Garry Wills
Garry Wills; drawing by David Levine

One of the questions often encountered by a Civil War historian is, “Why did the North fight?” Southern motives seem easier to understand. Southern states seceded because they perceived Lincoln’s election in 1860 as a threat to their social order. Confederates fought to defend their independence, their institutions (mainly slavery), their way of life, from the annihilation they feared would result from defeat. But why did Yankees fight? Why did they persist through four years of the bloodiest conflict in American history, which cost 360,000 Northern lives and, as a proportion of national wealth, the equivalent today of $3 trillion? Puzzling over the same question in 1863, the Confederate War Department clerk John Jones wrote in his diary:

Our men must prevail in combat, or lose their property, country, freedom, everything…. On the other hand, the enemy, in yielding the contest, may retire into their own country, and possess everything they enjoyed before the war began.1

To resolve the mystery of why the North fought, the inquirer can do no better than to read carefully Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. The answer is there, in this classic prose poem of 272 words that can be read aloud in two minutes. Many Americans have committed it to memory during their school days. But like the Apostles’ Creed, recited in unison every Sunday morning by millions of Christians, the Gettysburg Address is more often iterated than understood. Whole libraries of theology undergird the meaning of the Apostles’ Creed; generations of American political philosophy and experience lay behind the Gettysburg Address. A rich mythology has grown up around this mythic moment in American history; shelves of serious monographs, many of them devoted to puncturing the myths, have also proliferated on every aspect of the Gettysburg Address, from the question of where Lincoln stood when he delivered it to the deepest meaning of each phrase. Of all these studies, Garry Wills’s Lincoln at Gettysburg is the best as well as the newest. In precision and economy of language it emulates Lincoln’s masterpiece.

Wills dispels some of the curiously persistent myths about the occasion. The invitation to Lincoln to speak at the ceremony dedicating this first cemetery for Union war dead was not an insulting afterthought; Lincoln did not write his speech on the back of an envelope during the train ride to Gettysburg; Edward Everett’s two-hour oration did not leave the crowd so bored and restless that it paid no attention to Lincoln; Lincoln’s tenor speaking voice had great carrying power, and he could be heard clearly by the 15,000 people in the audience; the speech did not fall flat on the ears and minds of contemporaries, only to be revived and appreciated by later generations.

But all of these matters form the prologue to Wills’s thematic chapters, which trace the roots and analyze the meaning of both form and substance of the Gettysburg Address. Two of the these chapters in particular are a stunning tour de force. “Oratory of the Greek Revival” compares the occasion at Gettysburg with classical funeral oratory—notably Pericles’ famous funeral speech at Athens in 531 BC. The initial emphasis of this chapter is not on Lincoln but on Edward Everett. The most renowned orator of the age, Everett had been a professor of Greek literature at Harvard, president of that institution, congressman, governor, senator, minister to the Court of St. James, and secretary of state. Everett helped promote the Greek revival in American culture during the first half of the nineteenth century, when American public buildings and private homes sprouted Doric columns and dozens of frontier villages named themselves Athens, Troy, Sparta, or Syracuse. While studying at Göttingen for the first Ph.D. earned there by an American, Everett “went to Greece, to walk over the battlefields where the first democracy of the West won its freedom. He returned to America convinced that a new Athens was rising here.”

Everett modeled his Gettysburg Address on the themes of Greek drama as well as funeral orations. By conventional standards he succeeded. In their biography of Lincoln, the President’s private secretaries John Nicolay and John Hay praised Everett’s oration as “worthy alike of his own fame and the extraordinary occasion…. It is not too much to say that for the space of two hours he held his listeners spell-bound by the rare power of his art.”2 But no one today quotes Everett’s Gettysburg Address. “As Aeschylus had used the gods to explain Athenian ideals to the Athenians,” writes Wills, Everett “would use Greek ideals to explain America to Americans. That he failed is no disgrace, given the height of his aspiration. What is amazing, and can seem almost like a joke of the gods themselves, is that where he failed Lincoln succeeded.”

