Lincoln made equality a cornerstone of American democracy at Gettysburg

July 05, 1992|By Bruce Clayton

LINCOLN AT GETTYSBURG: THE WORDS THAT REMADE AMERICA.

Garry Wills.

Simon & Schuster.

317 pages. $23. Stacks of empty coffins greeted President Abraham Lincoln as he stepped from his train at Gettysburg, Pa., in the dusk, on Nov. 18, 1863. The next day, he was to make a few brief "remarks" to help commemorate the still-unfinished cemetery, where Union soldiers who had perished earlier in those three ghastly days in July were to be reburied.

The featured speaker was the celebrated Edward Everett, whose two- and three-hour Olympian addresses had sanctified Concord, Lexington and Bunker Hill. Nor did the aging orator disappoint the multitude at Gettysburg. His recital of the battle, his patriotic recounting of the great conflict, his indictment of the South, his praise of the fallen thrilled his audience, including the president. Then Lincoln arose, spoke for three minutes (reading slowly from two small sheets of paper), and sat down.

In the twinkling of an eye, Garry Wills writes, Lincoln in prose both poetic and abstract identified the Civil War and the Founding Fathers with the radical idea of equality and linked American democracy, once and for all, with that idea. Lincoln, Mr. Wills argues, knew exactly what he was doing -- and got it all said in only 272 words. (No, he did not jot down his remarks the night before; he had taken thought about what he would say.)

He knew full well that the revered Constitution -- Lincoln revered it -- did not endorse equality and sanctioned slavery. Yet Lincoln boldly announced that "our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."

In essence, Lincoln played a trick, a trick of genius as it's turned out, on his audience -- then and since. In abstractly invoking the "fathers" and their supposed devotion to equality, Lincoln drew attention away from the legalistic compromises of the Constitution to its "spirit." Mr. Wills writes: "By implicitly doing this, he performed one of the most daring acts of open-air sleight-of-hand ever witnessed by the unsuspecting. Everyone in that vast throng of thousands was having his or her intellectual pocket picked."

The father Lincoln had in mind -- but did not mention at Gettysburg, any more than slavery, the South, the North, or even the specific battlefield -- was his own spiritual and intellectual mentor, Thomas Jefferson. The central idea evoked in what immediately became known as "the Gettysburg Address" (Everett's verbosity was forgotten) came from the Declaration of Independence, penned by Jefferson. A lawyer himself, Lincoln knew that the Declaration had no legal standing. But it had great moral stature -- with Lincoln, and the people. In three minutes, he married the Declaration and the Constitution.

One might think that Mr. Wills -- who counts among his many stylish books "Confessions of a Conservative" and who in "Nixon Agonistes" pilloried the former president as a "liberal" -- would be upset with Lincoln. He remarks in passing that some conservatives have attacked Lincoln, but says their attacks are "suicidal" -- so great has been Lincoln's triumph, so completely have his words "remade America."

In fact, Mr. Wills admires Lincoln rhapsodically -- and for some of the same reasons he praised Jefferson in "Inventing America." Each man seized the moment and made history. Each had a fine mind and a refined sensibility. Each was a keen student of language and history; each honored ideals and had the felicity of expression to make those ideals live.

The warm tone of "Lincoln at Gettysburg" suggests that Mr. Wills enjoyed writing this taut, very moving book. He places Lincoln in the context of his time, when Americans regarded death and beautiful cemeteries like Cambridge's Mount Auburn with reverence.

Mr. Wills also deftly shows how deeply Lincoln had absorbed the Transcendentalism of his time -- hence his almost mystical regard not just for the Union, but for the idea of America -- and how his seemingly simple words at Gettysburg invoked images of birth, life, devotion and memory. Yet Lincoln also was fascinated with the mechanical engines of change of his day -- the railroad and the telegraph. Those "nervous rhythms of a quickening time" subtly shaped Lincoln's rhetoric, and never more so than at Gettysburg: "We can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground."

The Lincoln who emerges from Mr. Wills' stunning and beautiful book is a much larger man than some more recent biographers and critics have given us. He ably defends Lincoln against the charges -- of a few years back -- of racism, cunning opportunism, moral obtuseness and political ruthlessness.

Bits and pieces of all of these were part of Lincoln. Even so, he was a man of magnitude.

Dr. Clayton is the Harry A. Logan Sr. Professor of American History at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa.

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