Two days before delivering his Gettysburg Address, Lincoln signed into law the bill authorizing the construction of the Union Pacific Railroad. The next day, he left for the cemetery dedication, traveling by rail the 120 miles between Washington, D.C., and Gettysburg. His decision to make the trip at all, and to do it a day in advance, requiring an overnight stay in Gettysburg, illustrated Lincoln’s earnest desire to reunite the war-torn nation, in the same manner as the transcontinental railroad bill.
Lincoln’s words at Gettysburg transcended both time and place. They remain the quintessential Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day address as much for the things Lincoln left out as for what he included.
Lincoln made no mention of North and South. To him, the men who fought at Little Round Top, the Devil’s Den, the Peach Orchard, the Wheatfield or Cemetery Ridge were all Americans, regardless of where they came from or which political views they held.
He made no mention of Gettysburg at all, simply a general reference to the fact that “we are met on a great battlefield of that war.”
He made no reference to slavery — that divisive issue that split the nation, and continued to divide it almost a year after he issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863.
He made no reference at all to the U.S. Constitution — a document that still protected slavery as private property, prior to the passage of the 13th amendment.
Instead, Lincoln drew his inspiration from the Declaration of Independence — a document that contained the revolutionary statement, “all men are created equal.” In a larger sense, Lincoln argued that America was undergoing its second revolution or “new birth of freedom,” as he described it. The American men who died at Gettysburg and others like it all over the world were the catalyst for the spread of the democratic ideal of human equality. In order for their sacrifices not to have been in vain, it was up to the American people, both then and now, to rededicate themselves to the same principles upon which the nation had been founded, and for which these men had fought.