Book Review: Lincoln at Gettysburg by Garry Wills


My annual Lincoln Day book for 2009 is Lincoln at Gettysburg (1992) by cultural historian Garry Wills (previously, I’ve read Wills’ works on Catholicism Why I’m A Catholic and Papal Sin).  In this book Wills sets out to analize the 272 words spoken by Lincoln when he consecrated the Gettysburg National Cemetery on November 19, 1863.  In a prologue, Wills sums up the events of Lincoln’s visit to Gettysburg.  Here he debunks some common myths.  Lincoln did not write his speech on the back of the envelope en route to Gettysburg.  In fact, Lincoln loathed extemporaneous speech and spent much time preparing his words including this speech which he probably drafted prior to leaving Washington.  The other myth is that the crowds were shocked by the brevity of Lincoln’s remarks especially in comparison to the lengthy oration by Edward Everett.  According to the programs and contemporary accounts, Everett was the primary speaker of the day with Lincoln only expected to make a few ancillary remarks to officially dedicate the cemetery.

It’s what Lincoln made of those few remarks that Wills dedicates the rest of the book to explicating.  Wills sees Lincoln’s funeral oratory in the tradition of Greek Revival then in vogue.  Lincoln’s address is compared favorably to the tradition of the ancients such as Pericles in that it contrasts things  as the mortal and immortal, the exceptionalism of Americans, word and deed, and life and death. The culture of death in 19th-century American – and especially during the Civil War (see This Republic of Suffering for more detail) – also informs the Gettysburg Address.  Cemeteries such as Mt. Auburn in Cambridge served a moral and instructive role and Gettysburg National Cemetery would fit into that continiuum.

For Lincoln, of course, that lesson is “the new birth of freedom” passed down to us from the Declaration of Indpendence.  Lincoln saw the Declaration as the nation’s true founding document,as opposed to the Constitution, as it holds the promise of equality for all in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  He also sees that through the revolution and joint declaration of independence the states are bound as a union, not as a simple agreement among autonomous states.  This informs the way in which Lincoln pursues the war treating the Southern states as insurrectionists within the union as opposed to a foreign power and only resorting to emancipation where it is a military necessity since he believes it cannot be done by unilateral decree.  The Gettysburg Address has resulted in many if not most Americans viewing the Declaration, the Constitution, and the Union the way that Lincoln did:

“…the professors, the textbooks, the politicians, the press have overwhelmingly accepted Lincoln’s vision.  The Gettysburg Address has become an authoritative expression of the American spirit — as authoritative as the Declaration itself, and perhaps even more influential, since it determines how we read the Declaration.  For most people now, the Declaration means what Lincoln told us it means, as a way of correcting the Constitution itself without overthrowing it.  It is this correction of the spirit, this intellectual revolution, that makes attempts to go back beyond Lincoln so feckless.  The proponents of states’ rights may have arguments, but they have lost their force, in courts as well as in the popular mind.  By accepting the Gettysburg Address, its concept of a single people dedicated to a proposition, we have been changed.  Because of it, we live in a different America.” – p. 146-47

The final chapter analyzes Lincoln’s oratorial style, its brevity, rhythmns, and lack of flowery language and tropes common to speech writing of the time (see Everett’s speech in the appendices for a contrasting example).  Writes Wills, “Hemingway claimed that all modern American novels are the offspring of Huckleberry Finn.  It is no greater exaggeration to say that all modern political prose descends from the Gettysburg Address,” (p. 148).  In fact Wills contends that Lincoln prefigured “soundbite politics” by more than a century by crafting his words to meet the needs of the new technology of the telegraph.  Perhaps the satirical Gettysburg Powerpoint Presentation is more on the mark than its creators intended.

This shorts but incisive book concludes with appendices that include research on the actual text that Lincol delivered that day.  There are multiple drafts and the newspaper accounts of the day are not all in agreement.  The Library of Congress has a good online exhibit of the many drafts of the address, as well as the only picture of Lincoln of that day.  There are also the full text of Everett’s oration and two ancient Greek forebearers (I confess I skipped these).  Finally, there’s a little detective work on where Lincoln actually stood to deliver the Gettysburg Address.  All and all, a fascinating a rewarding read for Lincoln Day ’09!

Title Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Re-Made America
Author Garry Wills
Publication Simon & Schuster (1992), Hardcover, 320 pages
Publication date 1992
ISBN 0671769561 / 9780671769567