Americans have lost their commitment to shared sacrifice. The Gettysburg Address can help them recover it.

Making government work better.
June 4 2010 11:42 AM

Read the Gettysburg Address

Americans have lost their commitment to shared sacrifice. Lincoln's speech can help them recover it.

American flag.
Americans have lost their commitment to shared sacrifice

How quickly we forget. Just days ago, on Memorial Day—a day of gratitude, respect, and celebration—the words of President Lincoln's Gettysburg Address were read at ceremonies across the nation. The phrase from that speech that always sticks with me is the challenge President Lincoln set forth for us: "[R]esolve that these dead shall not have died in vain." He implored us not to shy away from the sacrifices we too have an obligation to shoulder in order to advance the "unfinished work" that remained—not merely winning the Civil War and ending slavery, but the continued creation of a nation with opportunity for all.

The question confronting the United States today is whether the notion of sacrifice—-personal and collective—still has enough traction in our society to enable us to overcome the range of problems we face. For as much as we might honor the men and women in our armed forces for whom sacrifice is all too real, we know that in almost every matter of importance, Americans have become masters of "sacrifice avoidance." Every problem is turned into a positive-sum game—spending more, rather than making hard choices; shifting burdens to future generations whose voices can't be heard; pushing the obligations off to another day or on to another group.

The problems—from energy to educational achievement to financial reform to environmental degradation—that could be resolved with just a modicum of shared sacrifice are remarkable. Surely, as we enter a period of negative-sum decision-making, not positive-sum giveaways, we must understand—as President Lincoln beseeched us—that shared sacrifice, the shared shouldering of burdens, is the key to resolving our critical problems.

Just think about it. After reading the Gettysburg Address, does it seem onerous to ask for slightly higher marginal tax rates for the top 5 percent, those who benefited so remarkably from the excesses of the boom years, in order to fund the necessary investment in social infrastructure?

After reading the Gettysburg Address, does the idea of a carbon tax to finally move us away from an oil and old-energy dependence that is fouling not only the Gulf of Mexico but our entire climate, foreign policy, and economy seem so outrageous? Given the accomplishments of our global competitors, surely it makes sense to consider longer school days and school years. Don't the concerns voiced by those who would have to sacrifice somewhat—whether teachers, parents, or students—to accommodate this national imperative seem somewhat less compelling after reading the Gettysburg Address?

After reading the Gettysburg Address, don't the bleating self-important concerns of investment bankers whose multimillion-dollar bonuses might be jeopardized by a somewhat more rigorous regulatory structure seem downright offensive?

Yet our dedication to the sacrifices needed to complete the unfinished business that President Lincoln referred to is absent. The voice we need to hear right now is President Obama's—evoking the language of his great predecessors, from Lincoln to Franklin Roosevelt—inspiring in all of us a greater sense of national purpose.

Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola

Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.

Why Are Lighter-Skinned Latinos and Asians More Likely to Vote Republican?

A Woman Who Escaped the Extreme Babymaking Christian Fundamentalism of Quiverfull

The XX Factor
Sept. 22 2014 12:29 PM A Woman Who Escaped the Extreme Babymaking Christian Fundamentalism of Quiverfull

Subprime Loans Are Back

And believe it or not, that’s a good thing.

It Is Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Building a Better Workplace

In Defense of HR

Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.

How Ted Cruz and Scott Brown Misunderstand What It Means to Be an American Citizen

Divestment Is Fine but Mostly Symbolic. There’s a Better Way for Universities to Fight Climate Change.

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 22 2014 6:30 PM What Does It Mean to Be an American? Ted Cruz and Scott Brown think it’s about ideology. It’s really about culture.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 22 2014 5:38 PM Apple Won't Shut Down Beats Music After All (But Will Probably Rename It)
  Life
Outward
Sept. 22 2014 4:45 PM Why Can’t the Census Count Gay Couples Accurately?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 22 2014 7:43 PM Emma Watson Threatened With Nude Photo Leak for Speaking Out About Women's Equality
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus
Sept. 22 2014 1:52 PM Tell Us What You Think About Slate Plus Help us improve our new membership program.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 22 2014 9:17 PM Trent Reznor’s Gone Girl Soundtrack Sounds Like an Eerie, Innovative Success
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 22 2014 6:27 PM Should We All Be Learning How to Type in Virtual Reality?
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 22 2014 4:34 PM Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.