PROFESSIONAL historians often ignore both events and individuals in the hope of unearthing the underlying trends that "really" matter. Scholars - others too - can hedge their words until nearly all meaning is lost. So it is refreshing to see Gary Wills sally forth boldly in "Lincoln at Gettysburg" to give readers a "great man, great moment" view of history, with a vengeance. He is true to Lincoln and his age, whose people thought in those terms. Americans are fortunate that they are still able to listen.
Wills's book is complex, in places even difficult, but his argument is simple. In about 272 carefully chosen words at Gettysburg, Lincoln "remade America," he contends. Out of Gettysburg's broken land, broken bodies, and broken dreams, Lincoln created a new understanding of the country. His speech "hovers far above the carnage," mentioning "no names of men or sites or units, or even of sides" - or emancipation (this is 1863) or Gettysburg itself. But the address defines Americans as one people dedicated to one proposition: equality.
Lincoln thus takes Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, gives it a new meaning, and makes it the founding document for the nation. From 1863, "fourscore and seven years" go back to 1776, not 1789. By reshaping the Constitution and the slaveholding past, performing "one of the most daring acts of open-air sleight-of-hand ever witnessed by the unsuspecting," he reshapes the American future, Will says. "Words had to complete the work of the guns."
Lincoln could be so miraculously victorious - his own genius apart - because he had been prepared by lifelong learning and work. Wills draws with great erudition the cultural milieu from whence the Gettysburg Address sprang. I have spent three decades studying Lincoln, the last 10 at Gettysburg, but am dazzled by Wills. He analyzes the oratory of the Greek Revival period when Lincoln was a young man, with special focus on Harvard President Edward Everett, the main speaker at Gettysburg. The 19th-century "culture of death" receives searching scrutiny, with Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Mass., placed at its center. New England culture dominates by the time Wills discusses transcendentalism, abolitionist Theodore Parker, and Daniel Webster.
Out of the old, Lincoln brings forth not only "a new birth of freedom" but, Wills says, "a new lean language to humanize and redeem the first modern war." The Rev. T. H. Stockton, who gave the florid prayer at Gettysburg, spoke almost four times as many words as the president did.
More than a fourth of the book is an appendix. It discusses the various texts of the Gettysburg Address and the exact site of delivery, and includes texts of classic funeral orations by Pericles and Gorgias, as well as Everett. Lincoln's address has never been served better. Yet for all its scholarship, at its most important moments, Wills's work is an affirmation of faith, "self-evident truth," more than a demonstration of proof.
Mysteries remain (we are still not sure where Lincoln wrote his masterpiece), and mistakes crop up, minor and major. For example, Wills misquotes Psalms ("threescore years and ten" not "fourscore and ten" are allotted to mankind). He slights, among others, the influence of Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson on Lincoln. And while providing examples of the antecedents of the Gettysburg Address, Wills ignores the most important one: the growth of the American commitment to equality, particularly during Lincoln's
lifetime. Significantly, too, he does not appear to know that intimations of some basic ideas he presents as his own have been around for a long time.
On June 1, 1865, Sen. Charles Sumner delivered a eulogy in Boston entitled, "Promises of the Declaration of Independence and Abraham Lincoln." The speech traced the importance of Jefferson's Declaration with its idea of equality in Lincoln's thought. "I know not if this grand pertinacity has been noticed before," the old abolitionist orated and then examined the idea in Lincoln's words from the 1850s onward.
The Gettysburg Address, the senator sensed, was "a monumental act." And he explained, as other intellectuals have before Wills: "The battle itself was less important than the speech." The great achievement of the president's life, Sumner concluded, was in laying a new cornerstone for the Republic: the Declaration of Independence with Lincoln's name on it.
Sumner overlooked that the most essential part of the Declaration for Jefferson's generation, the right to revolt, would not have Lincoln's name on it. So does Wills, ironically, since he wrote a fascinating intellectual exercise on the Declaration, "Inventing America" (1978). He also seems not only to be unaware that foundations of "Lincoln at Gettysburg" start with Sumner but also that they continue in the Lincoln literature of the present.
One assumes that where he arrives at findings like those of others, he does so on his own, increasing the credibility of all such findings. When independent duplication occurs in historical studies, celebration is in order - especially when a brilliant man of letters reaches a large literate public with an important book.