Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Book Review 392: Lincoln at Gettysburg

LINCOLN AT GETTYSBURG: The Words that Remade America, by Garry Wills. 315 pages. Simon & Schuster, $23

As usual, when Garry Wills takes a closer look, American myths get debunked.

In “Lincolh at Gettysburg” we learn that our most eloquent president did not scratch out his Gettysburg address on an envelope on the train ride to the battlefield but (of course) labored over it for some time. That it was received well at the North and was not disparaged or belittled. That Edward Everett’s centerpiece address, though long, was not windy or tedious and was welcomed also as  summation of the conflict up to that time.

Those points, however, are not the thrust of Wills’s book, which was written in 1992 but has more punch now than it did 25 years ago, if only for this summation of Lincoln’s argument against Stephen Douglas in the quarrel about slavery:

“Government by the people cannot exist where those who believe in equality are asked to sacrifice that belief (and its expression) in the name of social concord.”

Still less, we might think, when the sacrifice is being demanded in the name of social discord, as today.

However, as trenchant as that page is, it is not the main thrust of Wills’s argument, which is that Lincoln, with a three-minute statement of aims and beliefs, “altered the document  (the Constitution) from within by appeal from its letter to the spirit, subtly changing the recalcitrant stuff of that legal compromise, bringing it to its own indictment.”

It was not easily done.

Today, liberals often criticize Trumpeters for waving the “treason flag.” This is entirely correct but it is not a claim that Lincoln was able to countenance. His goal, in war, was preservation of the Union, not abolition or any other good. Politically, he had a delicate task: to keep the four slave states that had not seceded from leaving the Union.

Therefore, Lincoln, formerly the lawyer for the nation’s biggest corporation (the Illinois Central Railroad (now owned by Canadians, how’s them apples?), argued that states had no legal capacity to secede. Therefore, the Confederate States of America had only a fictive existence, and, consequently, its adherents, even if in rebellion against the national government, had not given allegiance to another state and so could not be traitors.

This argument is bogus in every respect but, we may think, was an act of great political wisdom. Or, we may equally as well think, by allowing the white supremacists (who really were traitors in their own hearts) back into communion with the Union as equals, Lincoln’s policy, as expressed in the post-Reconstruction years, did end up sacrificing equality in the name of social concord — among whites. Blacks, browns and yellows did not experience much concord.

Wills writes, too optimistically:

“Lincoln does not argue law or history . . . He makes history. He does not come to present a theory, but to impose a symbol . . . No other words could have done it. . . . In his brief time before the crowd at Gettysburg he wove  a spell that has not, yet, been broken.”

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