A Polyglot Nation United by a Proposition

GEORGE F. WILL

August 06, 1992|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- "France,'' wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald, ''was a land, England was a people, but America, having about it that quality of the idea, was harder to utter.'' Garry Wills, in his new book ''Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America,'' says Lincoln uttered it in 272 words.

By doing so, Mr. Wills argues, Lincoln finished the long founding of the United States. He made this a nation defined by the idea -- ''dedicated to the proposition'' -- that all men are created equal. It is, surely, no accident that Mr. Wills' book about the most potent presidential rhetoric in American history has become a best-seller in this political season. The dominating fact of this season is the weakness of a president disdainful about the role of careful rhetoric, and hence of ideas, in governance.

Mr. Wills, a journalist and historian (at Northwestern), argues that the 15,000 people who heard Lincoln's strong tenor voice departed from the cemetery dedication ceremony ''under a changed sky, into a different America.'' He says that each listener had had his or her ''intellectual pocket picked'' by Lincoln's ''open-air sleight-of-hand.'' By deft words Lincoln changed the nature of the war and the meaning of the Constitution, thereby accomplishing nothing less than ''a new founding of the nation.''

Mr. Wills errs a bit, but only in a way that is welcome just now. Being a man of words, he will perhaps be forgiven for somewhat exaggerating the impact of 272 of the most familiar words in our civic liturgy. And he should be praised for the central implication of his book, which is this: When our politics are bereft of the rhetoric of large ideas, our politics are strictly speaking, un-American.

The Civil War was begun to preserve the Union. The Gettysburg Address was the culmination of the redefinition of the war as a crusade for a ''new birth of freedom.'' The address completed Lincoln's personal crusade to establish that the Constitution is subservient to the Declaration of Independence's principle of human equality.

However, the Gettysburg Address was not the sudden surprise, the solitary stroke that Mr. Wills' exegesis suggests. It was the final act of a protracted process of transformation that had acquired irresistible momentum 14 months earlier about 35 miles south of Gettysburg, along Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg, Maryland. There a Union victory, such as it was, was sufficient to enable Lincoln to announce that the Emancipation Proclamation was coming.

The Proclamation itself was connected by a long, clear chain of logic to Lincoln's reaction -- the hinge of his personal history -- to the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. That execrable Act made slavery an issue to be decided in those two territories by popular sovereignty. This horrified Lincoln because it meant that America's commitment to equality was as contingent as an election result.

In response, Lincoln, then an obscure former one-term congressman, called upon the country to ''re-adopt the Declaration of Independence.'' This put him on the road to Gettysburg. There his Address, far from being, as Mr. Wills suggests, an act of political prestidigitation, was the culmination of nine years of conspicuous public consistency.

The address is as important as Mr. Wills says, but not exactly for the reason he says. It was not a stunning bolt from the blue. Rather, it completed Lincoln's patient but implacable insistence that Americans could not forever revere both the Declaration and a Constitution that accommodated slavery.

Lincoln's 272 words reverberated in 1863, and still do, precisely because they accorded with a deep national commitment to equality. Historian Gordon Wood, in his new book ''The Radicalism of the American Revolution,'' demonstrates that whereas in 1760 America was a ''monarchical'' society in which hierarchy, patronage, servility, deference and dependency characterized social relations, by 1800 the democratic manners and mores of an egalitarian society had taken root.

Garry Wills' recondite and rewarding argument does demonstrate that Lincoln used words to make that most material of things -- a battle: flesh and bone and steel and shot -- into an intellectual event, ''testing'' the durability of a nation ''dedicated'' to a proposition. Lincoln's words focused Americans' attention forever on what Fitzgerald was to call ''that quality of the idea.'' They still reverberate in today's cultural wars.

We are a polyglot nation of immigrants, a nation whose unity is based not on ethnicity but on an idea, a proposition. That is why clear-sighted Americans fight so fiercely for a certain educational canon, and against attempts, in the name of ''multiculturalism,'' to locate civic identity not in shared convictions but in divisive ethnicities.

The deservedly large audience that Garry Wills has found for his book is heartening evidence that the nation's ability to appreciate the elevating rhetoric of the politics of ideas has not atrophied in the recent absence of such politics.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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