Have you ever been to Gettysburg? I visited in 2016. I was astonished at how tiny the town was and how large the battlefield was. It’s in a beautiful part of the world – hilly, tree-covered. Its stunning forests, with leaves turning, and enormous grassy fields, harbored no indication of its bloody past. You find them only when you visit the memorials and graves. Today is the 157th anniversary of President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which was delivered at the dedication of the cemetery. His 271 words offer insight into what leading like Lincoln means.
The Gettysburg Address
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on 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 that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
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 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.
President Abraham Lincoln, November 19, 1863.
Never Forget What They Did Here
I cannot imagine what it must have been like to fight in the Civil War. Nor can I imagine leading the country during the Civil War and trying to unify it afterwards. This is a healing speech – President Lincoln first reminds us of our shared past. The noted sacrifices are not divided into Union or Confederate. He ends with a shared future “for the people” (that would be us, too). He asks that we not let those men die in vain.
How many men? Estimates run at 10,000 dead and another 30,000 wounded there, with bodies still being discovered as late as 1996 – over 100 years after the battle was fought.
Eighteen months later, President Lincoln delivered his last speech from the balcony of the White House. Lincoln spoke about giving Blacks the right to vote. In the crowd was John Wilkes Booth, who opposed giving Blacks that right. Booth told his friend that it was the last speech that President Lincoln would ever make (click here to learn more). Four days later, John Wilkes Booth shot President Lincoln.
The Importance of Being Good
Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius (121 AD) wrote, “Waste no more time talking about what a good man is. Be one.”
President Lincoln didn’t just talk about what is virtuous. He exemplified it. And he did it while shouldering the burden of a nation ripped apart. Click on the link above, and you’ll see a gaunt, exhausted man.
One leadership lesson I take away from the Gettysburg Address is there is talking and there is being. Lincoln purposely noted this distinction in the Gettysburg Address because one matters more than the other. There is talking about good and there is being good. Doing good. Being and doing good when we don’t feel like it. When we’re annoyed with colleagues, family or friends. Acting with virtue so that we help, not hurt, the situation.
Let our words and actions align with goodness in all its forms, no matter how difficult the challenge. If you get lost, you can always look to President Lincoln. He was wrong, by the way, about little being remembered of what was said there on that day. We do remember.
On this day, the 157th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, I honor President Lincoln as a good man and leader who served his country well. I am a grateful recipient.