President Abraham Lincoln’s address at the dedication ceremony honoring those who perished during the battle at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, during the Civil War was a recognition not just of the price paid to preserve the Union during that battle, but of the fragility of the fundamental tenets underlying that union. Acknowledging the debt owed to the Founding Fathers, who possessed the wisdom and foresight necessary to establish what would become the greatest experiment in representative democracy in world history, President Lincoln was equally impressed with the sacrifices demanded of this nation in order to ensure that the principles outlined in the Declaration of Independence and in the U.S. Constitution would survive the tumultuous times in which he was living. It is with that in mind that one contemplates the closing thoughts offered by Lincoln:
“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.”
Presidents have professional speechwriters on their staffs, usually multiple speechwriters, whose job it is to articulate the incumbent president’s positions and feelings on any given topic. When written, and delivered, properly, these speeches can mark major turning points in the nation’s history, and can define the era in which the address in question is given. In the case of the Gettysburg Address, an exceptionally brief but enormously articulate expression of President Lincoln’s thoughts, delivered in the midst of the nation’s most fractured moment, and inarguably drafted by the president himself, the words Lincoln delivered on that November afternoon in 1863 resonated with subsequent generations in a way Lincoln could scarcely have imagined. Those brief comments eloquently expressed the president’s concerns for the future of the nation he was elected to lead, and illuminated the burden that rested on his shoulders as the graves of those who fell in that momentous battle sat before him.
The speech delivered by President Barack Obama on the thirteenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, delivered at the Pentagon in northern Virginia, site of one of the attacks that day, strives for the emotional impact of Lincoln’s address by focusing on the same themes: the sacrifices of those who have fallen in defense of the United States, and the confidence – a confidence that exceeded Lincoln’s, for obvious reasons -- that the nation will survive the traumatic events of 9/11. Addressing those sacrifices, President Obama stated:
“Over more than a decade of war, this 9/11 Generation has answered our country's call, and three months from now, our combat mission in Afghanistan will come to an end. Today, we honor all who have made the ultimate sacrifice these 13 years, more than 6,800 American patriots. And we give thanks to those who serve in harm's way to keep our country safe and meet the threats of our time. . .Thirteen years after small and hateful minds conspired to break us, America stands tall and America stands proud. And guided by the values that sustain us, we will only grow stronger. Generations from now, Americans will still fill our parks, our stadiums, our cities. Generations from now, Americans will still build towers that reach toward the heavens; still serve in embassies that stand for freedom around the world; still wear the uniform and give meaning to those words written two centuries ago: Land of the free.”
While the two speeches share themes of sacrifice and perseverance, however, President Obama’s speech commemorating the events of 9/11 focus on the perseverance of the American capacity to overcome obstacles, but gives short-shrift to the fundamental ideals upon which the nation was established. As the president said in his address to the nation,
“They [the terrorists] sought to do more than bring down buildings or murder our people. They sought to break our spirit and to prove to the world that their power to destroy was greater than our power to persevere and to build.”
As many Americans acknowledge, the ramifications of those terrorist attacks included fundamental reevaluations of the freedoms Americans enjoy courtesy of the efforts of the Founding Fathers, with concerns about domestic government surveillance activities representing a potential threat to the liberties we’ve tended to take for granted. President Obama appealed to the patriotism that most Americans hold dear (“America endures in the courage of the men and women who serve under our flag.”), but interestingly omits mention of the values for which the flag is an enduring symbol. The two speeches commemorate important dates in the nation’s history, but President Lincoln’s went to the core of the nation’s purpose in being; President Obama’s merely noted the nation’s continued existence.