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Robert E. Dunn Jr.: Forsaking the Gettysburg Address

November 18. 2013 4:50PM

During the first weeks of October, the gates to the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg were locked with a rusty old chain and padlock such as you might expect to see on a dilapidated storage shed in the backyard. The shabbiness of that lock befitted its mission and its message.

The lock barred entry to America’s original “hallowed ground,” the place dedicated by Abraham Lincoln on Nov. 19, 1863, as the final resting place for more than 3,500 of the Union dead from the Battle of Gettysburg. One hundred and 50 years after President Lincoln proclaimed a national rededication to “government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” the rows of graves over which Lincoln spoke his immortal words were closed to the people by the same government that those men fought and died to save.

Whatever one’s opinion of the government shutdown and other actions taken by Congress or the Obama administration, it is hard not to see in that lock a strikingly apt symbol of the way that many in the national government evidently view the people of the United States. The sublime bond that existed between the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac and their commander-in-chief has been replaced, a century and a half later, by enormous levels of public mistrust directed at a new army on the Potomac, made up of numerous federal office-holders and appointees whose conduct has not exactly been suggestive of a deep respect for their fellow citizens.

We in New Hampshire can take a certain pride that the political culture of our state, grounded in the accountability that results from things like our large citizen Legislature and the two-year terms of all of our elected state officials, has ensured that those we call to public office are not likely to forget who it is that did the calling.

Republican or Democrat, public officials in New Hampshire may disagree on many matters of policy, but they characteristically carry out their duties in a way that shows that they consider themselves part of, and not above, the body politic. Let us hope that the candidates for national office who will be passing through our state over the next three years observe and heed these lessons.

As if to underscore the timeless nature of the Gettysburg Address, the place where the speakers’ platform was located on Nov. 19, 1863, is not marked today. But in recent years, through careful examination of photographs taken on the day of the ceremony, it has been possible for historians to identify the exact spot, which actually lies on land in Gettysburg’s own Evergreen Cemetery, just a few feet outside the National Cemetery boundaries. Since this piece of land is not under the jurisdiction of the federal government, it was outside the control of the officials who made the decision to close the National Cemetery.

This too is symbolic. It is surely fitting and proper that the actual spot where Lincoln spoke — just like the supreme sacrifice that his words honored — has remained, and always will remain, “far above our poor power to add or detract.”

May it ever be so.

Robert E. Dunn Jr. is an attorney in Concord.

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