restricted access November 2: Our Fathers (L. L.)

From: November

Indiana University Press colophon
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[ ∞Ω ] n o v e m b e r 2 Our Fathers (L. L.) It is not so much sin that plunges us into disaster, as rather despair. —Saint Chrysostom All Souls’ Day—a day for commemorating the unknown men, women, and children who died in the faith. On November 2, 1863, President Lincoln received a letter from Judge David Wills of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, chairman of the committee for the establishment of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. Though the address for the occasion would be delivered by the distinguished orator Edward Everett, Wills and the committee wished the president to have a symbolic role in the ceremony: ‘‘It is the desire that, after the oration, you, as Chief Executive of the nation, formally set apart these grounds to their sacred use by a few appropriate remarks.’’ But Abraham Lincoln saw his role di√erently. Gettysburg would be the place to tell the people why. Lincoln had never been in any doubt as to the reason; he did not have to search his imagination or measure public opinion. He had said it years ago: the American experiment in government by the people was ‘‘the last, best hope of earth.’’ This time, he must say it better than he ever had before. He must say it plainly; he must say it memorably. Over the next n o v e m b e r 2 [ ≤≠ ] seventeen days, Lincoln called in the best speechwriter, the greatest literary artist, and the most profound political theorist: he did it by ushering everyone out and closing the door. Judge Wills had signaled Lincoln that some people thought of him as a bu√oon. Some were afraid the yarn-telling president from the prairies would embarrass the United States from this solemn platform. The remarks —not speech—should be few and appropriate. Well, that might be an insult, and it might sting, but what the president was dealing with was too vast for private feelings. Old Wills was probably right anyhow, more than he knew. If the speech is short it will be remembered. And it must be appropriate , not merely to the solemnity of the occasion, but to the great work we are in. Yes, in a larger sense these words must be altogether fitting and proper. What the soldiers did there at Gettysburg must somehow be made into what the president said, so that it would remain something we remember , and therefore become something we do. The vehicle for this multiple transformation must be hope. That hope must be more than comfort for people who are su√ering, for mothers and wives who are grieving. Like the expectation behind the religion Abraham Lincoln grew up with, that hope transfers deed to deed. In saying the speech, Lincoln must make word and hope and deed one—which is to say, he must make them faith. He must define the American faith. So the message, on this solemn occasion, this dark November day, must be one of hope. Not false hope, not something manufactured. Real hope must be based on something real. As Juergen Moltmann wrote in the 1960s, hope ‘‘can overstep the bounds of life, with their closed wall of su√ering, guilt, and death, only at the point where they have in actual fact been broken through.’’ So where, in actual fact, have the boundaries of tyranny been broken through? By whom? Is it humanly possible, as the modern world believed, at all? If not, does the postmodern awareness we have gained at the cost of ghastly wars convince us, with Camus, that we can only ‘‘think clearly, and hope no more’’? Sometimes Americans might forget to care whether representative democracy lives or dies; but there is one tyranny most of us do care about: Death. Our own. A little hope would be a good thing in this matter. On an anniversary of the letter Abraham Lincoln received from the judge, in a larger sense a similar letter was sent to my father. On a November 2, he died. * * * o u r f at h e r s ( l . l . ) [ ≤∞ ] I also had an appointment with a cemetery on this second of November. I had made arrangements to meet the superintendent of Evergreen Cemetery , across the fence from the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, this morning. Evergreen is the older burial ground in Gettysburg, the one that had been there during the battle. The famous Cemetery Ridge and Cemetery Hill were named for it. There, the defeated but unvanquished...


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