In a masterly work, Garry Wills shows how Lincoln reached back to the Declaration of Independence to write the greatest speech in the nation's history. The power of words has rarely been given a more compelling demonstration than in the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln was asked to memorialize the gruesome battle. Instead he gave the whole nation "a new birth of freedom" in the space of a mere 272 words. His entire life and previous training and his deep political experience went into this, his revolutionary masterpiece. By examining both the address and Lincoln in their historical moment and cultural frame, Wills breathes new life into words we thought we knew, and reveals much about a president so mythologized but often misunderstood. Wills shows how Lincoln came to change the world and to effect an intellectual revolution, how his words had to and did complete the work of the guns, and how Lincoln wove a spell that has not yet been broken.
Wills sets the stage before analyzing the speech. The battle of Gettysburg in July 1863 took three days and produced 50,000 casualties, roughly equal numbers from both sides. 50,000. It was of course a pivotal battle, pushing the Confederates out of the North and turning the tide of the war, which could otherwise have been won by the South. Four months later a cemetery was to be dedicated, and the principal speaker for the day was to be former secretary of state Edward Everett, a member of the intelligentsia who like many in those days was an adherent of classical Greek revival. Everett proceeded to talk for two hours from memory, as was his style. Lincoln was there to speak afterwards to make the dedication more formal, but of course stole the show in his simple, profound way.
As Wills explains, Lincoln truly understood compression and restraint. In one of the sections of the book he maps the speech to classical Greek oratory, how he ‘got it’ far better than Everett, and noting the parallels between his speech and Pericles’ funeral oration during the Peloponnesian War. In another he shows how the speech is self-referential throughout, interlocking the lines in a way which amplified their meaning. This may sound a bit dry to some but I found it very interesting. Wills is insightful throughout, from relating the opening clauses of the speech to Psalm 90, to analyzing Lincoln’s other speeches, including the “before and after” version of his first Inaugural speech; originally penned by William Seward, and improved considerably by Lincoln.
The historical context for all of this is provided, along with the excellent point from the Southern perspective:
“Some think, to this day, that Lincoln did not really have arguments for union, just a kind of mystical attachment to it. That was the charge of Southerners, who felt they had a better constitutional case for secession than he had for compelling states to remain.”
Lincoln’s assertion of the Federal Government over the States was unprecedented and changed America forever, the fuzziness of the ‘rights’ by which he did this, his ambiguous nature of his views on slavery, his ability to see things from a larger perspective, the poetry in his words, and his vulnerability all make him fascinating to me, and Wills brings all of this out.
First, the speech itself. I get goosebumps starting from “But in a larger sense…”, and then continuing to “the world will little note…”, “…the last full measure of devotion”, and then of course the ending. It is absolutely brilliant.
“Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.
We are met on a great battlefield of that war.
We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that the nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate – we cannot consecrate – we cannot hallow – this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we do here, but it can never forget what they did here.
It is for the living, rather, to be dedicated to the unfinished work which they who have fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
On oneness, from a poem Lincoln wrote in earlier years:
“The very spot where grew that bread
That formed my bones, I see.
How strange, old field, on thee to tread
And feel I’m part of thee.”
On Lincoln’s view of slavery:
“Lincoln was accused during his lifetime of clever evasions and key silences. He was especially indirect and hard to interpret on the subject of slavery. The puzzled his contemporaries, and has infuriated some later students of his attitude.”
It is clearly hard to read the following lines, from Lincoln, in 1858, as he ran for an Illinois senate unsuccessfully against Stephen Douglas, prior to his Presidential election in 1860. In Lincoln’s defense, Douglas was accusing Lincoln of being an abolitionist in a state that had just voted ten years before, in 1848, to deny all free blacks entry to the state, and Lincoln was actually the liberal in this debate … but still…
“I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way, the social and political equality of the white and black races – that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor of intermarrying with white people, and I will say, in addition to this, that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of political and social equality … and I, as much as any other man, am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”
And of course the well-known lines:
“My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; if I could save it by freeing all slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by feeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.”
