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Op-Ed: Lincoln's Gettysburg message is a timeless call for unity

Published November 16, 2013 1:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Tuesday is the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's iconic speech given at the dedication of the national cemetery in Gettysburg, Penn. President Lincoln's message was direct: The founding of the United States 87 years earlier was an experiment by the people based on the guiding and uniting principles of liberty and equality for all.

Unspoken was the reality of that time that the liberty and equality of all people remained only an aspiration, a promise yet to be fulfilled. The fragile union of states was sharply divided, and its ability to survive was in serious doubt. Brave and good men on both sides fought courageously. Many lost their lives to advance their different and strongly held views for what their societies should be.

In honor of those who fought and lost their lives at Gettysburg, Lincoln called upon Americans to take up the "unfinished work" and firmly resolve to give the nation a new birth of freedom, that those "honored dead shall not have died in vain."

What is the "unfinished work" Lincoln had in mind? Some may have thought it meant a speedy end to the Civil War, the preservation of the Union or the healing of a divided and torn nation. Others proposed it meant the eradication of slavery. Many since have interpreted it to mean elimination of any form of inequality.

The unfinished work — which will never be finished so long as this nation stands — is the challenge of coming together as a people for the common good.

This work is never finished because each passing generation faces a world of evolving demographic, political, social, economic and environmental issues. Each generation must prove to itself that liberty, equality and government by the voice of the people are enduring principles that serve the best interests of the people and promote stability, prosperity and happiness.

And each generation must learn that the attitude and behavior we each exhibit in our treatment of each other goes a long way in influencing how people feel about our government and country.

These are not abstract ideas or platitudes. They are principles that have direct application to current issues Utahns face. Think about some important issues that have recently arisen: Immigration reform where Utah business, law enforcement and faith-based leaders have advanced an innovative proposal known as the Utah Compact; nondiscrimination in employment and housing ordinances adopted by a number of Utah cities and counties; the Count My Vote initiative now under way that challenges the procedure by which the voice of the people is best exercised to elect candidates in the primary voting process.

These issues challenge us, both individually and collectively, to think deeply about our personal and societal views concerning the meaning of human equality, dignity and opportunity; how those views should translate into social policy and law; and the fairness of the method by which the people have a say in electing our leaders. These are but a few examples that illustrate the continuing relevance of the guiding and uniting principles articulated by Abraham Lincoln.

As we pause Tuesday to remember the words of the Gettysburg Address, hopefully we will recognize that our system of government affords us the right and freedom to make our own decisions without coercion, to speak and assemble freely without fear of reprisal, to worship according to the dictates of our individual consciences, and to retain the rewards of our own labor and ingenuity.

Our free nation will only be perpetuated if we look beyond personal and factional interests that divide us and choose to work together to advance the common good.

John A. Adams is managing director of Ray Quinney & Nebeker and co-founder of GettyReady, a Utah nonprofit commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address.