But whence came this “Periclean effect” that made Lincoln’s speech “at least as famous as the Athenian’s”? Lincoln had no Latin and even less Greek. The sum total of his formal education consisted of fewer than twelve months in the frontier “blab schools” of his day. Wills cannot trace any direct effect of Greek revival culture on Lincoln—except to note, rather vaguely, that the additions he made to his house in Springfield “were in the Greek Revival style.” Lincoln studied Euclid’s geometry on his own, as he studied grammar in a quest for Euclidean precision and logic in his literary style. Lincoln “was an artist, not just a scholar. Classicism of Everett’s sort looks backward; but the classic artifact sets standards for the future…. Lincoln’s Address created a political prose for America, to rank with the vernacular excellence of Twain.” Thus it was that Lincoln “sensed, from his own developed artistry, the demands that bring forth classic art—compression, grasp of the essential, balance, ideality.”


If Lincoln’s artistry was original, the Gettysburg Address nevertheless bears striking parallels with the classical model. Greek prose was characterized by antithesis; so was Lincoln’s. The following polarities in the Gettysburg Address are also present in Pericles’ funeral oration and in other surviving Epitaphioi:

  1. Mortal and immortal. The soldiers’ lives were cut short but their work will live forever: “those who here gave their lives” so that the government “shall not perish from the earth.”
  2. Athenians and others. America, too, was different: “a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
  3. Word and deed. The words of an oration cannot match the deeds of fallen heroes. “The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”
  4. Teachers and taught. By their deaths, those who fell in the war with Sparta taught the polis to live: “from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.”
  5. Choice and determination. The necessity of death for the life of the nation is contrasted to the heroes’ choice to risk their lives: “that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.”
  6. Past and present. “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth… Now we are engaged in a great civil war… It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the unfinished work remaining before us.”
  7. Life and death. This is the greatest polarity, the principle antithesis that subsumes the others in Lincoln’s Address as in the Epitaphioi. The antithesis in the Gettysburg Address follows a birth/death/rebirth cycle:

Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty….

We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who gave their lives that the nation might live….

We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.

Thus, according to Wills, “The largest contrasts of existence are focused on one moment of history…. The Address does what all great art accomplishes. Like Keats’s Grecian urn, it ‘tease[s] us out of thought / As doth eternity.”‘ What is that ultimate meaning? Wills’s chapter “The Transcendental Declaration” comes closest to teasing it out. Here the dominant motif is not the classicism of the Greek revival but the romantic idealism of Transcendentalism, a philosophy that measured the real by its relationship to the ideal, a product of the mind that transcends reality. In this chapter Theodore Parker, like Everett a Massachusetts intellectual, is Lincoln’s unconscious mentor and foil.


p class=”initial”>Lincoln’s law partner William Herndon was a devoted follower of Parker; Herndon persuaded Lincoln to read some of the works of that militant Transcendentalist and antislavery leader. Parker’s idealism had a distinctly patriotic component; its text was the Declaration of Independence, “the American idea” by which the reality of history was to be measured. Both Parker and Lincoln regarded the Declaration that all men are created with an equal and unalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as the ideal on which the United States was founded. That ideal was not a reality in Jefferson’s time, nor was it in Parker’s and Lincoln’s; but for Lincoln that did not diminish its transcendent truth, or the duty of Americans to bring their institutions progressively closer to that truth.

The Declaration proclaimed equal liberty; the Constitution sanctioned slavery; Lincoln’s political philosophy envisioned the convergence of these founding charters until the ideal became real. That is why Stephen A. Douglas’s Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 propelled Lincoln back into the political maelstrom that elected him president six years later. By legalizing the expansion of slavery, the Kansas-Nebraska Act reversed the promised course of American history, Lincoln said, and defiled the ideal of the Founders. “The spirit of seventy-six and the spirit of [Kansas-]Nebraska, are utter antagonisms,” said Lincoln in his remarkable Peoria speech of 1854, which anticipated the central theme of the Gettysburg Address.

