America turned 154 years old today.
There were few celebrations. There were few parades or fireworks. There was no national holiday. But America, the version we live in now, was born 154 years ago today in a field in southern Pennsylvania.
One’s feelings about what I just wrote, like most things in America, likely depend on who you are. And on which side of American history those that looked like you have fallen.
It breaks up a bit of the tight American narrative. We should be willing to that do from time to time if too many of us get too interested in telling others what the meaning of America is. And what she stands for. As if there could ever be a singular answer to either of those questions.
In reality, we don’t really celebrate the birth of America. We celebrate the birth of the American intention instead. It’s a bit like celebrating the day you told your wife you wanted to have children instead of the day you were burdened, for real, with the responsibility of rearing one.
When Jefferson, Adams and Franklin produced the draft of the Declaration of Independence, it mattered. It was the documentation of an intention.
A promise we couldn’t pay off.
We intended to declare that all were equal. And we intended to insist that a government must serve the interests of those equal people or risk being declared illegitimate.
We just didn’t get around to doing it, in an intentional way, until Lincoln stood on a field where thousands of dead American boys lay four months earlier and insisted that we never forget what was won there.
The victory was the moral ratification of the counter to the idea at the center of the Confederacy, articulated coolly by Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephen’s:
“Those ideas (the Constitution of the United States), however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the idea of a Government built upon it—when the “storm came and the wind blew, it fell.”
The storm had come. It had come to Gettysburg. But the house didn’t fall. Lincoln’s words were the acknowledgement that we meant what we said, finally. And we were here to make good on a promise four score and seven years old.
Over 600,000 American souls were lost to that war. It was a painful, costly birth. But the birth of a nation, no less.
It would be another 40 years before Teddy Roosevelt’s Republican progressive movement busted us out of the clientelism and patrimony of 19th Century American government. And then another 30 before FDR’s New Deal declared that government would be put to use for the people, by the people. And then 30 more before we rid ourselves of the scourge of state sanctioned apartheid.
It took us a hundred years of painful growth into the modern liberal democracy we are today.
A government for the people, by the people, born this day in Gettysburg, 155 years ago.
“But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.
The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.
It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, 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.”
It took us a long time to build this thing.
There’s no going back to the way it was before. It’s time for the silent and sane among us to find our voice.