Harry C. Boyte and Nancy N. Kari

Harry C. Boyte and Nancy N. Kari

Lincoln’s famous call to take up “the unfinished work” of those who fought for the Union drew its power from the way he redefined consecrate. He shifted the meaning of the word from public ceremony enacted by officials to the public work that ordinary soldiers did on behalf of the nation. He simultaneously honored Union soldiers and reminded the country that democracy was an unfinished labor of all the living.

Abraham Lincoln had long held to a labor theory of value. He saw work as prior to capital, as the source of wealth. In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln tied his view of labor to a broadened view of democracy that enlisted ordinary citizens—“government of the people, by the people, for the people.” This formulation suggested a reciprocal relation between citizens and their government. Thus, Lincoln articulated a powerful idea that has opened opportunities for democratic initiative throughout American history.

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