At the site of the pivotal battle of the Civil War, 150 years ago this afternoon, President Abraham Lincoln spoke of the “unfinished work” in the fight for equality.
He spoke of a government of the people, by the people and for the people.
That short speech, the Gettysburg Address, became one of the defining speeches in this country’s history.
That unfinished work remains part of our national identity for civil rights, gender equality, wealth equality, access to education, health care and voting rights, according to Jared Peatman, a 1998 Skowhegan Area High School graduate and Lincoln scholar whose new book “The Long Shadow of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address” was released this month.
“I hope we go beyond just the recitation of the speech and actually think about the words and ask ourselves that question — have we fully lived up to the notion that Lincoln set forth in 1863?” said Peatman, who grew up in Canaan. “Assuming that we come to the conclusion that we probably haven’t, let’s think about what we can do to try to live up to that notion in the balance of our lives. I think it’s important we ask ourselves — does everybody in this country have equality of opportunity and if not, what can we do to try to achieve that.”
Peatman, 33, was a panel member for the three-day Lincoln Forum in Gettysburg, which ended Monday and featured activities and projects about Lincoln, the Civil War and the legacy of the address. Peatman said there were about 300 people in attendance for this year’s Lincoln Forum, which, now in its 20th year, is an assembly of people who share an interest in the life and times of Lincoln and the Civil War era.
Today he will participate in more forums to discuss the speech and what has been accomplished in terms of equality and democracy, both here and in other countries, he said.
There also will be book signings today and an appearance on a local ABC television affiliate.
The opening words of the speech, “Four score and seven years ago …” refers to the signing of the Declaration of Independence 87 years earlier as the nation’s founding philosophy. Peatman said Lincoln was trying to draw Americans of the 1860s away the language of the Constitution, which the president saw as a document that promoted and supported slavery.
“He’s trying to reorient the nation around that founding principle that all men are created equal,” he said. “He’s trying to move away from the Constitution, which in 11 places mentions slavery — it never says the word — but it does say to strengthen, protect and preserve slavery.”
In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln is asking Americans to establish the Declaration of Independence as the nation’s founding moment with the words “all men are created equal,” he said.
Peatman said Lincoln believed that peace without emancipation would result in only a temporary halt to civil unrest in the country. The president believed that if United States did not abolish slavery, there be more war in the next 10 years.
“Lincoln is someone who believed in equality of opportunity, that everybody should have a fair and equal chance,” he said. “And that was the principle that he was really dedicating the nation to in 1863.”
Peatman, the director of curriculum at the Lincoln Leadership Institute in Gettysburg, a school that creates leadership development events for government and corporate groups using history, such as the Battle of Gettysburg, as metaphor to teach market strategies and communication and negotiation skills.
He began studying the Civil War and taking family trips to Gettysburg when he was 12. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Gettysburg College, a master’s from Virginia Tech, and Ph.D. from Texas A&M University.
In 2009 he was named the most promising young Abraham Lincoln scholar in the country by the Organization of American Historians and in 2012 received the Hay-Nicolay prize given annually by the Abraham Lincoln Institute for the best dissertation that year on Abraham Lincoln.
His book examines how Lincoln’s address — it’s fewer than 300 words — has been received since it was delivered four and a half months after Union forces defeated the Confederacy on the Pennsylvania battlefield.
“There have been a lot of books on the Gettysburg Address, but they’ve all looked at more the ideas that went into the speech, the crafting of the speech, but nobody’s ever looked at the long range responses to the speech before,” he said.
He said the vision that Lincoln set forth in 1863 was that a democracy could only persist by placing equality at its core, a notion that remains as true today as it was then, both here and in other countries.
He said wording in the current French Constitution, adopted in 1958, is based directly from Lincoln’s words in the Gettysburg Address
“If you look at the bottom of the first page of that document it says in French: ‘The principle of this document is a government du peuple, par le peuple et pour le peuple,’ Lincoln’s own words,” Peatman said.
He said the constitution of the Republic of China also was written with Lincoln’s words in mind.
“So literally you have two foreign governments that have their ruling principle based on the Gettysburg address,” he said.
While still a new face in Maine history circles, Peatman’s study of equality and democracy found in the Gettysburg Address hits home. Elizabeth Leonard, head of the history department at Colby College in Waterville, said Peatman’s premise is a good one.
“The speech is immensely inspiring and is something we can use as a touch stone for our hopes for the future, for this country in terms of its devotion to equality,” Leonard said Monday. “If you are talking about Lincoln’s vision, we’ve probably achieved a great deal of what he imagined was possible, but in his most idealistic moments, he would have wanted us to go further than we’ve gone so far.”
Peatman said there still is work to be done in linking equality and democracy in the United States.
“I think in Lincoln’s time what he is most talking about is racial equality,” Peatman said. “But if we sort of broaden it a little bit, there certainly are any certain number of inequalities still in the country, so I think Lincoln’s message, Lincoln’s hope, Lincoln’s vision, Lincoln’s counsel still has merit for us today and still is something we should strive to actually achieve.”