This week is the anniversary of two of the most important events in American history. One-hundred- fifty years ago, on November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln gave the Gettysburg address at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery established for the men who fought and died in the turning-point of the Civil War, the Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania on July 1-3, 1863. Fifty years ago, on November 22, 1963, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated by a craven Communist named Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas, Texas, who shot from the Dallas Book Depository.

One cannot understand American history without knowledge of the significance of the carnage and sacrifice at Gettysburg. Had the Confederate forces under General Robert E. Lee, one of the greatest military leaders of all time, prevailed, the United States would likely not have survived as a unified entity. This eventuality would have had global consequences down to the present day. A victorious Rebel army would have been free to take Washington, DC or Philadelphia and New York, and a negotiated peace would have followed.

Lincoln was not the featured speaker at the cemetery dedication; that honor went to noted orator Edward Everett, who spoke for two hours. Lincoln’s address followed Everett’s and lasted about two minutes. Part of what became one of the greatest speeches in history read: “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.” He was wrong. While Lincoln’s address is well known to this day, many Americans, regrettably, don’t know what happened at Gettysburg or why it matters.

Less than a year and a half later, Lincoln would “belong to the ages” when actor John Wilkes Booth shot him in the head at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC, on the night of April 14, 1865. Lincoln succumbed the next morning at a boarding house across from Ford’s Theatre, less than a week after Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox, Virginia.

One of the men buried in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery was George Nixon III, who died on July 10, 1863, of a wound suffered on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg. His great grandson, Richard M. Nixon, would become President of the United States in 1968, on his second try at the office. The man who edged out Nixon in his first attempt in 1960 was John F. Kennedy.

Kennedy had a brief tenure as president but almost surely would have been reelected in 1964. He went to Dallas in November 1963 to reconcile political differences between two factions of the Texas Democratic Party, though he had been warned not to go by UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson because of hostility that Stevenson had experienced on a trip to Texas.

Anyone old enough to remember November 1963, as I can, is likely to recall vividly what he or she was doing when word spread of the Kennedy assassination (very similar to the tragedy of 9/11/2001). The gunning down of the young and charismatic president put the nation into mourning and contributed to the tumult in the United States in the Vietnam War era.

Every American child should be able to visit: the consecrated cemetery at Gettysburg and walk the immortal path of Pickett’s Charge to Bloody Angle; Ford’s Theatre and the boarding house where Lincoln died; the Dallas Book Depository where Oswald carried out his dastardly plot; and the Kennedy grave at Arlington National Cemetery. He or she would have a deeper appreciation for the meaning of being an American, with more emphasis on responsibilities than privileges, as reflected in Jack Kennedy’s admonition in his Inaugural Address to “ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”

The week of November 17, 2013 sees the American people deeply divided over issues. Reflecting on the lives and premature deaths of two martyred presidents, one a Republican and the other a Democrat, might help bridge this divide, if only for this hallowed week in 2013.

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