Friday, May 13, 2011

Lincoln at Gettysburg

With 272 words, Abraham Lincoln remade America. Garry Wills' book starts off with a seemingly impossible premise, one that looks more and more possible as the book goes on. The nation was at what could be called one of the lowest points in its history, and it needed a leader to step up and make sense out of all that was taking place. Lincoln's oration was an ancillary event of the day and did not give any indication that it would take on the significance that it holds today. When thought about in the proper historical context, The Gettysburg Address can give chills to any American. Garry Wills deftly illustrates the nuance and power that were likely lost on the typical attendant of the speeches that day.

The context of the speech rather than the actual text of the work composes much of the early part of Wills' work. In the 19th Century, a Greek revival was taking place in the United States. The obvious parallel that Wills wastes no time drawing is to Pericles' funeral oration. Since Greek thought and ideas were prevalent at the time, most people present would have no trouble recognizing this. I imagine it would be an eerie feeling at the time watching Lincoln's speech with the thought of Pericles looming in your mind. Both men stepped up to guide their countries through difficult times and provide visible leadership. To be able to make a powerful speech is an important quality for a leader to have. To be able to do it when the ones you are leading need it the most is invaluable. Although both Lincoln and Pericles are both well regarded orators, their most famous and most important speeches took place in some of the darkest times. That speaks volumes about them as leaders. I think that the Greek word logoslergon from Wills' breakdown of Lincoln's speech perfectly captures the crux of what he is trying to say: "The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here."

The other part of context for the Gettysburg Address that Wills discusses is the culture of death at the time. He goes into depth talking about the American Cemetery movement that was happening. Basically, towns would construct lavish rural cemeteries outside of their limits and invite speakers to come for the dedication ceremony. The other part of this culture of death that Wills is sure to mention is a respect for those who appeared to be or actually were depressed. Lincoln was a brooding man, especially during his time as President. His typical nature was exacerbated by the personal tragedies that befell him in the last few years of his life. Although depressed people are not typically looked up to in our time, during the mid 19th Century Lincoln's demeanor was considered to be an admirable quality. This may seem on the surface to not be a common quality of a leader. Who wants a leader who walks around sad all the time. To me, that may be one of the more impressive attributes about Lincoln: he fought through some of the darkest periods in our nation's history while dealing with death and illness in his immediate family.

Most importantly, Abraham Lincoln subtly infused into our nation the values that HE wanted it to have. I don't know anyone who would dare to call the Gettysburg Address revisionist history, but as Wills says, "The Civil War is, to most Americans, what Lincoln wanted it to mean." Wills talks about Lincoln's "deceptively simple sounding phrases" and goes so far as to call the speech "a stunning verbal coup." He almost makes it sound like Lincoln tricked people with mind games. And that, in my opinion, is the single most important quality that a leader can have. In the least menacing way possible, a leader's job is to get people to do what he wants them to do. Often times, efforts to this end will be met with resistance. What better way to get someone to do what you want than to do it without their knowing? With 272 words, Lincoln infused his personal beliefs about the values of the nation into the national consciousness. Stripping away Garry Wills' complex analysis about the context of the speech and what it meant in its time, Lincoln was a leader because he stepped up when needed and got the people around him to believe and do exactly what he wanted.

1 comment:

  1. Very good on the culture of death here, Jack. But even better in realizing the power of words with deep rhetorical histories. Glad you read this.