Commentary Magazine

Lincoln at Gettysburg, by Garry Wills

In 272 Words

Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America.
by Garry Wills.
Simon & Schuster. 317 pp. $23.00.

Garry Wills has a lot of interesting things to say about the Gettysburg Address, and especially about the occasion on which it was delivered. We learn, for example, that far from arriving at the last minute, as popular mythology has it, Lincoln anticipated the difficulties of reaching Gettysburg at a time when the railroad facilities were certain to be overtaxed and, against the advice of the men in charge of his schedule, set out from Washington a day in advance. Wills also puts to rest the story that Lincoln composed his address on the back of an envelope during the 80-mile train trip to Gettysburg.

The President could have been excused had he done so, however, because according to the official program he was expected to deliver only a few “Dedicatory Remarks.” The real Gettysburg Address—the “Oration”—was to be delivered by Edward Everett, the most famous orator of the time. (As was his custom, Everett committed his two-hour speech to memory.) In the event, Lincoln said what he had to say in 272 words and in one-fourth the time consumed by the Reverend T.H. Stockton, D.D., who delivered the opening prayer.

Yet, according to Wills, those 272 words “remade America.” What Lincoln did was revolutionary: “He not only put the Declaration [of Independence] in a new light as a matter of founding law, but put its central proposition, equality, in a newly favored position as a principle of the Constitution.” By doing so he “performed one of the most daring acts of open-air sleight-of-hand ever witnessed.” Everyone in that vast throng—some 10,000 to 20,000 people managed to get there for the occasion—had “his or her intellectual pocket picked.”

Wills says that “some people, looking on from a distance, saw that a giant (if benign) swindle had been performed.” By exalting the principle of equality, Lincoln had transformed the Constitution into an antislavery document, and, according to a report in the Chicago Times, this was a “libel” on the men who had written and ratified it: “‘They were men possessing too much self-respect to declare that negroes were their equals, or were entitled to equal privileges.’” Wills goes on to say that even today, “heirs to this outrage still attack Lincoln for subverting the Constitution at Gettysburg—suicidally frank conservatives like M.E. Bradford or the late Willmoore Kendall.” But, he adds, “most conservatives are unwilling to challenge a statement now so hallowed, so literally sacrosanct, as Lincoln’s clever assault on the constitutional past.”



Swindle, outrage, clever assault on the constitutional past? These are obviously serious charges, but Wills makes no effort to substantiate them—at least, not in this book. The issue has to do with the meaning of the Declaration of Independence and its relation to the Constitution. In an earlier book, Inventing America—which is nothing so much as his attempt to remake America—Wills argued that there was not one Declaration of Independence but three: the one Jefferson wrote (which Wills liked), the one adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776 (which he did not like), and the one we know today which, he claimed, was largely a product of Lincoln’s imagination.

Jefferson’s Declaration, Wills said in Inventing America, was “philosophical and nonpolitical”; it was only by tampering with it that the Congress managed to come up with one that was “mainly political.” And it was only by romanticizing it that Lincoln could convert it into a statement of principle characterizing the nation and marking its birth:

Fourscore and seven years ago [that is, in 1776] our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

But there is no evidence for any of this. Jefferson never disowned the Declaration adopted in 1776; on the contrary, in the epitaph he wrote, and which was inscribed on his gravestone, he proudly described himself as the “Author of the Declaration of American Independence.”

And rather than understanding his Declaration to be “nonpolitical,” Jefferson, in the course of responding to an invitation to participate in a celebration of its 50th anniversary, asked that it

be to the world what I believe it will be (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all): the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government.

As for Wills’s insistence, argued at length in Inventing America, that this nation was founded not in 1776 but in 1787, the year the Constitution was written, I offer the testimony of the Constitution itself which, in the seventh and last of its original articles, refers to 1787 as the twelfth year “of the independence of the United States.”

And, finally, as to Lincoln’s having given a new meaning and significance to the phrase “all men are created equal,” I offer the testimony of Alexander Stephens, the Vice President of the Confederate States of America. Speaking at Savannah, Georgia, on March 21, 1861, concerning the recently adopted Confederate constitution, Stephens renounced Jefferson—in fact, denounced him—precisely because, “like most of the leading statesmen at the time of the old Constitution,” he had held that “the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature: that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically.” Those ideas—Jefferson’s ideas as well as Lincoln’s—were themselves fundamentally wrong, Stephens said. “They rested upon the assumption of the equality of the races. This was an error.”

