Lincoln at Gettysburg

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Although Garry Wills labels himself a conservative, he espouses positions that make some conservatives consider him a maverick, if not an outright liberal. He once supported unilateral reductions of nuclear weapons, saying that nothing is more conservative than conserving the world. Fond of quoting St. Augustine, Walter Bagehot, and John Henry Newman, he reminds one of what the nineteenth century called a political philosopher, though his academic training centered on the classics and for a number of years he taught Greek. Like a philosopher, he has a fondness for coining terms, derived from common expressions but endowed with special and sometimes arcane meanings. Often his learned approach operates at a level at which distinctions between conservatism and liberalism become blurred, having been subtly filtered through elegant intellectual constructs. During a long career in journalism and in academe, Wills has produced numerous books. In what is perhaps the clearest articulation of his political views, Confessions of a Conservative (1979), he expresses his admiration for the coherence and continuity of the American political system. At the same time, he admires proponents of moral progress and difficult change and finds them indispensable for institutions such as the church and the state.

In viewing a nation as a complex association of numerous interrelated and overlapping groups—from the family to entire states—Wills resembles Edmund Burke. Burke’s vision comprehends the complexity and intricacy of the political and social system, and as a result he places a premium on those conventions that remain unwritten. When he wrote that he knew of no law whereby a whole people could be condemned, Burke reflected his view that law originates from the people. Being the source of laws, they could not be condemned as a whole by legislative law, no matter how rational and expedient it might be.

According to Wills, this appeal to a broad constituency and to philosophical principles undergirding the law is what Abraham Lincoln reflected when he spoke of government of the people and for the people. In 1863, it enabled him to return to the roots of democracy in the United States, to the Declaration of Independence issued four score and seven years before, as the document that founded the nation. It also enabled him to regard Southerners not as enemies but as misguided and misled rebels. As Wills points out, Lincoln never recognized secession as legal, in part because of his firm conviction that sovereignty, having been derived from the people, cannot reside within the states as units.

In Lincoln at Gettysburg, winner of the 1992 National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism, Wills sets himself the challenging task of producing a book-length study of a document 272 words long, a speech that required only three minutes to deliver. Scholarship boasts a long history of books about other books: Each Shakespearean play is the subject of book-length studies, and hundreds of books have been published on John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667, 1674). Book-length studies of single orations, however, are rare. Even so, Wills approaches the task with at least a modicum of experience, for among his sixteen previous volumes, Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence (1978) elucidates the Declaration of Independence and Explaining America: The Federalist (1981) analyzes The Federalist Papers (1788).

The book reflects Wills’s mastery of an interdisciplinary approach. At times he is writing history; at others, reportage, literary criticism, rhetorical analysis, philosophy, or political science. Drawing upon a generous sprinkling of disciplines, he places Lincoln’s oration within a multiplicity of contexts, both obvious and subtle.

The historical account begins with the conclusion of the Battle of Gettysburg in July, 1863, and narrates events leading to the occasion of Lincoln’s speech, the program dedicating the National Cemetery on the site atop Cemetery Hill on No- vember 19, 1863. Details of the three-day battle are absent, except for the rather full narrative found in Edward Everett’s florid oration, which Wills reprints in an appendix. After narrating the movements of the two armies in the battle’s confused aftermath, so disappointing to the respective leaders of the Union and the Confederacy that each commander offered his resignation, Wills turns to the burial details involving temporary interment for thousands, the selection of the cemetery site, and preparations for the dedication ceremony. Wills reproduces the printed program for November 19, highlighted by Everett’s two-hour oration and listing Lincoln’s subsequent address as...

(The entire section is 1942 words.)