Garry Wills' LINCOLN AT GETTYSBURG: THE WORDS THAT REMADE AMERICA
Book review by Dennis D. McDonald
I’m especially fond of history books that not only explain events but help the reader understand the people involved and how they and events were impacted by history, culture, personal relationships, and technology.
Lincoln at Gettysburg is in a class by itself and explains both the motivation behind and the significance of what Lincoln accomplished with the Gettysburg Address.
What is most impressive is the author’s explanation of culture and politics from the perspective of that time. Central to the book is the role Lincoln played in interpreting, recasting, and explaining American ideas of liberty in a way that transcended standard politics. He was, after all, out to preserve the Union. His major contribution was not just orchestrating the military and economic defeat of the South but also casting the conflict in ideological and political terms rooted in the very founding of the Republic and in the ongoing conflict over how slavery could ever be reconciled with fundamental concepts of liberty.
We still hear echoes of these ideas in current debates about the role of the Federal government. In Lincoln’s time basic and profound fundamental concepts were still the stuff of intellectual, religious, and cultural earthquakes that finally erupted at Fort Sumter.
The book requires careful and attentive reading. Wills wisely lets many of the literary, spiritual, intellectual leaders of the time speak in their own words through frequent and extensive quotations. This is a good approach since part of what you need to understand about those times is that they were different times. Thoughts back then about the Revolution, about the role of government, and about individual liberty were very much in a state of flux. Reading the actual words of famous debaters, politicians, authors, and intellectuals really helps one understand the context of the Gettysburg Address and what Lincoln was attempting to accomplish with it and its focus on the struggle for Union and liberty.
I wonder if future historians will be able to create a similar type of history about our times comparable to what Wills does about Lincoln’s time. We have much written documentation from Lincoln’s time that’s both published and unpublished (for example, personal letters). Speeches were longer and there were certainly no Twitter feeds to capture (although records of telegraph messages were invaluable and historical reporting and writing about the Civil War).
The impression I get of communication back then, given the lack of the instantaneous communication we now take for granted, is that if words and ideas had to be communicated over time and distance, they had to be much thought about and “packaged” much more than is the case now when we can easily go online to quckly find related information. Back then attention had to be paid to the intellectual or philosophical underpinningof what the author was communicating. Lengthy oratory required much preparation, so did the writing of books, articles, and lengthy sermons. That Lincoln packed as much as he did into the surprisingly short Gettysburg Address is all the more amazing given these mid-19th century communication practices.
Wills went to great lengths to dissect the speech in terms of many different influences and historical perspectives. In the process he created an intellectual masterpiece that will probably still be read and respected 100 years from now.
- Drew Gilpin Faust’s THIS REPUBLIC OF SUFFERING: DEATH AND THE AMERICAN CIVILWAR
- Shelby Foote’s SHILOH
- Richard Current’s THE LINCOLN NOBODY KNOWS
- Mr. Lincoln’s Telegraphy Practices and Modern Email
- Edward P. Jones’ THE KNOWN WORLD
- Shelby Foote’s THE CIVILWAR, A NARRATIVE: FORT SUMTER TO PERRYVILLE
Copyright © 2014 by Dennis D. McDonald, Ph.D.