“Fox populi.”

No public figure in American history is more inscrutable than Abraham Lincoln. While this is in some measure due to his extraordinary deftness as a politician, it is primarily the result of his astounding success in refounding the Republic in his own image. So thoroughly did Lincoln reform our collective historical and political consciousness that it has become almost impossible for us to appreciate the intellectual revolution he achieved. With Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America, Garry Wills surmounts these obstacles to a fuller appreciation of Lincoln’s significance. By a detailed look into the rhetorical and political sources that Lincoln drew on in his famous address, Wills allows us to hear the familiar words anew with all of their original force and meaning. More importantly, he leaves us better equipped to reexamine Lincoln’s complex political legacy.

The Lincoln of popular mythology is the unassuming back-woods lawyer who, distinguished by a sort of folk wisdom and an uncanny knack for the right words at the right time, guided the country through its greatest crisis to date, saving the nation from destruction at the hands of Southern politicians and abolishing slavery in the process. Wills reveals to us an altogether different creature: a consummate politician whose melancholy aspect and homespun manner of speaking were carefully contrived. Far from being unsophisticated, Lincoln was thoroughly a man of his time, familiar with the latest intellectual trends (including Transcendentalism—which had a direct influence on him through the thought of the radical abolitionist and spiritualist Theodore Parker) and driven from a young age by an eerie sense of destiny and a burning ambition to effect great changes. Indeed, as the book’s subtitle indicates. Wills argues that Lincoln achieved a political and intellectual revolution of major proportions at Gettysburg, reconstituting the nation on the notion of equality.

While Wills does much to undermine the Lincoln mythology, he has nothing but praise for the genuine article. Ironically, the figure that emerges bears resemblance to the Lincoln portrayed by his most vigorous critics; Willmoore Kendall and M. E. Bradford, among others, long ago made the claim that Lincoln had set out to dissolve the original constitutional compact and create a new nation. At the time they were vilified as cranks—they still are vilified for that matter—but their theories have found sudden respectability in academic circles, if Wills and the Princeton historian James McPherson (whose recent book on Lincoln has a similar thesis) are any indication. The main point of contention appears now to be whether this recreation of the United States was a good thing.

Wills is unreserved in his opinion that it was. While the portions of his book that explore the background of the address (the Greek revival in architecture and oratory, the rural cemetery movement which was part of that revival, the Transcendentalist and political roots of Republican ideology) arc fascinating and convincing scholarship, the essence of the book lies elsewhere. Two of the chapter titles, “Revolution in Thought” and “Revolution in Style,” convey the author’s central thesis. According to Wills, Lincoln was the first prominent figure to understand that the age of flowery, long-winded oration was over; that the pace of modern life required a more compact, incisive way of communicating, one which achieved the largest possible impact in the fewest possible words. In this, he was a precursor to Mark Twain, and hence to all of modern American literature. Closely related to this revolution in style is Lincoln’s innovative use of religious symbolism in a secular context: by his literary talents, Lincoln was able to create a civic religion, which substituted political ideals for moral ones. While it was far from unusual for American politicians in the era before Lincoln to invoke God and quote scripture in their speeches, it had always been done in the pro forma manner expected of public figures in a Christian nation. In his liberal use of scriptural metaphor, Lincoln demonized his political enemies in an unprecedented way and succeeded in putting the coming reign of Truth and Justice in a political context for the first time. His greatest speeches (including the Gettysburg Address) borrow biblical images meant to illustrate the kingdom of God, using them out of context in order to explain a political objective in the kingdom of man.

The fact that explicitly atheistic philosophies have never been able to gain the influence in America that they hold in Western Europe is more the result of this infusion of the language of faith into our public discourse than a sign of a successful resistance to secularization. That we retain the language of traditional belief in the face of rampant materialism is explained by the fact that much of that belief was transferred to our political institutions and to the idea that they could bring about the ultimate fulfillment of the individual. Religion has been so confused with patriotism in the public mind that God’s role has been reduced to that of a cheerleader for the hegemony of American political and economic ideas the world over, rather than the source of an objective morality for individuals. The revolution in political rhetoric introduced by Lincoln made possible this confusion, as well as the absolute and uncritical faith in mere political abstractions, such as “free speech” and “democratization,” that we find today.

The revolution in thought had even greater repercussions. The sources for Lincoln’s understanding of the Union and the central, almost obsessive, role of the Declaration of Independence in that understanding, go a long way toward explaining what some scholars have seen as a puzzling inconsistency concerning slavery. While his defense of the notion of inseparable union took much from Daniel Webster and the New England tradition of constitutional law, his elevation of the principle of equality to the rule by which political systems must be measured owed more to the Transcendentalist school of Parker. The latter notion was. Wills notes, so radical that the pro-Lincoln Chicago limes criticized the President in the strongest possible terms for his extremism; “It was to uphold this Constitution, and the Union created by it, that our officers and soldiers gave their lives at Gettysburg. How dare he, then, standing on their graves, misstate the cause for which they died, and libel the statesmen who founded the government? They were men possessing too much self-respect to declare that negroes were their equals, or were entitled to equal privileges.”

