Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America


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The power of words has rarely been given a more compelling demonstration than in the Gettysburg Address. By examining both the address and Lincoln in their historical moment and cultural frame, Wills breathes new life into the words and reveals much about a president so mythologized but often misunderstood.

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Nov 23, 2017

A New Birth Of Freedom

The Battle of Gettysburg, a pivotal event in the Civil War, raged from July 1 to July 3, 1863. It was the largest battle ever fought in the Western Hemisphere and ended the Confederacy's second invasion of the North. Following the battle, the community of Gettysburg was thick with dead and wounded men. The Governor of Pennsylvania authorized the purchase of a cemetery for the reburial of the Union dead. The cemetery was dedicated in a ceremony on November 19, 1863. Edward Everett, a distinguished orator of the day, delivered a speech lasting over two hours. President Abraham Lincoln also accepted an invitation to deliver short remarks. His remarks of 272 became known as the Gettysburg Address. They constitute a seminal statement, and restatement of the American vision.

Garry Wills' study "Lincoln at Gettysburg" deserves the accolades it has received if for no other reason than it gave many readers the opportunity to read and think about the Gettysburg Address. This is a speech that is dulled and lost in childhood. It needs to be approached and rethought as an adult to get an understanding of the depth of Lincoln's message.

Wills sees the Gettysburg Address as recasting and remaking the American democratic experience. The speech expressly brings the hearer and reader back to the Declaration of Independence with its self-evident truth that "All men are created equal." This truth, Lincoln turns into a "proposition" on which our country was founded. (The Constitution, adopted thirteen years after the Declaration, countenances slavery and includes no language about human equality.) In his spare prose, Lincoln says little directly about the nature of "equality". Wills discusses the address and masterfully places it in the context of Lincoln's earlier speeches to help the reader understand the development of Lincoln's ideas on slavery, the antithesis of human equality.

The Gettysburg Address also sounded the theme of the United States as a single undivided nation rather than a union or confederation of States. Wills shows how this theme too derives from the Declaration, when the people of the colonies rose up in unity to declare their Independence from Britain. Wills also reminds the reader of the sources of the idea of Nationhood in American history. He alludes to the Federalism of Chief Justice John Marshall and Justice Joseph Story. In particular, Wills discusses the Webster-Hayne debates. Lincoln greatly admired Webster as well as his fellow Whig, Henry Clay. Webster uttered the famous line "Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable," which resonates through the Gettysburg Address.

Wills tries to show the influence on Lincoln's thought on the transcendentalism of Emerson and of Theodore Parker. I thought this one of the more challenging sections of the book. While the Declaration was born in the skepticism of British empiricism and of Deism, transcendentalism emphasized the ideal. The Declaration and the Address, and the American mission, Lincoln transformed into ideal to be struggled for and realized by the living to commemorate the sacrifice of those who gave their lives to attain it.

The book also includes an excellent treatment of rhetoric and speech, tracing Lincoln's address back to Thucydides and Georgias and ending with the observation that it marked the beginning of modern American prose.

Wills' book encourages the reader to think about the Gettysburg Address and the great nature of the American political experiment. (The original review, written August 3, 2003, was edited and reposted on Thanksgiving Day, November 23, 2017).

Robin Friedman

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