Many of us recognize Abraham Lincoln as one of the most prominent American presidents in history. Many of us have heard of the phrase ‘government of people, by the people, for the people’. Many of us think we know the essence of the Gettysburg Address and its historical significances in the American Civil War, among which are freedom, democracy, equality. But there is more to it. In Lincoln at Gettysburg, Garry Wills guide us through both the history and literary significance of this 272-word address and show us how Lincoln hadn’t only defined the war but re-interpreted America to the one most of us know of today.
The book is organized into five chapters with a prologue, and an epilogue. Be noted that the epilogue should be carefully read, for it provides important information regarding the background of the post-war construction in Gettysburg. It debunks the myth that Lincoln wrote his speech on the back of an envelope on the train ride to Gettysburg, of which substantial evidence indicates that his speech was carefully composed and revised multiple times. Nevertheless, the most important task the epilogue has achieved is the introduction of Edward Everett, a prominent orator who delivered a lengthy address in Gettysburg that was intended to be the main focus. The crowd was drawn by Everett’s oration, not Lincoln’s, which was noted as “Dedicatory Remarks.”
The first chapter explains a swift in western philosophy at the time, from Roman to Greek, that was evident both in Everett’s and Lincoln’s speech. The founding fathers favored the Roman philosophy, which could be founded in the Federalist Papers and the Constitutional structure of indirect representation. Lincoln, however, favored the democratic nature of Greek philosophy for its stronger association with equality and freedom. In addition to speech length, Lincoln’s writing differs from Everett’s because it does not archaize but set the norm, and in the case of the Gettysburg Address, of democracy and equality being the cornerstone of American philosophy. Nevertheless, Lincoln’s intention to bring forth the style and philosophy of Greek literature is evident in the speech itself, whose structure resembles Athenian Epitaphioi, specially the Funeral Orations by Pericles, an Athenian Politician, along with extensive use of antithesis. This chapter, together with the last chapter that address his writing style, addresses the roots of Lincoln’s eloquence that had armed him well to interpret the version of early American history we learn today.
The second and third chapters examine the transcendental approach that Abraham Lincoln applied and lived by over the course of his career. The second chapter, Gettysburg and the Culture of Death, elaborates on the use of Greek-style antithesis between the death of the solders and the preservation of the Union, the deeds done by the warfare and the words recorded and passed down by the future generation.
The chapter concludes with an emphasis on an ideal...