Lincoln at Gettysburg Essay - Critical Essays

Lincoln at Gettysburg

In attempting a book-length study of an oration of 272 words, Wills has set himself a challenging task. Yet among his sixteen previous volumes, he has devoted one, INVENTING AMERICA (1978), to the Declaration of Independence and another, EXPLORING AMERICA (1981), to the FEDERALIST PAPERS. He solves the problem by placing Lincoln’s oration within a multiplicity of contexts.

On the most obvious level, the historical, Wills begins his narrative in July, 1863, following the battle, and concludes with the ceremony dedicating the cemetery in November, 1863, the occasion of Lincoln’s speech. Written in sparkling prose, the book offers a thorough account of the preparations for the dedication and analyses documents and historical questions relating to the address. In describing the cemetery, Wills even includes results of the latest historical research on the placement of the speaker’s platform.

Easily dispelling the myth that Lincoln produced his address casually en route, Wills gives a full account of its composition and clarifies variant readings in the early texts. Through painstaking rhetorical analysis, he illuminates both style and themes. In addition he compares the address with Greek funeral orations and the longer speech of Edward Everett, who preceded Lincoln on the program.

Beyond history and the speech itself, Wills places the oration within the contexts of Lincoln’s own developing thought regarding slavery and the nation. These in turn are subtly linked to other nineteenth century movements such as the Greek Revival, American Transcendentalism, and the Abolition Movement. Philosophically, Lincoln came to accept the Transcendentalist view that alongside the real nation existed an ideal one toward which the real state was evolving. Wills demonstrates that at Gettysburg Lincoln embraced the roots of American democracy by returning to the Declaration of Independence and championing its statement on equality as an ideal too long delayed.

Sources for Further Study

America. CLXVII, August 1, 1992, p. 50.

Chicago Tribune. May 31, 1992, XIV, p. 1.

The Christian Science Monitor. August 31, 1992, p. 13.

Commentary. XCIV, November, 1992, p. 54.

The New Republic. CCVII, July 13, 1992, p. 37.

The New York Review of Books. XXXIX, July 16, 1992, p. 3.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, June 7, 1992, p. 1.

Newsweek. CXIX, June 15, 1992, p. 54.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIX, April 13, 1992, p. 48.

The Washington Post Book World. XXII, June 14, 1992, p. 3.