A friend from University of the Pacific recommended an NYT OPED from Robert Hicks (who is music publisher, a writer and an active student of history and historic preservation) on why the Civil War still matters. It is well worth the read. He reminds us that at the 50th Anniversary of Gettysburg, Black veterans were segregated out of the celebrations. Even at the Centennial in 1963, we had not passed the Civil Rights Act (1965). Hicks and my friend are from the South. Hicks argues two points. First, as a result of both legal and societal changes, we've made a lot of genuine progress on one of the major causes of the Civil War. While it is controversial, the Shelby County v Holder decision is a marker on how far we have traveled in this country on the issue of race. Rather than gutting the Voting Rights Act (as some on the left have argued) the decision puts the issues of voting rights on all of us rather than requiring a second class status for those areas in the South.
He also argues that the importance of Gettysburg is more visible not for the descendants of the sides in the Civil War but for people who look to this country and take to heart Lincoln's words during the dedication of the Memorial - "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."
I would add a slightly different conclusion. While I believe we have made substantial progress on matters of race, I am not as sanguine that we have been as attentive to the "of the people, for the people, by the people" part of Lincoln's remarks. There is significantly less appreciation of the perils raised by Madison in Federalist #51, which was clearly in the mind of Lincoln for that speech.
Both sides in the Civil War were careless in thinking about the appropriate role of government. Lincoln is rightly criticized for being a bit cavalier with civil liberties during the war. I have often wondered why more historians have not written more about the excesses that the Confederates took with civil liberties on issues like confiscation of property. But after the war the government got back to a more moderated stance. Both sides in the current political divide are a bit too ready to ignore the "of, by and for" part of Lincoln's speech. In my mind we may have made real progress on race and a lot less on keeping attention to the notion of limited government.
I am always struck with the compactness of Lincoln's remarks that on that November day. So I have reprinted it below - a great meditation for the Fourth.
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.