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Abraham Lincoln was the first president to refer to America as ”the United States” instead of ”these United States.”
When he dedicated a cemetery in 1863 at the site of the bloodiest battle of the Civil War, Lincoln posed an existential question to the American people.
Standing on the broken fields of Gettysburg, PA, where more than 50,000 of his fellow citizens had perished, Lincoln wondered aloud whether any nation that based its existence on the premise that all human beings are created equal could long endure.
Our commitment to this ideal had been consecrated in blood, he told us, and those who had given ”the last full measure of devotion” could do no more to keep faith with America’s great promise.
That was up to the rest of us, Lincoln said.
America’s greatest president did not live to see the ”new birth of freedom” he prayed for at Gettysburg. This task was left to the generations that followed, and they struggled with it.
For 145 years, we tried, in painful fits and starts, to become a more perfect union. We tried to keep the promise set forth in the bold declaration of principles that was attached to America’s birth certificate. Slowly, painfully, we broke down the barriers that separated large portions of our citizenry from the ideal that we always told the world we embodied.
Some of those barriers were constructed of legal manipulations embedded in the fine print of voting laws or redlined real estate transactions; others were human, standing in schoolhouse doors or behind lunch counters with a sneer on their faces and epithets on their lips; often, they were pervasive and insidious, a seemingly subconscious tribal urge to divide ourselves into North and South, Blue States and Red States, Us and Them.
This week, the American people elected a new president. The issues and overheated rhetoric that roiled a seemingly endless campaign soon will fade into memory. The new president soon will take the oath of office and begin to make his mark on history, for better or for worse.
To paraphrase Lincoln, the world will little note or long remember what was said in these tumultuous days.
But it may remember what we actually did on Nov. 4, 2008.
Because it appears that we finally have answered Lincoln’s question. We have decided, at long last, to be — to really be — the United States.