What, then, was new in Lincoln’s “new interpretation of that principle of the founders which declared that ‘all men are created equal’”? Lincoln read it, after all, as Jefferson read it, as the dissenters in the Dred Scott case read it, and as (up to a certain point in our history) almost everyone, even Alexander Stephens, read it. They read it to mean that all men were created equal insofar as they all—blacks and whites alike—were equally endowed by Nature’s God with certain unalienable rights. They read it to mean that the Constitution was flawed insofar as it permitted slavery to exist under the laws of the states.

Were they mistaken about this? Strangely, Wills never addresses the question.



In fact, Wills is less concerned with what Lincoln did at Gettysburg than with the manner of what he said there. Lincoln, we are told, was “a man of his own age,” and the manner of his saying “owes a great deal to the primary intellectual fashion of his period, Transcendentalism.”

From this Wills launches into a discussion of the New England Transcendentalists Theodore Parker and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and thence, easily enough, into an analysis of classical rhetoric. In fact, the bulk of the book is devoted to rhetoric and how it was employed not only by Lincoln but by the men who are said to have influenced him: Daniel Webster and Edward Everett during America’s “romantic era,” and Pericles and Gorgias in classical antiquity. (Their funeral orations, along with Everett’s and Lincoln’s, are reproduced in an appendix.) The point of the book (itself a rhetorical tour de force) is to demonstrate that Lincoln was a brilliant rhetorician.

That point has been made before, but never with so much attention given to the structure of Lincoln’s major speeches. Lincoln, we know, had mastered the first six books of Euclid’s Elements, and had studied grammar (at a time when grammar was studied seriously), but Wills shows how he employed its tools—antithesis, for example, and anaphora and asyndeton—to maximum advantage in the Gettysburg Address. It is the greatest American speech, and Lincoln was our greatest speechmaker; Wills succeeds in confirming our judgment of that. Without intending to do so, however, he also confirms our judgment that Lincoln was our greatest statesman.

An Englishman, Lord Charnwood, was one of the first to recognize this. “Many great deeds had been done in the war,” he wrote in his magnificent memoir of Lincoln, but the greatest by far were those done by Lincoln. He made it possible for the Union to be preserved (and as Charnwood rightly said, “nobody else could have done it”); he also made it possible for us to see that it was worth preserving. He did this with his words, especially those spoken at Gettysburg.

The Gettysburg Address had been long in preparation; as Wills puts it, “all his prior literary, intellectual, and political labors had prepared him for [it].” This, I think, can be made evident by examining the substance, and not merely the structure, of what he said at Gettysburg and in two of the many speeches, or parts of speeches, that prefigure it. All of them focus on the problem of “the capability of a people to govern themselves.”



Lincoln first addressed this problem in a speech to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, delivered when he was not yet twenty-nine years old. Much of that early speech was given over to a discussion of the passions and the role they play in the politics of a self-governing people. During the early years of the Republic, Lincoln said, human passions were a “pillar of our temple of liberty”; specifically, the “deep-rooted principles of hate, and the powerful motive of revenge, instead of being turned against each other, were directed exclusively against the British nation.” But that would change, he said, as the memory of the Revolution faded. From then on, the passions would be a problem—unless, somehow, they could be made to supplement and strengthen the people’s rational attachment to the Constitution.

At the time of the second speech, Lincoln was taking the presidential oath of office. Much of that First Inaugural was an appeal to the Southern states not to secede from the Union. But Lincoln knew that they would, and that, in fact, seven of them already had. He concluded the speech with these moving words, words that can be appropriately uttered only on a few occasions in the life of a nation:

I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. 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. [Emphasis added.]

In his earlier Lyceum speech Lincoln had said that memories, even memories stretching from the graves of patriots, grow cold as they grow old, unless, by a rhetoric so powerful, they can be made immortal. Such a rhetoric would require a special occasion, and that occasion was more than likely to present itself. When, in 1863, it did, he delivered his noblest speech, in 272 words, on a battlefield. “We are met on a great battlefield of that war,” Lincoln said at Gettysburg, and the purpose of the meeting was to dedicate a cemetery filled with the graves of patriots: to dedicate a cemetery, then, and, in the process, to rededicate the nation by creating new “mystic chords of memory” binding the living and the yet unborn to the cause for which those dead had given “the last full measure of devotion.”

Lincoln was more than a great rhetorician; he was, and is, this nation’s greatest poet. Without giving him that title, Americans somehow know this, and the fact that they know it is not the result of accident. As Harry V. Jaffa writes, in what is still the best study of Lincoln’s words,

Many things in [his] life, like the accident of his death, may have been fortuitous—or providential—but the myth that came to life with his passing was neither. It was the finely wrought consummation, of philosophic insight and a poetic gift, of a life devoted to the problem of “the capability of a people to govern themselves.”

Lincoln at Gettysburg would have been a better book had it said something like this.

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