Lancaster New Hampshire is nestled at the foot of the White Mountains, a quaint New England town wedged between the Israel and Connecticut Rivers. It was carved out of the wilderness a decade before the American Revolution, by a group of settlers who barely survived their first cruel winter. However, by the middle of the nineteenth-century Lancaster was thriving. It boasted a population of two thousand citizens; cultivating farms, working in carriage factories, and manning the grist, saw and starch mills. Lancaster comes into view as you travel north along Route 3, and begin the long gradual descent down Mount Pleasant. Entering the town, there is a small common formed by the intersections of Prospect, Portland and Pleasant Streets. It’s a well-manicured spot with a brass cannon, and a solitary union soldier perched upon a granite pedestal. It’s a tribute to the over two hundred sons of Lancaster that served in the Civil War.
During the Civil War, military units were organized by state, meaning soldiers served alongside their friends and neighbors. This may have been good for the esprit de corps and morale of the troops, but it could have disastrous consequences for their hometowns. Most of the men from Lancaster served with the 5th New Hampshire Volunteers, which suffered more casualties than any other Union regiment during the war. Caldwell County North Carolina is the home of the 26th Infantry Regiment that breached the Union defenses along Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg. Between July 1st and July 3rd, 1863, half of the male population of Caldwell County was either killed or wounded.
It’s impossible for us today, to comprehend the impact the Civil War had on America. Historians estimate that 1.5 million soldiers were either killed or wounded during the conflict. That was five percent of the country’s population in 1860. Today, that would equate to 15.7 million people. There wasn’t a family or community in the United States that didn’t suffer a loss during the Civil War.
However, Lancaster and Caldwell are not unique. In the parks and commons across the nation, there are countless monuments and memorials dedicated to those who answered the call. Just seventy-six years after the Civil War, the sons and daughters of Lancaster and Caldwell again answered the call, not as adversaries, but as brothers-in-arms in a global conflict against totalitarianism. Fourteen and a half million left their homes; put their lives on hold, and served their country. Many came home, and many did not, but they all did their duty.
One hundred and fifty years ago, this month, President Abraham Lincoln dedicated the Soldiers National Cemetery at Gettysburg. His remarks were short but poignant; just 272 words delivered on a bright, crisp November morning in less than 3 minutes, by the ‘sad, mournful, almost haggard’ President. In his speech, Lincoln asked the Nation to honor the sacrifice of those who died upon that battlefield, and rededicate itself to the cause for which they perished. It is considered by many, to be one of the greatest speeches in American history.
The concept of sacrifice is a central tenet in Christian theology, because sacrifice, the willingness to put the needs of another, ahead of your own, is an act of love. It is the message of the cross; spiritually, it sanctifies and redeems, temporally, it adds purpose and meaning. Anything of value, anything of worth, requires some degree of sacrifice. A marriage cannot succeed unless both husband and wife are willing to sacrifice a part of their individuality for the sake of the union. A family will not thrive unless each member of the family is willing to sacrifice for each other. A community or nation cannot prosper unless its citizens are willing to sacrifice in the present, for the benefit of future generations. We enjoy the freedom and prosperity we do today, because of the sacrifices made by our parents, grandparents, and those that came before us.
Our nation was founded upon a Judeo-Christian ethic which recognizes and embraces the importance of sacrifice. Today, however, it is being displaced by a Secular-Progressive ethic that instead, promotes the notion of entitlement. It’s the belief that everyone is entitled to certain benefits and privileges; simply because they’re a citizen. It’s the idea behind the Great Society, but it’s unfortunately, unsustainable.
In order for an entitlement society to work, there must be enough people willing to make the sacrifices necessary to support those who are dependent upon the entitlements. In other words, you need an abundance of people going to work each day, generating the wealth and tax revenue needed to pay for the entitlements. If you don’t maintain the right balance, the system collapses. When you reach a point where there are more people riding in the boat, than rowing the boat, the boat sinks. Today, in the United States, there are more people on food-stamps than there are full-time workers in the workforce.
Perhaps the most corrosive effects of the entitlement society are on the character of the people, because it creates the expectation that we’re all entitled to something for nothing. It discourages hard work and sacrifice, because someone else will pay for whatever it is we need or want, and encourages irresponsibility, because there are no longer any consequences for failure. The entitlement society breeds a victim mentality, and an arrogance that says if I want it now, I deserve it now, because I am entitled. It’s the reason why we are bequeathing our children and grandchildren a 17 trillion-dollar debt.
Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is as relevant today as it was in 1863, because each generation must rededicate itself to the great task remaining before it. Each generation must resolve to honor the sacrifices of those who have gone before it, and continue their unfinished work. If we don’t, if we are unable or unwilling to make our sacrifice, then the sacrifices of those who have gone before us, as Lincoln warned, will have been in vain.