Each Fourth of July, Americans are reminded that the freedom enjoyed today began with visionary hard-scramble colonists tossing off the yoke of the British Crown. This year, our editorial page is reflecting not only on those patriots of July 4, 1776, but on a consequential battle that occurred in early July almost a century later — and the nation-changing words that grew out of it.

The Battle of Gettysburg was fought in 1863 on the three days prior to July Fourth. Months later, President Abraham Lincoln dedicated a cemetery at Gettysburg with a short address — but one both poetic and momentous — that would culminate in what scholars describe as “the second founding” of America.

These are the words Lincoln spoke Nov. 19, 1863, at the Pennsylvania site where so many sacrificed to preserve the American experiment in democracy:

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

“Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

“But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate — we cannot consecrate — we cannot hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

The Battle of Gettysburg marked the turning point in the Civil War, a conflict that threatened to shred the fragile Union. Lincoln’s words five months later were even more consequential as he talked of a nation fractured by slavery and backsliding from its founding principles.

In the seven years following the speech — which Lincoln wrongly predicted no one would remember — the nation passed the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution. These three changes abolished slavery, defined citizenship, guaranteed due process and equal protection, and affirmed the right to vote regardless of race, color or servitude.

Indeed, those amendments fulfilled Lincoln’s Gettysburg promise of “a new birth of freedom” — a second founding. It’s difficult to fathom what our nation would look like today without these life-changing laws.

African-Americans didn’t receive full protection under federal law until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights of 1965, a century after Lincoln’s speech. Women didn’t get the right to vote until 1920. Each was a hard-fought victory for dignity and liberty.

Though freedom has been under stress many times and in many ways since then, our nation has emerged each time on a path toward a better nation.

The Gettysburg Address, emphasizing both the principles of human equality and the preservation of that Union created in 1776, hearkened back to the Declaration of Independence. Let it remind us today that the steadfast quest toward a more perfect union must never waver.

Editorial by The Dallas Morning News

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Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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