On the other hand…:
“At the framing and adoption of the constitution, they forbore to so much as mention the word ‘slave’ or ‘slavery’ in the whole instrument. … Thus, the thing is hid away, in the constitution, just as an afflicted man hides away a wen or a cancer, which he dares not cut out at once, lest he bleed to death; with the promise, nevertheless, that the cutting may begin at the end of a given time.”
“They [the fathers] did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all men were actually enjoying the equality, nor yet that they were about to confer it, immediately, upon them. In fact, they had no power to confer such a boon. They meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement might follow as fast as circumstances should permit.”
Lincoln on war a year before Gettysburg; as Wills points out, he had no illusions as to war’s ‘nobility’:
“Actual war coming, blood grows hot, and blood is spilled. Thought is forced from old channels into confusion. Deception breeds and thrives. Confidence dies, and universal suspicion reigns. Each man feels an impulse to kill his neighbor, lest he be killed by him. Revenge and retaliation follow.”
Lastly, on Lincoln’s poetic expression, the first being an example of parenthetical emphasis (the ‘fervently do we pray’ part), and also grammatical inversion (e.g. instead of wording it as ‘We fondly hope and fervently pray’):
“Fondly do we hope, (fervently do we pray), that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.”
“Both parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.”
And finally this one; may we all react to difficult things in life with the ‘better angels of our nature’:
“The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
Garry Wills has written an elegant primer to the address in five chapters. The first chapter places the address as a successor to Greek thought. Willis' conservative roots probably prevent him from considering Jeffersonian and French elements (much closer in my view than the Greek influence). The second chapter introduces the 19th century's culture of death. Willis, however, neglects to note the crucial difference and novelty of Civil War graves: The US Civil War is one of the first wars to mark and name graves of common soldiers. The Napoleonic soldiers were buried in mass graves and only their officers deigned worthy of grave stones. The US Civil War sees the emergence of both the necessary paperwork to identify the dead and the democratic ambition to honor all soldiers as individuals. The third chapter is on much stronger ground and deals with the idealism and transcendentalism of Lincoln's message. Lincoln's dedication is much more than a consecration of lives sacrificed. It is a mission statement for mankind (similar to Ode to Joy). The fourth chapter reveals Lincoln's message of reconciliation and redemption. Lincoln tried to reforge and reunite the nation (a mission unfortunately cut short in Ford Theater). The fifth and final chapter discusses Lincoln's revolutionary style. The Gettysburg Address, in contrast to Everett's flamboyant romantic text, is a thoroughly modern (international style) text. Reading Everett's flowery words is a chore, Lincoln's a delight. Willis explains why this is the case. The book's appendices offer helpful guides to where the address was delivered, the textual variants as well as other funeral orations. Overall, an interesting companion to a masterwork. The only letdown is the cover featuring Lincoln's meeting with McClellan after the battle of Antietam. Off by a year and a battle.
Garry Wills had written on Lincoln before, and the present book can be seen, in more than one sense, as setting the record straight. In 1964 the conservative Atlanta native rapped Lincoln in The National Review as a dreamy romantic. At the time Wills endorsed Willmoore Kendall’s view that Lincoln’s true legacy was the latter-day “ceasarism” of know-it-all liberals.
By 1978 Wills had tempered his earlier enthusiasm for John C. Calhoun, but he still wrote disparagingly of Lincoln as a romantic under the spell of Transcendentalism, “that school of faintly necrophiliac spirituality.”
Of course, many writers have worked to undermine the sacrosanct image of the martyr-president with the largest marble statue in Washington, D.C. For instance, in the 1970s orthodox Freudians imposed a large-scale Oedipal conflict on Lincoln’s political career, combing his early speeches and writings for signs of a will to symbolically “kill” the “Founding Fathers” and to pin the blame on “evil brother” Stephen Douglas. One of the pleasures of Lincoln at Gettysburg is its elegant refutation of this kind of thesis-driven approach to Lincoln, in which writers always find what they expect to find.
