DKD Review of Lincoln at Gettysburg

[from the Christian Scholar's Review, September 1995, pp. 101-2]

Garry Wills' Lincoln at Gettysburg is a wonderful book by a mature scholar. The Henry R. Luce Professor of American Culture and Public Policy at Northwestern University, Wills could have written a ponderous, encyclopedic, "definitive" treatment of this important historic event, but instead recognizes, like Lincoln, that to be profound often requires that we be brief.

Like a geologist identifying the source of a major earthquake by triangulating from multiple locations, Wills finds the source of Lincoln's power in the identification of several sources from which Lincoln drew. Chapter 1, "Oratory of the Greek Revival," identifies the similarity between Lincoln's speech and classic Greek funeral oratory. Chapter 2, "Gettysburg and the Culture of Death," reminds us of how far we have strayed from a culture that once understood death as a gateway to eternal life, and the emotional power that grief can provide. Lincoln was wearing a black hat-band to mourn the death of his son; his culture's regular confrontation with untimely death produced what we might perceive as a morbid attraction to cemeteries. To them our contemporary avoidance of death would seem unnatural. Chapter 3, "The Transcendental Declaration," contrasts Lincoln's rejection of social equality for white and black with his strong commitment to political equality for white and black. Chapter 4, "Revolution in Thought," continues the theme of Chapter 3, pointing out how Lincoln embraced a new principle of equality while at the same time holding on to the constitutional tradition which had permitted inequality. Chapter 5, "Revolution in Style," demonstrates how thoroughly modern Lincoln was, from his embrace of the telegraph and its brevity to the adoption of "sound bites" in preference to long, flowery speeches. But it is in the Epilogue that the book achieves its greatest power. Wills shows the correspondence between the statement of a thesis at Gettysburg--that this nation, having been conceived in liberty and having been dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, must either fulfill its destiny or die in the attempt--with its prophetic fulfillment in the Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address.

To this reviewer an analogy between America of the 1860's and America of the 1990's was almost inescapable, although Wills never makes it. Like Lincoln, we live in a society torn between two cultures; one bases the worth of each individual upon the Biblical view of man as a fallen, but still redeemable, child of God; the other assigns each life a relative value based upon its perceived "quality" and the competing needs of a "Darwinist" ethic. But those of us caught in that struggle would do well to ponder Wills' portrait of Lincoln. Strangely, even though as Commander and Chief Lincoln would be expected to polarize his view of good and evil, Lincoln never lost sight of the fact that the war resulted from a failure of America, not just one section of it. Though he kept replacing generals until he found ones that were sufficiently aggressive in their tactics, Lincoln did not succumb to the Wechselwirkung noted by Clausewitz and other military observers, by which the savagery of one foe "ratchets up" the pace of atrocity until even once-decent leaders become butchers. No, as long as Lincoln remained at the helm, he would call for his own side (in proclaiming one day in November as a "Fast Day and Thanksgiving Day") to "recognize the hand of God in this terrible visitation [of war], and in sorrowful remembrance of our own faults and crimes as a nation and as individuals, to humble ourselves before Him, and to pray for His mercy--to pray that we may be spared further punishment, though most justly deserved . . .." Those of us who consider ourselves on the right side of the culture war should read this book at regular intervals, to remind ourselves how high the cost is to a nation that forgets its obligations to the least of its citizens. Lincoln suggested that it might be necessary for the war to continue "until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn by the sword"; notwithstanding, "as it was said three thousand years ago [in Psalm 19], so still it must be said, `the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.'"

If, just in the last 23 years, our nation has permitted in excess of 30 million abortions, what judgment awaits us? And how are we, in our own battle, to combine the humility and toughness that Lincoln demonstrated? Wills' masterful treatment of Lincoln is an invitation to such sobering reflection.