On Nov. 19, 1863, Abraham Lincoln delivered an address at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, dedicating a cemetery to honor American lives lost there defining the great proposition “that all men are created equal.” At the conclusion of his address he said, “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.”
Without naming any one person or singular action of valor, Lincoln dignified the event highlighting three qualities of life, three aspirations for all American lives. These qualities begin with their commitment to a cause greater than themselves, and that commitment lives on. Their compassion for their families, the future of their country and freedom lives on. Their character to stand in the face of great adversity, when the ultimate in personal sacrifice was on the line, lives on to inspire us in our own day.
In the more recent days of the past century, role models like Gail “Hal” Halvorsen (The Berlin Airlift Candy Bomber) impacted the lives of hundreds of needy children in Berlin, cut off politically, physically and emotionally in war-torn Berlin, and inspired a nation to become involved in this humanitarian effort of goodwill.
Another inspiring figure from the turbulent 1960s was Neil Armstrong, astronaut and first man to step on the moon’s surface. He, as commander of Apollo 11, with Mike Collins and “Buzz” Aldrin, designed the patch that symbolized their historic voyage. The patch did not have any crew names on it, because it was done for “all mankind.” The eagle holding an olive branch rather than arrows, symbolized the purpose of the mission at the height of the Cold War, stating that we came “in peace.” The patch was reflective of the character of Armstrong, selfless, humble and dignified.
These people’s spirit, sacrifice and service must be remembered, honored, protected and preserved for ours as well as future generations of Americans. Yet today, the government “of the people, by the people and for the people” has failed the people through its partial shutdown compromising — in fact, jeopardizing — our American heritage despite the thousands of people (in the Department of the Interior and other agencies) who are committed to protect and preserve it.
In speaking of our American spirit, author David McCullough stated, “All these buildings, these American places, all are tangible, real, evocative expressions of those distant times and extraordinary people.” He goes on to say, “These people are here, with us, in a way they would not be if those structures were gone.” Those extraordinary people who framed our history in those buildings and places are not yet gone, however, they are closed.
Jeffrey Small of Prospect is a history and social studies teacher.