This clip is from the 1993 Civil War film Gettysburg, directed by Ronald Maxwell, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. Jeff Daniels, one of my all time favorite actors, portrays Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, who would go on to become one of the great heroes of the Battle of Gettysburg. On July 2, 1863, Chamberlain defended Little Round Top against wave after wave of attacking Confederate infantry, preserving his position and–without knowing it at the time–winning the Battle of Gettysburg, saving the Union, and democracy itself. I choose to present this today because, in the film, Chamberlain is depicted as giving this speech on June 30, 1863, exactly 150 years ago today.
Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, who died in 1914, is one of my all time heroes. With a very few exceptions–Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt–I would say that no greater American has ever lived in the past 200+ years.
The speech shown in this film is made up, written by modern screenwriters, but I do believe it captures the essence of Chamberlain’s vision for America. You’ll notice I’ll be doing several Gettysburg-related posts in the next few days, the 150th anniversary of the battle, which was the largest battle ever fought in the Western Hemisphere. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, maybe I’m idealistic, but I honestly believe in the words spoken in this speech, a vision for America that I think has even more resonance today in the 21st century even than it did in 1863.
“America should be free ground. All of it. Not divided by a line between slave states and free, but all the way–from here to the Pacific Ocean. No man has to bow, no man born to royalty–here we judge you by what you do, not by who your father was. Here you can be something. Here is the place to build a home. But its not the land. There’s always more land. It’s the idea that we all have value. What we’re fighting for, in the end–we’re fighting for each other.”
The big deal 150 years ago was slavery, but are the issues of today really that different? Aren’t we still arguing about the meaning of freedom and what kind of society we’re going to have? There are divisions between us, and conflicts that sometimes seem insoluble. Today in 2013 we are so defined by the things that divide us–politics, race, ethnicity, sexuality, economic status, and (still) religion. Yet despite these divisions we move forward. I believe Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain would have applauded the decision last week by the Supreme Court, which made Americans even more equal than anyone could ever have imagined in 1863. Freedom advances. It never, never retreats.
So, as we go into July–whose early days are rife with anniversaries that we Americans hold dear–let us celebrate the spark of freedom that we all cherish, and let us resolve, even in this era of rancor and partisanship, that the spirit of freedom that animated Chamberlain and his comrades on a battlefield in Pennsylvania 150 years ago is still relevant to us today. Let us be Americans, and celebrate our commonalities rather than decry our differences. These lands, hills and rivers are, for better or worse, our homes, as they have been for centuries and as–God willing–they will continue to be, so long as we believe in freedom.
Happy July, everyone!