Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America

ISBN: 0671867423
ISBN 13: 9780671867423
By: Garry Wills

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The power of words has rarely been given a more compelling demonstration than in the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln was asked to memorialize the gruesome battle. Instead he gave the whole nation "a new birth of freedom" in the space of a mere 272 words. His entire life & previous training & his deep political experience went into this, his revolutionary masterpiece. By examining both the address & Lincoln in their historical moment & cultural frame, Wills breathes new life into words we thought we knew, & reveals much about a president so mythologized but often misunderstood. Wills shows how Lincoln came to change the world & to effect an intellectual revolution, how his words had to & did complete the work of the guns, & how Lincoln wove a spell that hasn't yet been broken.Key to Brief CitationsPrologue1 Oratory of the Greek revival2 Gettysburg & the culture of death 3 The transcendental declaration 4 Revolution in thought5 Revolution in style App 1 What Lincoln said: the textApp 2 Where he said it: the siteApp 3 Four funeral orations A. By Everett B. By Pericles C. By Gorgias D. The Gettysburg address: 1. Spoken text 2. Final textAcknowledgmentsNotesIndex to the Gettysburg AddressIndex to Other Major Lincoln TextsName IndexPhoto Credits

Reader's Thoughts

Evan Brandt

About halfway through.Some very interesting arguments about Lincoln's view of the Constitution and, more particularly, of the Declaration as a formative founding document.An interesting premise well-argued.Wills makes the case that Lincoln knew what he was doing when he gave the address -- appropriate within the cemetery fad of the time -- and re-cast the war in a conceptual framework that was testing the experiment begun by the founders.He does spend some time disputing other interpretation that I am not familiar with, so that was a bit annoying but I understand that was probably one of the reasons the book was written.Anyway, I have shied away from Civil War history because there is so much material and still so much contention surrounding this.But, having just visited Gettysburg, this was a nice way to dip my toe in the water.


An interesting, yet difficult book to get through. I found the author of this book to be very intelligent and well educated. He knew his stuff in such tremendous detail that it was astounding. However, I found the book to be a let-down for me. The book was an academic book that seemed to be more of a criticism of other historians views of Lincoln and his writings than it was about the actual Gettysburg Address. There were parts of the book I greatly enjoyed that dealt with the creation and set-up of cemeteries and the actual thought and word play Lincoln used in the Address. However, as a whole, I thought that all of the Greek references and things of the like were a bit too dry. This might be on me more than it is on the author, but that is my take. I have read so many great books dealing with Lincoln that I thought this one lacked any excitement at all.

Mike Wood

Great analysis of the Gettysburg address. Lincoln interpreted the civil war not as a war between two peoples but rather as an insurrection. Thus it was a police action, not a war. He understood it as the ultimate test of the experiment of a people governing themselves. He argued that the Declaration of Independence laid out the ideal; that each person has inalienable rights; in the pursuit of these rights all men are equal. This was experimental at the time and the ability to self-govern was a necessary component; if man was not able to govern itself then equality was impossible since some would end up ruling over others.The fact that America did not live up to the ideal of the Declaration was clear. In addition to slavery, most other non-white groups were not considered equal. The constitution was the embodiment of those ideals, and as we evolve, it evolves. If Lincoln could get buy-in to the Declaration and its ideals, he believed society would progress towards that ideal. This was a Transcendental approach.Lincoln, with the Gettysburg address, made the argument that we all must continue to work towards that ideal of self-government as a union. Wills points to this address as creating a turning point in the minds of America from that of a confederacy of states to a single nation defining its values.Aside from the philosophical discussion, Wills also analyzes the construction of the address. He shows how Lincoln leveraged rhetorical theory of the time, including Hugh Blair's lectures on rhetoric and the great Orators of Lincoln's time: Daniel Webster, Henry Clay and John C Calhoun.


Okay, no one throw rocks at me yet. I picked up this book with high, high hopes. After all, I think it even won a pulitzer prize. The prologue was well-written and interesting, and then... it sunk. I started reading the first chapter and was bored to tears. A whole chapter on the breakdown of the ancient Greek style of speaking? I skimmed over to chapter 2 and didn't make it through that one either. So now it's lying neglected somewhere in our apartment. If I have dismissed this book way too soon and am missing out on great things, please tell me! I'm willing to give it another try if someone will vouch for it. Otherwise, Goodwill is about to get a new book!

John Sundman

This book is great. It's elegantly written, well-argued, well-documented and full of insight and information. Wills not only explains Lincoln's rhetorical techniques, he situates them in the context of classical rhetoric (in particular the ancient Greek funeral-for-heroes speech), American cultural trends of the mid 1800's (in particular Transcendentalism and the "rural cemetery" movement), and Lincoln's own history as a writer and giver of speeches. Most importantly, he demonstrates how Lincoln used the address to promulgate his philosophy about the nature of the political Union that is the United States of America. Lincoln believed that the American people had decided that they were one people, one nation, at least as early as 1776, and emphatically proved they were with the Declaration of Independence and the Revolution. In Lincoln's view, the 1787 Constitution did not make the Union; it only made the already-existing Union (in the words of the Constitution's preamble) "more perfect". The Union was "given birth" by an idea, and its ideal was spelled out in the Declaration. The Constitution is nothing more or less than an imperfect attempt to make that ideal reality, subject to political constraints at any point in time. Seen in this light, the stirring last sentence of the Gettysburg Address is more than a clever Jedi mind-trick to arouse patriotic fervor, it's a rebuttal to every kind of "States' Rights" revisionistic history, and a succinct statement of what the Civil War and the Battle of Gettysburg were all about. The speech itself truly is a masterpiece, and Wills's book is equal to the task of explaining why and how this is so. Highly recommended.


