While at Antietam yesterday, I took the time on the driving tour to get out and walk at a couple of places. One such place was the Burnside Bridge, on the south side of the battlefield. Confederate forces held this bridge for three hours, until the Union soldiers – at unbelievable personal cost – finally broke through. I stopped at each end of the bridge, reflecting on what it must have been like to line up for the slaughter like that.
For whatever reason (primarily due to McClellan’s incompetence), Antietam was not the knockout blow Lincoln wanted. (Those three hours, for example, allowed Confederate reinforcements to arrive and force the Federals back to Antietam Creek.) It was enough, however, to give Lincoln the moral authority to release a preliminary form of the Emancipation Proclamation, changing the tenor of the war and the course of human history. One could argue that it was those very points on that very bridge where “thenceforward, and forever free” became truth. As I stood there reflecting on this, I realized that this is why I fight.
The Framers of our Constitution created a charter and a social contract that revolutionized self-governance, but it was incomplete. Over the past eleven score and seventeen years, this nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, has had to recommit itself to finish the project started in 1776. The secret is, of course, that the project is *never* finished. I remain skeptical of those who wish return to “Constitutional government,” because the Constitution itself is only a starting point. 150 years ago, you could be denied basic humanity because of your race or color or heritage. 100 years ago, you could be denied basic humanity because of your gender. Even today, there are parts of this nation where you can be denied basic humanity because of your orientation. In *every* case, it took people willing to stand up and say “The Constitution is not frozen in amber” to change things. This, to me, is the lesson of Antietam.