This should remind us that the vast majority of those who participated in or supported Lincoln’s effort to put down the rebellion in the South did not in any way conceive of the conflict as a war of abolition, or even, for that matter, as an affirmation of the equality of men. They saw it in precisely the terms in which Lincoln had previously presented it: an effort to preserve the original constitutional compact. At Gettysburg, as Wills puts it, they had their “intellectual pocket picked” when Lincoln substituted the “proposition” of equality for the constitutional rule of law as the nation’s founding principle.

This is not to say that the reading of the Constitution outlined at Gettysburg was without precedent in Lincoln’s previous pronouncements on the subject, indeed, despite the fact that it was not fully elaborated until the debates with Douglas, the essentials were already in place as early as the 1840’s; what varied was Lincoln’s presentation of it. To abolitionist audiences, as at his “House Divided” address at Springfield in 1860, he went after slavery directly, making it clear that he would not tolerate its continued existence on the continent. Yet two years earlier, in his debates with Stephen Douglas in southern Illinois, he had explicitly played the race card for his white listeners, whose fear of economic competition led them to oppose not only the spread of slavery but also the idea of free blacks residing in their state. And in his first Inaugural Address, he pledged support for a constitutional amendment that would have prevented any interference with slavery in the states where it existed.

This seemingly blatant inconsistency begins to dissolve when we see that opposition to slavery was not, in fact, what motivated Lincoln. He certainly found the Peculiar Institution personally distasteful, and one might even say that he based his political career on his opposition to it. But if he regarded slavery as an evil, it was chiefly because slavery in the South was the immediate political barrier to his vision of a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” (a phrase he lifted from Parker). In other words, he saw it not so much as a moral evil as a political evil. Slavery was problematic because it, as well as the entire states’ rights philosophy it supported, stood in the way of the new society Lincoln wished to found. If the new order could be founded without immediate abolition, so be it; if not, he would proceed with abolition. (Lincoln thought the best solution would be to send the slaves back to Africa.)

To grasp the difference between the old order and the new, we must understand the difference between a society based on the established rule of law, however imperfect, and one based on the approximation of an abstract idea. Lincoln found his idea of equality not in the Constitution but in the second line of the Declaration of Independence, following his mystic mentor Parker, be believed that the aim of the Founders was to “protect each man in the entire and actual enjoyment of all the unalienable rights”—an agenda that sounds strangely contemporary. In this way each man, beginning life on an equal footing with his fellow citizens, could be guaranteed the right to use all the fruits of his own labors, as well as to rise as high as his talents and ingenuity could take him.

The only problem with this grand and inspiring vision is that it did not (and still does not) correspond with life as we find it in the real world. The Founding Fathers may have had high hopes for the American experiment in self-government, but the very thing that inspired their optimism about the prospect for freedom was the firm constitutional limitation on the arbitrary and potentially tyrannical use of federal power. The idea that the government in Washington could be the guarantor of that freedom—and indeed would intervene in state affairs, using an abstract measure of “equality,” to safeguard that freedom wherever it might be violated—would have struck them as absurd. The federal government was precisely the thing they sought freedom from.

When an abstract ideal replaces inherited law as a measure of the validity of all the personal and professional relationships and activities in a society, the stage is set for endless social strife, bitterness, and contention. For things can always be conceived as becoming more “equal” than they now are in practice, and few men see their lot in life, whether it be the one they receive at birth or the one they achieve through toil, as proportionate to what they deserve according to the ideal. A leviathan bureaucracy is needed to protect everyone against all perceived injustice— which is a reasonable description of our current government and how it functions. This Lincolnian conception of government thrives on the politics of discontent, whereas its legitimate end should be the common good of a stable and contented populace. It cannot stop at equalizing opportunity (a fairly arbitrary judgment in itself); it must prove the equality of opportunity it has created by demonstrating equality of outcome. The lack of equality in the real world merely justifies its further assumption of power and intrusion into private lives.

The leveling impulse that begins by guaranteeing equal access to happiness can only end by sacrificing the common good on the altar of individual rights. In the course of guaranteeing each individual’s “right” to pursue his happiness in any way he pleases, by making sure that every “lifestyle,” every opinion, and every belief is treated equally, the government has overthrown all of our original conceptions of self-government. The Founders understood that government by the people requires each community, from the most basic (the family) to the most comprehensive (the nation), to assume the autonomy to pursue a vision of its own common good, decisively encouraging some types of behavior while discouraging others. The smaller community should incure interference from the larger only when it demonstrates some failure in fulfilling its duties, whether due to lack of means or lack of ability. In the name of the completely autonomous individual, we have become incapable of conceiving— much less pursuing—any vision of the common good, because we no longer recognize that the mediating role of these communities between the individual and the state is necessary for genuine self-rule.

Wills’ book reminds us that Lincoln is at the center of the debate over the future of the Republic. Do conservatives think that federal judges and bureaucrats have merely moved off course in interpreting their proper mandate to achieve a just society? Or should that role be reserved primarily for state and local legislatures, by means of positive law? Should we return real power to citizens to direct their corporate destiny, or should we leave that destiny in the hands of “visionaries” on the Supreme Court or in the White House? The widespread and predictable disappointment over recent “conservative” Presidents and their appointments to the Court indicates that more fundamental remedies might be in order.


[Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America, by Garry Wills (New York: Simon & Schuster) 317 pp., $23.00]