Little by little…we have been giving up the OLD for the NEW faith. Near eighty years ago we began by declaring that all men are created equal; but now from that beginning we have run down to the other declaration, that for SOME men to enslave OTHERS is a “sacred right of self-government.” These principles can not stand together…. Our republican robe is soiled, and trailed in the dust. Let us re-purify it…. Let us re-adopt the Declaration of Independence, and with it, the practices, and policy, which harmonize with it…. If we do this, we shall not only have saved the Union; but we shall have so saved it, as to make, and to keep it, forever worthy of the saving.3

The great achievement of the Gettysburg Address, Wills maintains, was to bring America a giant step closer to the ideal affirmed by the Declaration. It reshaped a Constitution that permitted slavery, squaring it with a Declaration that proclaimed liberty; this was the “new birth of freedom.” Thus “the Gettysburg Address has become an authoritative expression of the American spirit,” writes Wills, “as authoritative as the Declaration itself, and perhaps even more influential, since it determines how we read the Declaration. For most people now, the Declaration means what Lincoln told us it means, as a way of correcting the Constitution itself without overthrowing it.” That is why this book is subtitled “The Words That Remade America.” The 15,000 people who heard Lincoln at Gettysburg


departed with a new thing in [their] intellectual baggage, that new constitution Lincoln had substituted for the one they brought there with them. They walked off from those curving graves on the hillside, under a changed sky, into a different America.

Some contemporaries recognized this and did not like it. Wills quotes a biting editorial from the Chicago Times, claiming that Lincoln had besmirched the Constitution. “It was to uphold this constitution,…” declared the editor, “that our officers and soldiers gave their lives at Gettysburg.” How dare Lincoln “misstate the cause for which they died, and libel the statesmen who founded the government? They were men possessing too much self-respect to declare that negroes were their equals, or were entitled to equal privileges.”


p class=”initial”>These sentiments had a large constituency in the North. The Chicago Times was a leading Democratic paper, inclined toward the Copperhead wing of the party. This raises an issue that Wills does not pursue. The myth that Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was poorly received at the time has some basis in fact. The basis is its hostile reception by Democrats, the not-so-loyal opposition that lost no opportunity to traduce Lincoln and his war policies, particularly emancipation, in vicious, racist rhetoric that sometimes shocks modern sensibilities. The Republican press generally praised the Gettysburg Address; Edward Everett himself wrote a gracious note to Lincoln the next day: “I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”4 The partisan nature of contemporary enmity to Lincoln and to the ideas expressed in the Gettysburg Address is often missed by modern writers.

A discussion of this theme, however, might have proved a digression from Wills’s central purpose. That purpose requires, and gets, an analysis of one other theme: Union. To preserve the Union, not to give it a new birth of freedom, was the reason the North went to war in 1861. For Lincoln and his party the abolition of slavery became by 1863 an integral and essential byproduct of this determination. But Union remained the dominant war aim. That was the cause for which “these honored dead” gave “the last full measure of devotion.” But why? What did the Union mean to them, to Lincoln? Wills addresses this question in a chapter that, although sound as far as it goes, does not sparkle with the same luster as the others.

Wills disposes effectively of the notion “that Lincoln did not really have arguments for union, just a kind of mystical attachment to it.” Lincoln did share with many Americans a sort of transcendental nationalism, expressed in the peroration of his first inaugural address: “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”5 But Lincoln also evoked a rigorous constitutional nationalism that owed much to Daniel Webster. The Union existed prior to the states, Lincoln maintained. It was formed by the Articles of Association in 1774, which fathered the United States in 1776. These united states in turn adopted the Articles of Confederation, which declared their union to be “perpetual”; the preamble of the Constitution that superseded the Articles of Confederation proclaimed “a more perfect Union” than the perpetual one inaugurated by the Articles. This Constitution was adopted by “We the People,” not by the thirteen states as separate entities; the Union was a bond among all of the American people, not a voluntary association of states that could be disbanded by action of any one or several of them.

This was the constitutional theory on which Lincoln denied the right of secession, and on which the North fought the war for the Union. But as a theory it lacked the passion that inspired a people to fight a bloody and destructive war. Secession threatened America’s mission as a city on a hill, its destiny as a republican government of, by, and for the people. That government launched four score and seven years before Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg was a fragile experiment in a world bestrode by kings, emperors, czars, dictators, theories of aristocracy and inequality. Would this brave experiment succumb to the dismal fate of most republics through history and collapse into tyranny or disintegrate into petty, squabbling fragments? Many Americans alive in 1861 had seen two French republics rise and fall, and Latin American republics come and go with bewildering rapidity. If secession triumphed, they feared the no-longer-United States would go the same way as the others, proving the contention of European monarchists and aristocrats that this upstart democratic republic across the Atlantic could not last.

Thus the North fought to ensure that “the last, best hope” of republicanism “shall not perish from the earth,” as Lincoln put it. “Our popular government has often been called an experiment,” he said in his first message to Congress.

Two points in it, our people have already settled—the successful establishing, and the successful administering of it. One still remains—its successful maintenance against a formidable internal attempt to overthrow it…. And this issue embraces more than the fate of these United States. It presents to the whole family of man, the question, whether a constitutional republic, or a democracy—a government of the people, by the same people—can, or cannot, maintain its territorial integrity.6

At about the same time, Lincoln told his private secretary that

the central idea pervading this struggle is the necessity that is upon us, of proving that popular government is not an absurdity. We must settle this question now, whether in a free government the minority have the right to break up the government whenever they choose. If we fail it will go far to prove the incapability of the people to govern themselves.7


p class=”initial”>This was the passion that sustained four years of fighting; the war was a struggle for the soul of America, for the survival of the republican experiment. Just as the secession of Soviet republics and the collapse of the Soviet Union betokened the failure of communism, Lincoln and the people for whom he spoke feared that secession in 1861 betokened the failure of democracy. “We must fight,” declared an Indianapolis newspaper,

not because we want to subjugate the South, but because we must. The National Government has been assailed. The Nation has been defied. If either can be done with impunity neither Nation nor Government is worth a cent…. War is self preservation, if our form of Government is worth preserving. If monarchy would be better, it might be wise to quit fighting, admit that a Republic is too weak to take care of itself, and invite some deposed Duke or Prince of Europe to come over here and rule us. But otherwise, we must fight.8

On the second anniversary, in 1863, of his enlistment, an Ohio sergeant wrote in his diary that he had not expected the war to go on this long, but no matter how much longer it lasted, it must be prosecuted “for the great principles of liberty and self government at stake, for should we fail, the onward march of Liberty in the Old World will be retarded at least a century, and Monarchs, Kings, and Aristocrats will be more powerful against their subjects than ever.” 9

This is the profound commitment that Lincoln expressed so well in his wartime letters and speeches, above all in the Gettysburg Address. This is why he described the war as a “testing whether that nation, or any nation…conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal…can long endure.” The “unfinished task which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced” was nothing less than preservation of the republican experiment so that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” This was why the North fought; this is the vital meaning of the Gettysburg Address. Regrettably, that meaning does not come into sharp focus in Wills’s analysis, for all the luminosity and insight of his chapters on the Greek revival, the Transcendental ideology, and the formation of Lincoln’s literary style.

Note also the recurrence of the word “nation” in the quotation from the Indianapolis newspaper two paragraphs above, and in the Gettysburg Address. Not Union, but Nation. This too is a significant theme, not noted by Wills. In his first inaugural, Lincoln used the word Union twenty times and the word nation not once. In his first message to Congress, on July 4, 1861, he mentioned Union thirty-two times and nation only three times. But in the brief Gettysburg Address, he referred to the nation five times and to the Union not at all. If the Gettysburg Address was composed of “Words That Remade America,” it marked a significant stage in the transformation from the loose and fragile Union of 1861 to the triumphant nation of 1865.

This Issue

July 16, 1992