America still divided, 150 years after Lincoln's Gettysburg Address

Lincoln's Gettysburg Address preached unity, but politicians are seen as more apart than ever

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 November, 2013, 8:58pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 November, 2013, 10:11am


The Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln's undying call for a "new birth of freedom" at the bloody turning point of the US Civil War, turned 150 years old, even as the union he fought to preserve quarrelled bitterly over the role of government.

US marks 150th anniversary of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address

Thousands of people crowded into the Soldiers' National Cemetery where Lincoln delivered the 272 words that became one of the most revered speeches in US history.

Not far from the simple headstones marking the graves of soldiers who fell in the battle of Gettysburg, tourists, civil war buffs, members of Congress, a supreme court justice and others listened to speeches, prayers and a re-enactment of Lincoln's restrained, eloquent remarks on an emancipated America.

The crowd burst into cheers when 21 new US citizens were sworn in by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

Embroiled in a fight to save his signature health reform, Barack Obama, the country's first African-American president, stayed away from the ceremony but a taped message from him was played to the new citizens.

Later, the White House released the text of an essay handwritten by Obama for the Lincoln Presidential Library, in which he reflected on the momentous nature of his political hero's speech.

"...Lincoln's words give us confidence that whatever trials await us, this nation and the freedom we cherish can, and shall, prevail," Obama wrote.

But the true star of the day was Lincoln. In his speech, which lasted a little more than two minutes, he succeeded in re-centring the American project on the values of freedom, equality and democracy, less than a year after the emancipation of the slaves.

He pledged 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".

Lincoln spoke on November 19, 1863, more than four months after the Union and Confederate armies clashed in Gettysburg, a market town in Pennsylvania.

Commentators then and since have hailed the speech a work of genius, but how much water it still holds with America's political elites is another matter.

Brian Hagen, a business management teacher at a Baltimore college, said he was troubled by the country's malaise.

"Like it was 150 years ago, there are two distinct sides at this point in the country, neither one of which seems to be willing to reach out to the other. Most people see this country as politically divided as it has ever been."