Wills also dispels persistent myths about the Address itself, such as the one about its having been composed from scratch during the train ride to Gettysburg. More significantly, Wills takes on reactionary attempts to drain Lincoln’s best-remembered speech of any real significance. These really are, as his subtitle expresses it, "words that remade America."
Wills argues that the expertly crafted speech, delivered at a carefully chosen time and place, not only “sweeten[ed] the air of Gettysburg, but … clear[ed] the infected atmosphere of American history itself” by substituting a new constitutional past for the ones that his audience had brought to Gettysburg with them. This seeming miracle was not accomplished in a stroke of divinely guided rhetorical lightning, as too many writers have suggested, but rather as the culmination of years of practice by a politician who was consistent in his thought and always prepared his speech texts with care.
In Wills’ portrayal, Lincoln is a master not only of the classical rhetoric of Greek democracy, of biblical allusion, and of choice imagery, but also of a taut, forward-looking American vernacular that established a new classical standard for political speech. Because of his way with words, the Civil War came to mean, for most Americans, what Lincoln decided it should mean. “The power of words has rarely been given a more compelling demonstration.”
With Lincoln at Gettysburg Wills sets aside his own former judgments, presenting Lincoln as a remarkably consistent and logical political thinker, “a Transcendentalist without the fuzziness,” who recast the American constitution as a perpetually “unfinished work” advancing toward the ideal of liberty. Transcendentalism is still in the picture, but this time Wills breaks new ground in showing how the design and dedication of the Gettysburg cemetery proceeded from a culture that placed an educative and regenerative value on mourning and melancholy. Lincoln recognized, in Wills’ view, how well the time and place of the Gettysburg dedication suited his call for “increased devotion” to “a new birth of freedom.”
Wills also sets the record straight by dismissing persistent myths about Lincoln’s performance at Gettysburg. It is not for nothing that Wills appropriates the main title of William Barton’s 1930 book on the Gettysburg Address, an effort which Wills dismisses in a footnote as “frequently inaccurate.” Wills’ appendix on the text of the Address is an exemplary primary-source study that dispels much confusion, much of it created by earlier studies. In this respect, Lincoln at Gettysburg deserves to supplant its earlier namesake.
Lincoln at Gettysburg also lives up to its title by establishing the setting in which Lincoln’s Address was first heard, from the railroad snarls and scramble for overnight lodging in the small Pennsylvania town to the actual location of the speakers’ podium, on a rise just outside the cemetery, to keep visitors away from its still unfilled graves. Wills restores Ivy League orator Edward Everett to his rightful place as the principal “draw” for the occasion. It was Everett whose promised two-hour oration brought to Gettysburg the thousands on whom Lincoln worked his magic. This book appends the complete annotated text of Everett’s speech, together with two variants of Lincoln’s Address. A surprising addition is the author’s own translations of funeral orations by Pericles and Gorgias, which support his lucid primer on Greek rhetoric.
The Lincoln who emerges from Wills’ account is not the moral giant enshrined on the Mall in Washington. Lincoln at Gettysburg does not shy away from Lincoln’s resort to crowd-pleasing racist rhetoric or his “chew & choke” strategy toward the hostile South. But Wills’ discussion of these issues is nuanced and fair, and his explication of the rhetorical drabness of the Emancipation Proclamation is particularly convincing. This is a writerly (and extremely well written) book, and some historians may feel that it therefore overemphasizes the historical significance of skillful communication. Wills might reply in the words of Pericles, that “the uninformed man resents as overstatement any praise that goes beyond what he feels capable of.” Be that as it may, even skeptical readers will benefit from a close engagement with this book.
Wills shows that what Lincoln managed to do that day was to pull off an exquisitely crafted triumph of political theatre. Truly, as the blurb on the back cover puts it, "The power of words has rarely been given a more compelling demonstration than in the Gettysburg Address."