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


There are times in every nation’s history that serve as turning points, and the 1863 dedication of the Gettysburg Cemetery is one of America’s, largely due to the influence of Abraham Lincoln’s 256 word speech. Garry Wills puts paid to the notion that Lincoln dashed something off on the train ride to Gettysburg, painstakingly tracing the cultural, literary, historic, and philosophical underpinnings to one of the world’s oratory masterpieces. Wills also analyzes the surviving five drafts of the speech that were written in the President’s own hand, concluding that the one given to Alexander Bliss is most likely the one from which Lincoln spoke. He also attempts to pinpoint the location of the dias within the cemetery, which was not, as the Park Service contended, at the site of the Soldiers’ Monument.Readers searching for information about Lincoln’s activities on that fateful day will find little of interest in this slim volume, but for those interested in the best known address in American history, Lincoln at Gettysburg fills the bill.

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.


Wills takes us back not only to the day that Lincoln gave this speech, but also he starts off crafting deftly, and laboriously, our experiences while visiting a cemetery such as this one. That realm between the living and the dead should be used to remember and commemorate those that have fallen so that we can finish the work before us. Our work to reinvent the Union should be founded upon giving new meaning to "all men are created equal."Also, Wills explains how revolutionary Lincoln's Gettysburg address really was. And he proposes why it was so short, and also why so much was left out of it... like the words "slavery", "the South", or even the word "Union". And finally he examines how the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln's Second Inaugural are so similar, and why the "sin of slavery" was not part of the Gettysburg Address but was able to be included in his Second Inaugural.If there ever was a book that I should reread, this is one of them.


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.


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 Rêveries 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!

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.

John Bene

I have read and listened to this book several times and every time I am thoroughly pleased with the scholarship, insight, and lucidity. This is a multi-disciplinary history, combining equal parts political science, sociology, and linguistics with a taut historical account. By focusing his attention on a very small subject - one of the shortest of known speeches - Wills has plenty of room to selectively drill down on those details that matter to his thesis, like the condition of the battlefield and Lincoln's speech-writing style, but with an astonishing thesis - the recomposition of the American gestalt into what we think of ourselves and our nation today. An astonishing work.


This year my "Reading Challenge" is to re-read 10 books to see how they hold up to my memory. There is quite a bit in this book that I forgot over 15 years.If you asked me last week, I'd have told you it was about the use of rhetorical devices and how this style of oratory harkens back to the Greek tradition. I would not have remembered nor told you it shows how Lincoln recast the meaning of the war and fixed the Declaration of Independence as subordinate to Constitution (as noted in the title); nor would I have remembered how Wills shows the influence of the transcendentalists on Lincoln's thinking; nor would I have remembered much about the choice of venue.Wills defines the founding generation's preference for Roman (a republic, fearful of the masses) imagery to the late nineteenth century's preference for Greek (a democracy with more suffrage) imagery. He shows the development of Lincoln's mood and thought through previous speeches and bits of Lincoln's poetry and a discussion of the (later) second Inaugural Address. There is quite a bit on the 19th century American experience of death (using the word "Victorian" only as an adjective for authors) and the cemetery movement.I remembered that by not naming a person, the battlefield being dedicated or the battle fought there, "the North" or "the South" or any place, or even the Declaration of Independence which the oratory is about, he makes the piece timeless. By using nouns instead of referent pronouns he creates stirring images. By using of balance he makes it poetic. I did not remember how the war was recast in that "the great task before us" is not emancipation, but the perpetuation of self-government.It's funny how the memory works. There are a few poems that Lincoln wrote and I did not remember any of them. Most of them are forgettable, but the poem on pp. 92-93 where Lincoln lays out his beliefs on race should not have been.The contrast with oratory of its day is shown in the Appendix III in the speech delivered that same day by Pennsylvania Governor Everett. Also in Appendix III is an example of the Greek funeral oratory from which the style is derived.Were I to have rated this book last week, I'd have given it 5 stars. While it is an important book and Wills brings a lot together, today I see it as a 4 star book. While the book is short and it is not pithy. The pieces on psychobiography and the section on the transcendental influence ramble.

