Thursday, March 20, 2014

Lincoln at Gettysburg

Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America - Garry Wills

Historian and biographer Garry Wills argues that Lincoln’s purpose in giving the Gettysburg Address was "to 'win the whole Civil War in ideological terms as well as military ones" by clearing "the infected atmosphere of American history itself, tainted with official sins and inherited guilt." The sin and guilt stemmed from the inability and unwillingness of the founders and the generations in the early 19th century to deal with the national crime of race-based chattel slavery, an institution that made mock of the truths we hold to be self-evident. Wills contends that in the address Lincoln implicitly asserts the primacy of the Declaration of Independence over the Constitution as the supreme articulation of American government.

Wills says “Lincoln had revolutionized the Revolution, giving people a new past to live with that would change their future indefinitely.” Lincoln reminded the thousands of spectators and, when the speech was printed, thousands of newspaper readers of our country’s first principles those embedded in the Declaration of Independence. Wills notes that as early as 1854 Lincoln was urging his countrymen to "re-adopt the Declaration of Independence, and, with it, the practices and policy which harmonize with it." By doing so, he exhorted, "we shall not only have saved the Union, but we shall have so saved it as to make and to keep it forever worthy of the saving"

The book is not only about Lincoln and the address, but examines other topics since Wills’ curiosity and intelligence range widely, from the history of art to the history of Classic Hollywood Movies. He respects his readers enough to assume that they will hear him out. For instance, in the first chapter he discusses the Greek Revival in America. He covers Edward Everett's career as an influential orator. He places Lincoln's oratory within the tradition of classical rhetoric, which Wills studied as a grad student. In the second chapter, Wills provides a fascinating account of the rural cemetery as a cultural institution new in the death-conscious, mourning-obsessed 19th century. 

"Up to the Civil War," Wills says, "'the United States' was invariably a plural noun ... After Gettysburg, it became a singular . . Because of it [The Gettysburg Address], we live in a different America."

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