Gabor Boritt: Taking on Garry Wills over the Gettysburg Address

Historians in the News

No presidential speech has been as widely analyzed, memorized, or canonized as Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. It has inspired more words to amplify and celebrate its mere 10 sentences than any oration since the Sermon on the Mount: articles, recitals, chapters, set pieces in films and plays, and, at last count, seven major books, most notably, until now, Garry Wills’s Pulitzer Prize– winning Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America.

Yet Gabor Boritt’s new The Gettysburg Gospel (Simon & Schuster, 432 pages, $28.00) bears the almost defiant subtitle The Lincoln Speech That Nobody Knows. To Boritt, director of the Civil War Institute at, appropriately enough, Gettysburg College (and, to fully disclose, a longtime colleague and occasional co-author), twentieth-century politicians and historians were guilty of inappropriately viewing Lincoln’s rhetorical triumph through the prism of modern experience.

Here, Boritt argues (Wills notwith-standing), is not the speech “that remade America” at all. Here is the America that remade the speech, recasting it from the poetic pendant to the gray legalese of the Emancipation Proclamation into a chest-thumping manifesto for nationalism and interventionism. Lincoln’s masterpiece was re-invented to justify America’s expanding aspirations around the world while ignoring the shrinking rights of African-Americans at home—the people to whom the original speech had promised “a new birth of freedom.”

If the speech could justify saving democracy at home with force of arms, it could later be used to send those arms abroad. Did Lincoln so intend? No, Boritt insists; he was merely, albeit brilliantly, trying to make sense of the catastrophic domestic struggle for the Union, majority rule, and emancipation; to sustain support for the terrible war; and perhaps, too, to launch his own candidacy for re-election.

Yet Boritt’s striking chapter on shifting American memory shrewdly shows how the address’s reputation rose as national commitment to equal rights declined. In the era of Jim Crow it was far more convenient to recall Lincoln as an orator of national might, not civil rights. Boritt demands that we hear the speech as it was first heard on November 19, 1863, on the site of the largest, fiercest, bloodiest battle in the history of the hemisphere....

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