Last Full Measure of Devotion

November 19, 2013

Abraham Lincoln as a young man150 years ago today, President Lincoln stepped up to a podium, after former U.S. Senator and Secretary of State Edward Everett gave a two hour speech, and delivered the Gettysburg Address. While it was only 272 words long and lasted under two minutes, the effects can still be felt today.

Lincoln himself didn’t think that his words would be remembered; rather it would be the “last full measure of devotion” that those that died on the battlefield gave that would be remembered:

“The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”

But it was Lincoln’s call that all men are created equal, coupled with a new birth of freedom and a government of the people that survives to this day. In fact, running a search through WestlawNext of All State and All Federal cases yields almost 150 cases referencing the Gettysburg Address, 43 of which are from the U.S. and various state Supreme Courts. The Legislative Branch is no different, with just over 300 references to the address in the Congressional Record since 1985. [Gettysburg /3 Address] It continues to resonate with us because of the timeless themes that endure in the writing; the last full measure of devotion to the unfinished work of a nation. That unfinished work that Lincoln mentions is both a reference to slavery but also a reference to our nation as a whole. Contemporary policymakers would do well to stop and recall these few words that Lincoln spoke.

Unfortunately slavery is still an unfinished work in our nation and world. Human trafficking continues the effects of slavery. As reported by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, there are 29.6 million slaves in the world, roughly equivalent to the population of Australia and Denmark combined. Modern-day slavery is a $32 billion industry, equal to the profits of McDonalds and Wal-Mart combined. It is actually cheaper to purchase a slave today ($90) than in 1809 ($40,000 when adjusted to today’s value). And while the Civil War sparked laws to make slavery illegal, it is still an issue in the United States, as it is estimated between 14,500 and 17,500 people are trafficked into the United States every year. The United States, along with other governments and industries, are taking action against human trafficking.. These are actions that advance the unfinished work that Lincoln referenced. (For more information, please see Rachel Utter’s post)

So I encourage you to take a moment, on this 150th anniversary, to pause and reflect on those 272 words spoken in a small town in Pennsylvania. Documentarian Ken Burns is working to preserve the legacy of the Gettysburg Address through his Learn the Address initiative ( At this site, anyone can upload a video of themselves reciting the Gettysburg Address. Many have already done so, including Presidents Obama, Bush (43), Clinton, Stephen Colbert, and Louis C.K. As U.S. Senator Charles Sumner stated after Lincoln’s assassination:

“That speech, uttered at the field of Gettysburg…and now sanctified by the martyrdom of its author, is a monumental act. In the modesty of his nature he said ‘the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here; but it can never forget what they did here.’ He was mistaken. The world at once noted what he said, and will never cease to remember it.”