Some time ago, it suddenly came to me that Lincoln's Gettysburg Address was in large part derived from Pericles' funeral oration, as reported by Thucydides. What a great revalation! Maybe I could write an article! So, I looked on the web only to discover that everybody had known this for a long time, and I was the last to find out. Oh, well.The main speaker at the dedication of the Gettysburg cemetary was Edward Everett, whose supposed ramblings have always been unfavorably compared to Lincoln's address. But Everett's speech wasn't bad at all. But it just so happened that it was followed by the greatest speech ever given.

Phillip Rhoades

A phenomenal book worthy of any history collection. Garry Wills' offers a unique approach to a well-studied President; understand the man through his words more than his actions. Wills dissects the most important speeches of Lincoln's career to address his philosophy, his mentors and the impacts he had on the Union. A superb book that could easily be read multiple times to fully gain the author's depth of knowledge. (Be forewarned, this is not a casual read but highly academic in structure and assumed knowledge of reader; have a dictionary and be willing to research the vast concepts utilized with the book).

Paul Haspel

Lincoln and Gettysburg are inextricably interlinked, and the link between them is likely to impress itself upon one's mind with particular strength on a day such as this one. It was 150 years ago today, after all -- November 19, 1863 -- that President Abraham Lincoln delivered his dedication address for the newly completed National Cemetery at Gettysburg. Four months had passed since the tremendous battle of July 1-3 had turned the tide of civil war permanently in the Union's favor, albeit at an exceedingly high cost -- 46,000 casualties, including almost 8,000 soldiers killed. It is now a matter of record that Lincoln's Gettysburg Address put the Civil War on a new moral footing, gave it new meaning. Many authors have told that story before; but none, to my mind, has done so as well as Garry Wills in his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1993 book Lincoln at Gettysburg.Wills, a prolific author who brings his formidable intellect and erudition to a wide range of historical topics, is particularly well-qualified to write about Abraham Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address. One of his most notable earlier books is Inventing America: Jefferson's Declaration of Independence (1978); and as Wills points out, the links between the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address are many and strong. Lincoln revered Jefferson as the greatest advocate of American liberty and saw the Declaration as the one indispensable American text; it is no accident that the Gettysburg Address begins with that four-score-and-seven-years ago reference to the Declaration.Yet Lincoln at Gettysburg is not all about the DOI: far from it. Wills sets the Gettysburg Address within a cultural and historical context that encompasses Transcendentalism, Greek Revival culture, and the 19th century's striking attitudes regarding death and mourning.For Wills, the Gettysburg Address goes beyond the Declaration, redefines the Declaration, in the American mind. It is for this reason that the book has the subtitle The Words That Remade America, as Wills makes clear in passages like this one:"The Gettysburg Address has become an authoritative expression of the American spirit -- 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....By accepting the Gettysburg Address, its concept of a single people dedicated to a proposition, we have been changed. Because of it, we live in a different America." (pp. 146-47)The book's epilogues and appendices are every bit as helpful as its core content. One epilogue, titled "The Other Address," relates the Gettysburg to Lincoln's other best-known address -- his Second Inaugural Address of March 4, 1865, itself the subject of another magnificent study, Ronald White's Lincoln's Greatest Speech (2003). Edward Everett's two-hour oration from the cemetery dedication is here as well; it's perfectly passable, but seems bland and ordinary when Everett's words are compared with Lincoln's. You can even read the Athenian leader Pericles' renowned funeral oration from 431 B.C., the first year of the Peloponnesian War; as Wills notes, Pericles' oration from classical times had a marked influence on the attitudes toward military heroism and death that existed in Lincoln's time.Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America is essential reading for anyone with an interest in Civil War history, Lincoln studies, or American history generally.


Transformative.This book tied together many disparate threads, from Pericles' funeral speech to Transcendentalists to Lincoln's sense of comic timing to the "rural cemetary movement". At times I thought I was reading a Greil Marcus book about the Gettysburg Address.The book is a great companion to The Battle Cry of Freedom. Where Battle Cry tries to take the entire civil war era in one great gulp, Lincoln at Gettysburg zooms in on one short speech and uncovers subtle details of the times and insights into Lincoln's thinking. My favorite part is when Wills describes an exchange between Lincoln and his secretary about how lines from Shakespeare should be read.

