When President Abraham Lincoln opened his remarkably short Gettysburg Address with the phrase “four score and seven years ago” he was making a point of reference to time, an essential element that set the stage for the words he carefully crafted for a nation on the verge of breaking.
It was 87 years, Mr. Lincoln said, since the inception of the nation through the signing of the Declaration of Independence. You see, reminding a worried people about the historic moments that created our democratic experiment was necessary then, and it is necessary now.
Photos exist of Union soldiers dead at the battlefield in Gettysburg. Their bodies lying in positions facing up and down, twisted and strait. Reflections of people who dedicated their final moments attempting to unite a divided country.
And on this historic moment, the war-torn President was to speak at a ceremony dedicating the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, nearly five months after the Union had defeated the Confederacy at the Battle of Gettysburg.
Many died trying to protect the document that came to be four score and seven years before the document almost died itself.
Mr. Lincoln added, in his 272-word address, that our country was conceived in Liberty, and its purpose was to protect the idea that all men were created equal. For two minutes, he reminded those around him that the ideals for which this country was birthed were valuable enough to protect through the darkest moments of a Civil War.
The Union would succeed, and the country would remain one. Today, 242 years after our founding fathers penned the Declaration that made us free, we are far removed from the words that Mr. Lincoln echoed four score and seven years after the signing in Pennsylvania.
We are far, far removed. We don’t know the words of the Declaration. We can’t name the signers. It’s difficult for us to explain the Civil War, why we were fighting, who against whom, and for how long.
On Independence Day, we struggle to define what independence means, at least in the way that Mr. Lincoln described in his two-minute speech.
You turn on the television set, and the speeches delivered by today’s political leaders are either read word for word or filled with name-calling and finger-pointing.
We are not reminded about 1776, or the Battle of Gettysburg, or even about the Second World War. The one we are only a couple of generations removed from and for which many soldiers remain living among us.
In 1972, the movie musical 1776 was released on the big screen. The film was a dramatic depiction of the verbal battles between the signers of the Declaration, through many songs that including Is Anybody There? sung by John Adams.
Song lyrics included: Through all the gloom, through all the gloom I can see the rays of ravishing light and glory! Is anybody there? Does anybody care? Does anybody see what I see?
Mr. Adams was struggling with the heavy back and forth between the framers and the ideas they were trying to express. The wording had to be just right because the future, who we are today, relied on it.
But how do we act as a nation today, many score removed from the actions taken in Independence Hall, if we don’t even know the words signed by the 56 delegates to the Continental Congress?
I say we ask ourselves the same questions Mr. Adams asked as we challenge ourselves to define independence.
Is anybody there? Does anybody care?