Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America by Garry Wills
This book was recommended by good friend from San Francisco Rory Dowd, a U.S. History expert and junior high school teacher who is able to talk about history and the American culture as through Lincoln as much as Archie Bunker.
I was especially drawn to this book because of the current trend of comparing our current well-read president-elect to our last well-read president. Working in a bookstore, I am acutely aware of the number of books on Lincoln. With his 200th birthday this year and the flock of people who aim to learn about Obama from Lincoln, I spend much of my day with the hundreds of books we carry about Lincoln. This was the perfect book, for me, to be my first book on Lincoln.
I have never much agreed with the Civil War, or the Lincoln Presidency. Despite my lack of in-depth education on the topic and the attempts at educating me by people like Rory, I always resisted the notion of attacking people who no longer wanted to be a part of our country (despite their reliance on the great moral mistake of slavery.) This book, and its insight into Lincoln the moralist and Lincoln the Shakespearean, changed my feelings on this and led me to understand just how one man devoted his life to creating a moral and just country. Just as Jefferson used his commission to write the Declaration of Independence as a platform to set out his vision of what the American Republican should be, so did Lincoln use this battle eulogy to set out his; four score and eight years later he sought to renew the idealism of the American republic. (Coincidently enough another book THE BOYS OF POINTE du Hoc which I am readng in August talks about Reagan’s speach at Normandy, which set out to do the same thing with the last days of the Soviet Union
Too often it seems our great presidential speeches are either ones of policy and based on doctrines (Truman, Bush, FDR) or if they appear idealistic they are, in fact, hiding a greater political motive (JFK going to moon, or the peace corps stuff.) Gettysburg was different though, at least Wills argues in this book. Lincoln’s eulogy at the newly consecrated graveyard was based on historical rhetorical form in the fashion of Cicero and Pericles while embodying the northeast/transcendental views of the time, but still remaining deeply rooted in the great documents of American history. Lincoln was not just the leader of our country with this address, he was the American philosopher and his speech wasn’t crafted on anything to do with the compromises or motives of politics but in many ways was the work of a man akin to Plato, Hobbes and Jefferson (and much shorter!)
In regard to the current comparisons of our President-elect, well, this book makes them absurd. This is not an insult to Mr. Obama what-so-ever, but while his cigarette fueled voice and brilliance in regards to the state of race issues in our country might give many of us hope, Lincoln set forth the values of our nation that we still embody today.
Little compares to that.
Even the civil right movement takes as it tenets things set forth in that speech that had never previously been stated in such a profound and public way. Perhaps the timing will be right within the next few years to restate the morals and ideals of this America but we still have Lincoln’s vision to fulfill: 145 years later we still sit with “the unfinished work” of the fallen soldiers at Gettysburg. After all, for every black leader there is a Prop 8 and for every democratically elected official there is a 2000 election. Reading this speech over and over and over again for a week made me feel like if Lincoln were to come back today and I were to greet him I’d have a lot of good things to tell him, but that also I wouldn’t be able to look him in the eye. This is not to say that things haven’t drastically improved since this speech but that, perhaps, we don’t quite embody it as a people as much as we tell every fifth grader we should.
I highly recommend this book, because it places this American speech within a world historical moment, because it demonstrates a speech by a politician that is bigger than the politics surrounding him and because, above all, Garry Wills always has a way to look into the words themselves to describe history and men (read his books on Jesus and Paul too) rather than giving a generic overview of history.