Remarks in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

May 30, 1904

The place where we now are has won a double distinction. Here was fought one of the great battles of all time, and here was spoken one of the few speeches that shall last through the ages. As long as this Republic endures or its history is known, so long shall the memory of the battle of Gettysburg likewise endure and be known; and as long as the English tongue is understood, so long shall Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg speech thrill the hearts of mankind.

The Civil War was a great war for righteousness—a war waged for the noblest ideals, but waged also in thoroughgoing, practical fashion. It is one of the few wars which mean in their successful outcome, a lift toward better things for the nations of mankind. Some wars have meant the triumph of order over anarchy and licentiousness masquerading as liberty; over tyranny masquerading as order; but this victorious war of ours meant the triumph of both liberty and order, the triumph of orderly liberty, the bestowal of civil rights upon the freed slaves, and at the same time the stern insistence on the supremacy of the national law throughout the length and breadth of the land. Moreover, this was one of those rare contests in which it was to the immeasurable interest of the vanquished that they should lose, while at the same time the victors acquired the precious privilege of transmitting to those who came after them, as a heritage of honor forever, not only the memory of their own valiant deeds, but the memory of the deeds of those who, no less valiantly and with equal sincerity of purpose, fought against the stars in their courses. The war left to us all, as fellow countrymen, as brothers, the right to rejoice that the union has been restored in indestructible shape in a country where slavery no longer mocks the boast of freedom, and also the right to rejoice with exultant pride in the courage, self-sacrifice and the devotion alike of men who wore the blue and the men who wore the gray.

He is but a poor American who, looking at this field, does not feel within himself a deeper reverence for the nation's past and a higher purpose to make the nation's future rise level to her past. Here fought the chosen sons of the North and the South, the East and the West. The armies which on this field contended for the mastery were veteran armies, hardened by long campaigning and desperate fighting into such instruments of war as no other nation then possessed. The severity of the fighting is attested by the proportionate loss, a loss unrivaled in any battle of similar size since the close of the Napoleonic struggles; a loss which in certain regiments was from three-fourths to four-fifths of the men engaged. Every spot on this field has its own associations of soldierly duty nobly done, of supreme self-sacrifice freely rendered, The names of the chiefs who served in the two armies form a long honor roll, and the enlisted men were worthy of those who led them. Every acre of this ground has its own association. We see where the fight thundered through and around the village of Gettysburg, where the artillery formed on the ridges; where the cavalry fought; where the hills were attacked and defended, and where finally, the great charge surged up the slope, only to break on the summit in the bloody spray of gallant failure.

But the soldiers who won at Gettysburg, the soldiers who fought to a finish the Civil War and thereby made their countrymen forever their debtors, have left us far more even than the memories of the war itself, They fought for four years in order that on this continent those who came after them, their children and their children's children, might enjoy a lasting peace. They took arms not to destroy, but to save liberty; not to overthrow but to establish the supremacy of the law. The crisis which they faced was to determine whether or not this people was fit for self-government, and therefore fit for liberty. Freedom is not a gift which can be enjoyed save by those who show themselves worthy of it. In this world no privilege can be permanently appropriated by men who have not the power and the will successfully to assume the responsibility of using it aright.

In his recent admirable little volume on freedom and responsibility in democratic government, President Hadley of Yale has pointed out that the freedom which is worth anything is the freedom which means self-government and not anarchy. Freedom thus conceived is a constructive force, which enables any intelligent and good man to do better things than he could do without it; which is in its essence the substitution of self-restraint for external restraint—the substitution of a form of restraint which promotes progress for the form which retards it. This is the right view of freedom; but it can only be taken if there is a full recognition of the close connection between liberty and responsibility in every domain of human thought. It was essentially the view taken by Abraham Lincoln, and by all those who, when the Civil War broke out, realized that in a self-governing democracy those who desire to be considered fit to enjoy liberty must show that they know how to use it with moderation and justice in peace, and how to fight for it when it is jeopardized by malice, domestic or foreign.

