As fate would have it, the Battle of Gettysburg took place in the three days before the nation's birthday in 1863. This year, on the 150th anniversary of the battle -- fittingly remembered with a great flourish the last few days -- it is hard to separate the significance of Gettysburg from the meaning of the Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776.
Historians do not generally believe that Gettysburg was hugely decisive in military terms. It was the biggest battle in North America and it stopped Gen. Robert E. Lee's invasion of the North, but the war continued for two years. While this titanic clash of armies had historic consequences, it was left to President Abraham Lincoln to make moral sense of what had occurred.
He did it in November 1863 in a short speech dedicating a cemetery for Gettysburg's fallen, and his eloquence rings down the ages. Earlier that year he had signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which gave the conflict a loftier purpose beyond saving the union.
Now he embellished that idea in a few immortal words, starting with a reminder that the Founding Fathers had "brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." It is that we celebrate today.
Having drawn the direct link between Gettysburg and the Revolution, Lincoln went on to describe the question facing the nation in the midst of a great Civil War -- "whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure."
His soaring response answered the question with a noble and uplifting appeal -- "... 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."
While Americans today are not met on a great battlefield, the ambiguous domestic peace they live in seems like it. Ours is a deeply divided age. Its political fissures have given rise to groups that disdain government and would rather the government achieve nothing than reach the sort of compromises that the Founding Fathers assumed would have to be made.
We are far from a respectable recognition of a government of the people, by the people, for the people -- a concept that 150 years ago was good enough for brave men to die for. We need to regain that sense. To be sure, government hasn't lately earned the people's trust, but that only means that all of us -- America's leaders and its people -- have work to do and a debt to pay to keep faith with a glorious past.
It happens that this year the link between the Declaration of Independence, Gettysburg and our own time has been made unusually vivid by this sesquicentennial anniversary. Today Lincoln's words speak to us directly.