Driving east over fall break, I took my parental right to force Civil War history on my children—subjecting them to a deep dive on the Battle of Gettysburg and a guided tour of the battlefield at sunset. As my family and I gazed across the bucolic field, I was reminded of the magnitude of lives lost and how uncertain Union victory had been.
Almost 160 (eight score) years ago, on Nov. 19, 1863, Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address to dedicate the battlefield cemetery.
While we are more than twice the time away that Lincoln was from the Declaration of Independence, his brief words still inspire. They inspire not only because the Union won and slavery was defeated, but also because the underlying tensions of liberty and equality that erupted into war remain the biggest threat to American longevity, and our devotion to the ideals of the nation’s founding remain essential to our pathway forward.
As Lincoln concluded, “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us, that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion, that 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.”
It’s not difficult to imagine world history looking far different if Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain leading the 20th Maine Regiment hadn’t held the left flank on Little Round Top. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia could have pushed back or nearly surrounded Meade’s Army of the Potomac and pursued the march toward Washington, D.C., and the Confederate States of America could still exist. The subsequent domino effects are too considerable for speculation but almost certainly include far less freedom and abundance across the globe.
While arguing what-ifs of history might appear to be an esoteric deep-dive best relegated to master’s programs and Reddit threads, when we’re confronted abroad with the barbarism of terrorist regimes like Hamas and modern-day tyrants like Vladimir Putin, and at home we’re steeped in polarization, we should be reminded that the peace and prosperity most of us experience is not a right but a privilege.
For all the virtues of peace and prosperity, they create insulation from the reality that “the veneer of civilization is thin.” According to economist and Shalem College President Russ Roberts, “[Civilization] is partly sustained by a set of norms that people adopt and expect of others. When those norms are violated, the center cannot hold. We are in big trouble.”
As Thanksgiving approaches, Indianapolis author Alexandra Hudson’s newly published book, “The Soul of Civility,” speaks directly to this center. Hudson explores the distinction between what can be performative “politeness” and a more substantive and durable “civility.”
Hudson’s definition of civility is one steeped in history, richly illustrated by icons like Socrates, Pascal and Martin Luther King Jr., but is sharply directed toward contemporary challenges.
“We hear a lot today that, ‘The stakes are too high for us to be civil to the other side—too important, all bets are off, and we have to do anything we can to win.’” Hudson disagrees, saying, “When we are cruel or malicious, debase or dehumanize others, we don’t just hurt others, we debase and dehumanize ourselves, too.”
Earnest civility like Hudson prescribes requires a contemporary courage to seek out transcendent truth and put it into action. Paraphrasing Lincoln, it’s not what we say that matters, it’s what we do.•
Schutt is co-founder of Homesense Heating & Cooling and Refinery46 and an American Enterprise Institute civic renewal fellow. Send comments to email@example.com.
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