Obama’s Tucson speech was his Gettysburg Address

by Russell's Rants

Originally published January 17, 2011

At the mid-way point in the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln gave his great address to dedicate the Soldiers’ National Cemetery on the site where so many had died during the decisive battle at Gettysburg. In making his memorial speech in Tucson to honor those who were injured or killed last week, President Obama used many of the words and themes of the Gettysburg Address, along with those of Lincoln’s other speech carved into the walls of his Memorial, his Second Inaugural Address.


In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln began, “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.” Similarly Obama began, “There is nothing I can say that will fill the sudden hole torn in your hearts. But know this: The hopes of a nation are here tonight.”

Obama directly borrowed some of Lincoln’s language in his memorial speech. Obama talked about our “sharply polarized” discourse and admonished us to “pause for a moment and make sure that we’re talking with each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.” Obama instructed us to “sharpen our instincts for empathy and remind ourselves of all the ways that our hope and dreams are bound together.” In his Second Inaugural, Lincoln’s instructed the nation as follows:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds. . . [and] do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves. . . .

Lincoln observed that the two parties engaging in the Civil War, both North and South, “read the same Bible and pray to the same God.” Obama similarly observed that those who were harmed or killed “are part of our family, the American family 300 million strong. We may not have known them personally, but surely see ourselves in them.”

The subject of Lincoln’s addresses, of course, was the Civil War: “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.” Whereas for Obama, it is the scourge of incivility that has blanketed our airwaves:

. . . [I]f, as has been discussed in recent days, their death helps usher in more civility in our public discourse, let us remember it not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy – it did not – but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation in a way that would them proud.

The emotional arc of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was to dedicate the war memorial in honor of goal for which the soldiers had died there: “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. . . .” Obama’s emotion arc in his speech was similarly dedicated to those who perished. “If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate – as it should – let’s make sure it’s worthy of those we have lost. Let’s make sure it’s not on the usual plane of politics and point-scoring and pettiness that drifts away in the next news cycle.”

Obama then made the plea for civility extremely personal:

Imagine — imagine for a moment, here was a young girl who was just becoming aware of our democracy; just beginning to understand the obligations of citizenship; just starting to glimpse the fact that some day she, too, might play a part in shaping her nation’s future. She had been elected to her student council. She saw public service as something exciting and hopeful. She was off to meet her congresswoman, someone she was sure was good and important and might be a role model. She saw all this through the eyes of a child, undimmed by the cynicism or vitriol that we adults all too often just take for granted.

I want to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it. I want America to be as good as she imagined it. All of us — we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations.

President Obama observed that Congresswoman Giffords, her staff and many of her constituents were gathered outside a supermarket to exercise their right to peaceful assembly and free speech, thus fulfillng a central tenent of representative democracy. He further characterized the gathering — which Ms. Giffords called “Congress on Your Corner” — as “just an updated version of government of and by and for the people.” In so doing, he made explicit the connection to the Lincoln’s final dedication in the Gettysburg Address: “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 was only in retrospect at the end of war that the Battle of Gettysburg and Lincoln’s Address there were seen as a turning point in the Civil War. So, too, can we hope for President Obama’s speech at Tucson with respect to the poisonous partisan discourse through which we have been living of late.