Favorite Non-Fiction Books, #42: Lincoln at Gettysburg, The Words that Remade America
For the birthday of perhaps our greatest president, I thought I’d share Garry Wills’s enjoyable treatise on perhaps our greatest presidential speech. The Gettysburg Address is, of course, a deeply familiar piece of secular scripture, ranking alongside the Declaration of Independence as a masterful expression of the American political mind. I name the Declaration as it is the direct antecedent to Lincoln’s brief address, and the speech takes great pains to make the argument that this is in fact a second Declaration, and the Civil War is a second American Revolution.
(You’ll forgive me for the following, as I’m typing on a phone from a hospital bed without the book at hand, working from morphine-addled memory.)
You can trace the lines of the Address and it’s laden with meaning (I once did this with a very skeptical and largely disinterested eighth grade history class). Lincoln starts right out with a direct reference to 1776, citing the time passed since our fathers brought forth a new nation “conceived in liberty”. That word choice is so intentional, so vital. The Second Continental Congress only engaged in America’s conception, and in the decades since it had been gestating, a nation in the womb. So when he later says how our great task is to give that nation “a new birth of freedom,” he’s suggesting that it’s time for gestation to end and for this young country to come into the world and realize its potential. It’s a powerful, resonant analogy.
He goes on to note that this nation was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” A proposition, a theory, an experiment really, one rooted in English common law and Enlightenment theory. This was a new idea, one that hadn’t been tried elsewhere, not really. And here we were being tested as to whether that idea would really work, and whether that proposition could stand. In many ways, that remains an open question. And while Lincoln reflects on the service rendered by those soldiers who fell in battle defending the Union, he also tells us that the work is unfinished.
I can’t emphasize this point enough - America is an unfinished exercise, a continuing experiment, in self-governance, in equality, in freedom. Our work isn’t about making America great again, about harkening back to some halcyon day when the job was done. It’s about working every day to secure that self-governance and broaden that equality and nourish that spark of freedom. Nobody owns that idea. Nobody owns this nation. It’s our experiment together, conceived in 1776 and reborn in 1863 and one that thrives or is neglected every year as we choose together how to cherish this fragile ember of democracy.
I can’t help but feel that we stand on the precipice of another great turning point, another great choice, in how we will progress together. But as Lincoln tried to tell us seven score and fifteen years ago, it is for us to take increased devotion to that cause, and that we here highly resolve that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.