Jeff Currie

Having just read a history of the Battles of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, and with Lincoln, the new film, just opening, I'm adding some Lincoln texts that I've read, though not recently. This one is Garry Wills' excellent book about the Address, and the cemetery and a range of pertinent cultural trends at the time. In a way "more than I wanted to know," but actually and satisfyingly "all the things I'm now very happy to know" about the important occasion. and about Lincoln's respectful words and important message - about union and the self-evident truths in our seminal declaration from four score and seven years before 1863. I was amzed to find, in a clip of "Lincoln" that I saw online recently, echoes of what is self-evident and what Wills says about the Greek Revival trend of that era.


Extremely well written and rich with information. I have since tried to read more of Wills' works. This one and 'Papal Sin' are the two that I found most informative. While not the authors intent, this book revealed to me the the extent to which Abraham Lincoln's good intentions successfully changed the path of the country away from a cooperating group of peers to a centrally controlled nation state. His decision to put the needs of the union over the needs of the states and the needs of the people coupled with his effectiveness at framing the issues so that his view infected the minds of most of his listeners will take hundreds of years to recover from.


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.

David B

Author Garry Wills is unequivocal in his admiration for Abraham Lincoln and his brief speech, which became arguably the most famous oration of American history. In this fascinating book, he places the Gettysburg Address in context, explaining the political philosophy that inspired it, the literary precedents that gave it form, and the social/historical milieu that influenced the individuals who were present. There are many interesting tidbits here, including the culture of death that existed in the 19th century and the way it influenced the evolution of cemeteries, the influence of classical Greek oratory on the structure of the address, and Lincoln's careful attention to the written word.

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.

Matthew Ludwig

The Civil War fought over to preserve the Union and to redefine freedom; and in the end, it would cost the lives of 600,000 soldiers, more deaths than any other American war put together. After the Battle at Gettysburg, Lincoln was invited to memorialize the soldiers who lost their lives. On this occasion, Lincoln did not use weapons or artillery, yet used the power of words. Everything that Lincoln had done in his life let up to this two minute speech. In his Gettysburg Address, Lincoln would deliver in 272 words a new kind of freedom that would revolutionize America forever. The author's style is quite detailed, and filled with various sources that help give the book some credibility. At first it may seem overwhelming, but the further you go into the book, you see how beneficial the sources connect to the main idea of the Gettysburg Address. Some sources include previous speeches that Lincoln had done, which helps the reader see how he progressed intellectually during his life. Wills did a great job deciphering the words that Lincoln said in the Gettysburg Address and in other speeches he gave as well. Wills pointed out that Lincoln referred to Southerners not as states, but as neighbors. This helps readers see Lincoln's true feelings about the Union (one of main ideas of the Gettysburg Address), which is that the nation is one and inseparable. Fans of historical biographies and Abraham Lincoln would like 'Lincoln at Gettysburg'. If you enjoy books that contain a lot of analytical information that challenge you to look at connections, then this book is a good choice for you.

Frank Stein

Just a beautiful piece of work that is also possibly the best book I've read on Abraham Lincoln. For one, Wills does a wonderful job of analyzing Lincoln's influences, from the Transcendentalism of Emerson and Theodore Parker to the oratory of the Greek revival movement to Romanticism, and all of it is so lucidly described and densely packed together that I often had to put the book down to absorb it all or think on it for a moment. Wills' main point though is that the Gettysburg Address, by making the Declaration of Independence America's most important "founding document" (written four score and seven years before 1863), and by substituting the aspirational call for equality made in the Declaration for the fuzzy compromises made in the Constitution, helped craft America as an international and on-going project for human betterment, rather than a local and limited one, and in so far as this speech reshaped generations of Americans' views of their country and its founding, Lincoln truly succeeded in ensuring a "new birth of freedom" for the nation. Overall it's a well-wrought description of the political and intellectual life of mid-nineteenth century America, one which also shows how a single genius managed to reshape that life going forward.

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