Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America

ISBN: 0671867423
ISBN 13: 9780671867423
By: Garry Wills

Check Price Now


American History Biography Civil War Currently Reading Lincoln Non Fiction Nonfiction Presidents Pulitzer To Read

About this book

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


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.


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.


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.

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.

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.


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.

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.

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.


A fresh look at some of the most famous words spoken in American history. I've read dozens of books on Lincoln and each time I come away more amazed at his unique ability to write, speak, and think with such clarity and eloquence. Wills really brings this home and studies these most famous words of Lincoln's in a new way.Very interesting read, particularly in the analyzation of the style and format of the speech. I thought that chapter was especially well done.This book is a must for the serious, or casual, amateur scholar who wants to know as much as they can about (in my opinion) our most fascinating President.

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.


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.


Garry Wills has written 189 pages and another 100 or so pages of appendices and notes about a speech of 272 words. It's formidable and at times dry but it's thorough. He discusses: Lincoln's mentors and influences; the displacement of Roman allusion by the Greek Revival movement at Lincoln's time; the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as they relate to the Gettysburg address; detailed rhetoric analyis of the words, structure, and clauses of the speech- to name a few. There's a discussion on cemetery design and landscaping during the 19th Century. Lincoln loved words and saw them as weapons. He was a word nerd and what he achieved with his remarks was transformational. He wasn't even the key speaker for the event. The most popular speaker of the time, the President of Harvard talked for two hours and nobody remembers what he said. Lincoln spoke for a few minutes and his words are memorized by school children. This book will tell you more than you want to know but there's so much we don't know about Lincoln and how he came to write this masterpiece. Be prepared to learn much but be prepared for a slow and excruciating read at times.

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.


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.


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.

Share your thoughts

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *