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Eight Words & Gettysburg Ago

by Gary Gordon
July 2, 2001

We the People.

Those three words signify the American Revolution, a period, war and effort that rate low on the interest level of bookstores and Hollywood.


Apparently redefining a civilization, a system of government, taking on a monarch as an underdog against overwhelming odds doesn’t register even point 1 on the Richter scale of drama.

You can, if you want, count movies and TV shows about our revolution on two hands. Add maybe a toe or two. And try to find books about it at regular, ordinary, everyday bookstores.

The American Revolution doesn’t stack up to the Civil War, World War II, or Vietnam. By the looks of things, it doesn’t even stack up to the Gulf War. It does beat movies and publications about our war against Grenada, but that war got a Clint Eastwood movie.

I chalk it up to cynicism and disinterest in the past. The American Revolution was an idealistic endeavor which doesn’t fit handily through our contemporary filters. Yes, we say, they rebelled against England and created a representative government with a Declaration of Independence, a Constitution and a Bill of Rights, but what were their real motives?

As for disinterest in the past, we are interested in extravagant theories of how aliens built the pyramids and provided the technology to transport and erect the statues on Easter Island. If only there was proof aliens inspired the Revolution.

Ah well.

About 87 years after the Revolution a battle occurred between the forces of a united country against the forces fighting to preserve states’ rights for the purposes of preserving slavery. At Gettysburg. It was the turning point of the war.

The good guys won.

But it was close. If Gen. Heth had listened to Gen. Lee and taken the high ground, if Lee had listened to Gen. Longstreet and allowed a flanking maneuver, if Col. Joshua Chamberlain hadn’t commanded the 20th Maine, it might’ve gone another way.

Slavery, instead of segregation, would have prevailed. The path to integration and equal rights would have been blocked even longer than it was.

Shortly after that battle, President Lincoln gave a short speech, which is not to say a Bush-like speech. It was coherent, eloquent, did not contain syntax errors or delve into psycho-babble about looking into someone else’s soul.

With that speech he reaffirmed the fundamental principle of the American Revolution: “…government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

At his second inauguration, about a month before he died, Lincoln gave another profound speech that contained eight words speaking to a thought and ideal just as profound as We the People:

“With malice toward none, with charity for all.”

Roll that around on your tongue and in your mind for a moment.

“With malice toward none, with charity for all.”

As with We the People, a noble ideal, easier said than done.

Before he was assassinated, Lincoln had made it clear he did not want the Confederate Army or southern civilians prosecuted and persecuted for the war.

A little more than a hundred years later, President Nixon made it clear he wanted Vietnam War era draft evaders prosecuted. Unlike Confederate soldiers, they had not picked up weapons and fought against the government-they had just walked away.

It is difficult during these times when banality is celebrated and a hero is somebody who simply survives a military plane crash or is killed in one, or makes a gazillion dollars playing with a ball, to fully appreciate the heroism of the revolutionaries in our country’s history. Revolution is often held at arms’ distance, misunderstood, condemned or opposed.

The lack of attention to our Revolution, the quick condemnation of other revolutions-many of which were modeled on ours, can be compensated for if it is remembered that revolution is not a static event; it is an ongoing process. The American Revolution is still going on, in the debates that rage over whether people will have access to the legal system to redress grievances (with government, power companies or HMOs), in debates over whether it is just and charitable for this country to act unilaterally when it comes to defying treaties involving arms control and pollution, in debates over how the public land around Santa Monica’s City Hall and Civic Center should be used, in debates about what constitutes a fair living wage.

We the People…

With malice toward none, with charity for all.

Happy 4th.



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