• AP Photo/Abraham Lincoln Book Shop Inc.
  • Abraham Lincoln: Averse to cliches

Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address 150 years ago today. An interesting discussion of the address in Monday’s New York Times ends in an ardent cliche.

“The genius of the address,” writes professor Allen Guelzo, author of Gettysburg: The Last Invasion, “thus lay not in its language or in its brevity (virtues though these were), but in the new birth it gave to those who had become discouraged and wearied by democracy’s follies, and in the reminder that democracy’s survival rested ultimately in the hands of citizens who saw something in democracy worth dying for. We could use that reminder again today.”

We could? Really?

Studs Terkel liked to say Americans suffer from a “national Alzheimer’s disease.” We keep forgetting and having to relearn the lessons history should have taught us once and for all—but we weren’t paying attention.

He had a point.

But is the notion that democracy’s worth dying for something we need to be reminded of? We remind ourselves every Memorial Day. And Veterans’ Day. On the Fourth of July we hail the founding fathers, who risked all for democracy. We celebrate the “greatest generation” for the blood it shed to defend democracy. And for the past decade Americans have quietly died in substantial numbers in the nominal cause of bringing democracy to distant lands like Afghanistan and Iraq.

Americans die and die and die. And it is always for the same irreproachable cause: the advancement of freedom and democracy.

Our finest patriots—as nominated and elected by themselves—like to harp on the point that I think Professor Guelzo made as a rhetorical flourish he didn’t pause to question. Yes, they say, Americans need to be reminded, and because we are the few in this feckless age more than willing to lay down our lives for democracy, for liberty, for vistas untrammeled by fences and firearms untrammeled by holsters, democracy is whatever we say it is.

Their definitions suit them better than they suit me.

If Guelzo means to say that the land is again full of Americans “discouraged and wearied by democracy’s follies,” he’s absolutely right. But the solution isn’t to remind us it’s worth dying for. We all know that. Living with democracy is what’s perplexing.