dead of this place have shown us the way . . . making that is the unlimitable work of our times.”
An moving and traditional part of the celebration was the naturalization ceremony for 16 brand new US citizens (symbolizing Lincoln’s position as the 16th president). The new citizens were a literal United Nations, coming from Bhutan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cameroon, China, Mexico, Moldova, Peru, Philippines, and Vietnam.
After the simple ceremony, administration of the oath, a recorded greeting from President Biden, and congratulatory remarks by Shelly Lowe, a proud Navajo and Chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, the several hundred audience members rose together and gave an enthusiastic round of applause to greet their newest fellow Americans.
Leon Reed, freelance reporter, is a former US Senate staff member, defense consultant, and history teacher. He is a seven year resident of Gettysburg, where he writes military history and explores the park and the Adams County countryside. He is the publisher at Little Falls Books, chaired the Adams County 2020 Census Complete Count Committee and is on the board of SCCAP and the local Habitat for Humanity chapter. He and his wife, Lois, have 3 children, 3 cats, and 5 grandchildren.