Are soldiers still buried in Gettysburg?

The unfulfilled promise of Gettysburg

Rule of the people by the people and for the people: 150 years after Abraham Lincoln's speech in Gettysburg, Americans are wondering what has become of this hope for a triumphant advance of democracy.

The President finished his speech so quickly that the photographers didn't have time to position their cameras. It took Abraham Lincoln less than three minutes to sum up in 272 words the essence of what the United States of America should be and what it has been waging a bloody civil war to for three years: “It is up to us to be committed to the great task that this nation, under God, experience a rebirth of freedom - and that the rule of the people by the people and for the people does not disappear from the earth. "

On Tuesday it will be 150 years since Abraham Lincoln inaugurated the Gettysburg Military Cemetery with this address. Around 3,500 dead are buried there, soldiers from both armies. Her remains lay in the devastated fields and pastures around this small town in Pennsylvania for months after Lincoln's forces weathered the heaviest artillery bombardment of the entire war on July 3 and repulsed the furious assault of around 13,000 Confederate troops. A slaughter with around 8,900 dead that shocked even hardened contemporaries: the column of horse-drawn carts with wounded southerners that left the next day was a good 40 kilometers long.


A nation, not just a union

When Lincoln climbed the stands in Gettysburg on November 19, 1863, the war had already turned in favor of the North, but it was to rage for another 17 months. Three quarters of a million soldiers were to die on America's battlefields before the commander in chief of the secessionists, General Robert E. Lee, surrendered on April 9, 1865.

Why all this killing? Four years earlier, Lincoln had tried military means to stop the secession of the southern slave-owning states. For him, at least for the first two years, the war was a struggle to preserve the Union. With a gap of 150 years, it is easy to forget how insecure and unstable the United States was back then: When Lincoln was born in 1809, the declaration of independence was less than four decades ago; four years later, British troops laid the White House and large parts of the capital Washington to rubble and ashes.

But with his emancipation declaration of September 22, 1862, in which he promised freedom to all enslaved blacks, if the Union should prevail in the civil war, Lincoln manifested the further development of his political thought. The purpose of this war was no longer just to keep the Union together. Rather, it was a war "for the civil equality of all people in America, including the slaves", as the political scientist Manfred Henningsen writes in "The Myth of America". "The people Lincoln spoke of were no longer a symbol that only applied to whites, but one that transcended ethnic and racial categories."

This idea emerges in the Gettysburg speech. Until then, Lincoln had always spoken of the "Union" and hardly of the "Nation". In his message to Congress of July 1861, he referred 40 times to the "Union" and only three times to the "Nation", states the historian Eric Foner of Columbia University in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book "The Fiery." Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery ”. In Gettysburg, however, he only spoke of the "nation". America was not just a more or less loose federation of individual states, but more: a place of freedom, where people can take their fate into their own hands on an equal footing. Lincoln did not speak of slavery or the blacks in Gettysburg - but everyone knew what he meant by the "rebirth of freedom". It wasn't long before Lincoln's 272 words were translated into numerous languages. In the Europe of the failed bourgeois revolutions of 1848, many liberals warmed their sore hearts with the good news from the New World. It was permanent: when France adopted a new constitution in 1946, the “gouvernement du peuple, pour le peuple et par le peuple” was included in Article 2.


America is as divided today as it was in 1860

Lincoln's appeal to his people to defend free democracy is as relevant after 150 years as it was on that November day. Under the leadership of the NSA, the secret service state is gradually constricting the civil liberties of the Americans. Never before have so many people sat in US prisons - and thanks to draconian minimum sentences, often for life for involvement in petty drug offenses.

In addition, the two political camps are deeply enemies. James Thurber of the American University in Washington has analyzed 1.8 million votes in the Senate and House of Representatives since the USA was founded. His findings: Last time Democrats and Republicans agreed so rarely with each other in 1860. “And we know what happened after 1860,” warns Thurber.

"How do we preserve the legacy of Lincoln's immortal speech on its 150th anniversary?" Asked Drew Gilpin Faust, historian and president of Harvard University, in the Washington Post on Saturday. "We are far from showing the world why our - or any - democracy should be the best hope for humanity."

Lincoln would have had an answer to that. It can already be found in the speech he gave on January 27, 1838 as a young politician in Springfield, Illinois. The Founding Fathers, he said, “were the pillars of the Temple of Liberty. Now that they have crumbled away, it is up to us to erect new pillars that have been hewn out of the solid quarry of sober reason. ”Or, as one would say today: democracy is always“ work in progress ”.

("Die Presse", print edition, November 18, 2013)