And there is something that none of them did. On a field that claimed more than 50,000 casualties, a turning point in a war that took three quarters of a million American lives, none made themselves the subject of their speeches. They did not air grievances, or offer complaints, although each had much to complain about. They did not blame others for the problems they faced, or threaten their critics. And they did not put themselves forward as the solution to the problems facing the nation. In a town consecrated by the sacrifice of those who had given the last full measure, they asked Americans to dedicate themselves to causes greater than any one individual’s needs, and to work towards ends that might only be achieved collectively.
And that humility manifested itself in another way, too. Wilson asked whether America “has it yet squared itself with its own great standards set up at its birth”; he asked Americans not to make the country great again, but to make it better than it had ever been. Hoover warned of the struggle “of truth and honesty against demagoguery and misleading,” and FDR condemned “those who seek to stir up political animosity or to build political advantage by the distortion of facts.” They stood at Gettysburg, and warned of the fragility of the democratic experiment, urging Americans to protect it.
Trump came to Gettysburg, and attacked the integrity of American democracy.
He began by condemning division. “It is my hope,” he said, “that we can look at [Lincoln’s] example to heal the divisions we are living through right now.” He did not expand the thought; instead, he quickly turned to expanding those divisions. He told his audience that their institutions could not be trusted, that the system is rigged against him, and that he alone can fix it. He asked for no sacrifices, called for no collective effort.
Lincoln himself, by contrast, in his second inaugural, spoke of the irony of a Civil War in which “both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.” He understood the dangers of self-righteousness, and urged Americans to understand the perspectives of others, even as he held fast to his own moral principles.
Lincoln, though, did not succeed in healing America’s divisions. He was felled by a white supremacist’s bullet, killed by a man convinced that American democracy had devolved into tyranny. The hatred and resentment that led to Civil War felled the president whose example would ultimately help bind the nation back together.
Today, the Party of Lincoln is led by a man who returned to Gettysburg and attacked the faith that he had fostered, as if determined to validate the warnings of his successors. But Trump also called on Americans to “embrace the great faith and optimism” of the American character. In Gettysburg, those two messages of his campaign found themselves in conflict.
But for 150 years, Americans have found that a simple choice. They have repeatedly rejected demagoguery, and chosen instead to rededicate themselves to the democratic experiment—to prove that a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, can still endure.