If you are a history sort of person--and I think that most people of sound mind surely must be--then this tale may be familiar.
Seems that a number of years ago, a certain country was involved in a war. Now, having a long history of being a warlike people in that country, I suppose this is not especially remarkable.
This particular war (indeed, all wars) certainly could and should have been avoided, yet it began like most wars do. There was macho posturing on both sides by politicians who should have known better, and agitation for war by the young men who, frankly, wanted a glorious, heroic adventure.
These young men thought they were indestructible, invincible, and bulletproof...until the real bullets began flying. Then they died or were maimed forever by the tens of thousands. And the politicians hardened their hearts and their political positions and the war dragged on.
During this time period most people died at home and were soon buried nearby. But the scale of deaths in this war, and the lack of funeral practices such as we know today dictated that the dead soldiers, by the thousands, needed to be buried essentially where they fell. There was no practical alternative.
Now, the politicians of this country were not totally insensitive. Perhaps, knowing how royally they had screwed up, they wanted to memorialize the dead from a particularly grisly battle that had occurred a few months previous. The remains of dead had been disinterred from their hastily dug battlefield graves, collected, and reburied about a mile away in what would become a national cemetery.
The politicians wanted to say a few flowery words over the dead when then cemetery was dedicated; this, I suspect, was more to assuage their hearts than those of the dead. The chief politician was invited to speak, and he spoke for only a couple of minutes.
But in those couple of minutes, he ceased being a mere politician and became a human being. One who knew, finally, the vast toll that the war was costing the very soul of the nation. And so he said:
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.
November 19, 1863
If you are like me, you learned this speech in elementary school and have seen it countless times since. But I ask something of you right now as your eyes rest on this page: today, don't blow by it. Scroll back up and take 2 minutes to actually read it as though you were seeing it for the first time. Assume you will be tested on it, or whatever it takes, to focus on what Mr. Lincoln actually said...but in context.
See, the war had begun as a sectional war, but Mr. Lincoln was among the first, being President and all, to steer the rationale away from the vague principle of "state's rights" and hone in on the ultimate cause: slavery. No slavery, no American Civil War.
So, while the speech above does not mention human bondage, Mr. Lincoln somehow knew that"these honored dead" would in fact have died in vain...unless a higher order principle was at stake that would be decided by the war.
In other words, after a couple years of war, if the Confederate States of America and the United States of America had made peace, in which either the rebels would come back into the fold or split off to form a new country--but slavery still persisted--then those thousands of deaths were absolutely meaningless.
And you realize that Mr. Lincoln got it right.