Robert Melnyk

Definitely not one of my favorites. I gave it 2 stars only because Lincoln and Civil War history are one of my favorite subjects, but overall I found this book to be pretty boring. I was expecting more of a history book, going into details of why Lincoln said what he did, events leading up to the speech, ramifications of the speech, etc. There was some of that, but for the most part, this book was more of an English lesson, comparing various writing styles throughout history. A bit of that would have been fine, but the extent that this book went into that subject made it pretty much of a snooze for me. I almost put it down after the second chapter, and then towards the end, I skimmed quite a bit. If you like Lincoln and the Civil War, skip this one and read "The Killer Angels" and "April 1865" instead.

Bryn Dunham

This was not the book I expected to read. I thought I would be reading about the event of Nov.19, 1863, but instead this was about the actual words/composition that is referred to as "The Gettysburg Address". Instead of getting a detailed account of the events of the day and other details about the battle, I read about the history of the style of the writing, the history of speeches as part of historical tradition, and how Lincoln's speech differed from Edward Everett's long speech that highlighted the ceremony, in both content and language. Needless to say this was a dry read though not totally uninteresting. Very well written though I feel a tad over critical of Lincoln and his shifting attitudes about race, slavery, abolition, and emancipation. At times I felt that the Pulitzer Prize winning author performed the classic error of historians; judging the past through the lens of our current time and contemporary values. Wills implies throughout that was Lincoln was a racist in the modern sense and only acted upon politically expedient motives. Either way this was analysis I didn't expect to read about in this particular book. Well written, a bit of a bore, but a book of solid American history.


Well-researched, extremely esoteric, but also very illuminating on both how the Gettysburg Address was written and what role the Address served in both the development of the country and the public understanding of the war and Lincoln's motivations in fighting it. Makes a really good argument for the Address as the next logical evolution of the Constitution and why someone needed to say these things. In other words, the book presents a solid argument for why the Gettysburg Address is far more than just a great piece of American oratory but also serves as a guidepost for American politics and development.


Really contextualize Lincolns address and how it both arose from and stand in opposition to the oratory of the time and the way Lincoln was using it to work out larger points in his political thought and bring others along with him.

David Powell

I really liked this book, but reserved the five star rating because I imagined that some readers would not find it captivating if only because it delves into background influences that are, frankly, less than exciting. For instance, Transcendentalism is not something that rings many bells. I know; I tried to teach it to high school juniors for nearly forty years. And the influence of Mount Auburn Cemetery on the creation of the Gettysburg burial ground is fascinating to me because I live a mile away from Mount Auburn, but, for others, maybe it's not so fascinating. All that being said, Wills makes a strong case for Lincoln being a lot more than a country rube. Lincoln, in one short oration, clarified our Declaration of Independence and shaped the future direction of American prose and American philosophy. That was no small accomplishment. I would recommend this book as a corollary read to anyone who has already read considerably about Lincoln and the Civil War era.(less)


Wills evokes the stink of the corpses, some barely covered at the time of this historic dedication:A nurse shuddered at the all-too-visible "rise and swell of human bodies" in these furrows war had plowed.... Householders had to plant around the bodies in their fields and gardens, or brace themselves to move the rotting corpses to another place. Soon these uneasy graves were being rifled by relatives looking for their dead -- reburying other bodies that they turned up, even more hastily (and less adequately) than had the first disposal crews. Three weeks after the battle, a prosperous Gettysburg banker, David Wills, reported to Pennsylvania's Governor Curtin: "In many distances arms and legs and sometimes heads protrude and my attention has been directed to several places where the hogs are actually rooting out the bodies and devouring them."War is smelly!Here is one sentence from the Prologue:Lincoln was still wearing a mourning band on his hat for his dead son.(That's on the day of the Gettysburg Address.) 48,000 men died in the battle -- at least -- and Lincoln was grieving for his son Willie!Wills brilliantly rehabilitates Edward Everett, the main speaker at Gettysburg, who is often ridiculed by historians. Lincoln at Gettysburg explains what a two-hour speech meant in 1863. (It was essentially a TV miniseries.) Americans were much less visual then; they liked listening to smart guys talking. And it was logical that Everett spoke so much longer than Lincoln; he delivered the "Oration," whereas Lincoln, on the program, is credited with "Dedicatory Remarks." Everett's performance freed Lincoln to speak in a telegraphic style, without mentioning slavery or the name of the battle.This book also expansively describes Victorian cemeteries. They expressed a spiritual environmentalism, plus a re-paganization ofChristian culture. It all comes out of Romanticism:As with most romantic developments, Rousseau had pioneered this communion with nature as an opening onto other worlds. In his Musings of a Lonely Rambler (Les RĂªveries du promeneur solitaire), he told how he lost the sense of a division between himself and the things he impinged on. He flowed out to the world, and it flowed in. He compared this to the bliss he felt on recovering consciousness after being knocked out in an accident. To recover such "transcendings" of himself, he practiced techniques of autohypnosis -- rhythmic walking, "a regular and gentle motion without jolt or interruption," or the contemplation of waves whose "flux and reflux, and continued sound neither swelling or ceasing," created interior movements as gentle and suggestive as the water's.Rousseau invented mystic French meditation!

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