The lessons they taught us are lessons as applicable in our every day lives now as in the times of great stress. The men who made this field forever memorable did so because they combined the power of fealty to a lofty ideal with the power of showing that fealty in hard, practical, common sense fashion. They stood for the life of effort, not the life of ease. They had that love of country, that love of justice, that love of their fellowmen, without which power and resourceful efficiency but make a man a danger to his fellows. Yet, in addition thereto, they like wise possessed the power and the efficiency, for otherwise their high purpose would have been barren of result. They knew each how to act for himself, and yet each how to act with his fellows. They learned, as all the generation of the Civil War learned, that rare indeed is the chance to do anything worth doing by one sudden and violent effort.

The men who believed that the Civil War would be ended in ninety days, the men who cried loudest "On to Richmond," if they had the right stuff in them, speedily learned their error; and the war was actually won by those who settled themselves steadfastly down to fight for three years, or for as much longer as the war would last, and who gradually grew to understand that the triumph would come, not by a single brilliant victory, but by a hundred painful and tedious campaigns. In the East and the West the columns advanced and recoiled, swayed from side to side and again advanced, along the coasts the black ships stood endlessly off and on before the hostile forts, generals and admirals emerged into light, each to face his crowded hour of success or failure, the men in front fought; the men behind supplied and pushed forward those in front, and the final victory was due to the deeds of all who played their parts well and manfully in the scores of battles, in the countless skirmishes, in march, in camp, in reserve as commissioned officers, or in the ranks—wherever and whenever duty called them. Just so it must be for us in civil life. We can make and keep this country worthy of the men who gave their lives to save it only on condition that the average man among us on the whole does his duty bravely, loyally and with common sense in whatever position life allots to him.

Exactly as in time of war courage is the cardinal virtue of the soldier, so in time of peace, honesty, using the word in its deepest and broadest significance, is the essential basic virtue, without which all else avails nothing.

National greatness is of slow growth. It cannot be forced and yet be stable and enduring, for it is based fundamentally upon national character, and national character is stamped deep in a people by the lives of many generations. The men who went into the army had to submit to discipline, had to submit to restraint through the government of the leaders they had chosen, as the price of winning. So we, the people, can preserve our liberty and our greatness in time of peace only by our selves exercising the virtues of honesty, of self-restraint, and of fair dealing between man and man. In all ages of the past men have seen countries lose their liberty, because their people could not restrain and order themselves, and therefore forfeited the right to what they were not able to use with wisdom.

It was because you men of the Civil War knew both how to use liberty temperately and how to defend it at need that we and our children and our children's children shall hold you in honor forever. Here, on Memorial Day, on this great battlefield, we commemorate not only the chiefs who actually won this battle; not only Meade and his lieu tenants, Hancock and Reynolds and Howard and Sickles, and the many others whose names flame in our annals, but also the chiefs who made the army of the Potomac what it was, and those who afterward led it in the campaigns which were crowned at Appomattox; and furthermore, those who made and used its sister armies--McClellan, with his extra ordinary genius for organization; Rosecrans, Buell, Thomas, the un yielding, the steadfast; and that great trio, Sherman, Sheridan, and last, and greatest of all, Grant himself, the silent soldier whose hammer-like blows finally beat down even the prowess of the men who fought against him. Above all, we meet here to pay homage to the officers and enlisted men who served and fought and died without having, as their chiefs had, as their chiefs had the chance to write their names on the tablets of fame; to the men who marched and fought in the ranks, who were buried in long trenches on the field of battle, who died in cots marked only by numbers in the hospitals; who, if they lived when the war was over, went back each to his task on the farm or in the town, to do his duty in peace as he had done it in war; to take up the threads of his working life where he had dropped them when the trumpets of the nation pealed to arms. To-day, all over this land, our people meet to pay reverent homage to the dead who died that the nation might live and we pay homage also to their comrades who are still with us.

All are at one now, the sons of those who wore the blue and the sons of those who wore the gray, and all can unite in paying respect to the memory of those who fell, each of them giving his life for his duty as he saw it; and all should be at one in learning from the deaths of these men how to live usefully while the times call for the performance of the countless necessary duties of everyday life, and how to hold ourselves ready to die nobly should the nation ever again demand of her sons the ultimate proof of loyalty.

Theodore Roosevelt, Remarks in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

Filed Under





Simple Search of Our Archives