A review of Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words, by Douglas L.Wilson
The Gettysburg Gospel: The Speech that Nobody Knows, by Gabor Boritt


Interpreters of Lincoln who attempt to shed new light on his presidential speeches, especially the Gettysburg Address, enter a contested holy land. Did Lincoln speak the Address’s precise words? Were they inspired—perhaps written at the last minute—or were they calculated, possibly long in advance, for political purposes? If the latter, what kind of political purposes were involved—low, high, or a mixture of both? More generally, close and reverent examinations of Abraham Lincoln’s words run the hazard of neglecting the historical context and political milieu. Contextual readings, on the other hand, risk reducing his words to the mere product of historical forces. Besides, the meaning of context is problematical: is it better to understand Lincoln in terms of his own time or the years that have followed? Two new books by noted Lincoln scholars Douglas L. Wilson and Gabor Boritt approach these challenges in different yet complementary ways.

In Lincoln’s Sword, Wilson attempts to evaluate Lincoln’s literary achievement by understanding his technique as a writer. Focusing on how Lincoln revised and edited his prose, Wilson illuminates the increasingly precise phrasings that subtly and forcefully expressed Lincoln’s intent. This attention to detail manifested, under the pressure of events, the literary greatness that strengthened Lincoln’s presidency.

A co-director of the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College and two-time winner of the Lincoln Prize (for this book and his previous work, Honor’s Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln), Wilson studies the extant drafts of nine key texts, including the First Inaugural, the message to Congress on July 4, 1861, the Gettysburg Address, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Second Inaugural. (The manuscripts are now available on the Library of Congress’s website, thanks in part to Wilson’s editorial assistance.) These documents exhibit the Civil War president’s compositional style—particularly his reworking of his own words and his acceptance, rejection, and modification of friends’ and advisors’ suggestions. Wilson beautifully brings to light the advantages of Lincoln’s habit of writing, which generated, over lengthy periods of time, seemingly isolated formulations of crucial ideas that were later assembled, honed, read to trial audiences, and honed again. He argues that Lincoln tried his words out in private, sometimes reading to just one person, not so much to elicit suggestions or monitor reactions as to experience the rhythms and resonances of his sentences in the presence of an audience. In other words, what mattered about his style was apparently his own sense, while in company, that he had composed what he had intended with the power to move his listeners. Even his habit of using commas in seemingly odd places marked a tendency to hear rather than merely read the texts. He composed strategic pauses and emphases to guide the sort of reading that would make manifest the meaning of his crafted utterances.

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Mere persuasion, Wilson argues, could not have been Lincoln’s goal. Lincoln formed and joined sentences in order to convey a compelling conviction based on logic and an understanding of founding principles. He knew that the bitterly divided public and press would have selectively expropriated or eviscerated less careful writings. He anticipated and tried to preempt objections, and thus his preemptions served a principled rhetorical form of statesmanship. For him, public opinion, like human nature itself, was resistant to change on the basis of oratorical persuasion. But since Stephen Douglas had begun to proclaim an indifference to slavery, Lincoln had seen how republican government could be eroded if the public lost confidence in its conviction that slavery was wrong. How then would they sustain the idea that American Founders had placed it in the course of ultimate extinction? Public opinion was everything to political success, Lincoln held. When it was necessary to persuade the public to change or restore itself, the wise statesman needed to act upon his understanding and respect for the public’s convictions and doubts, and then prepare the public mind for change by showing that what was needed was consistent with what the public deemed most important—even when the necessary changes exceeded the common understanding. Wilson, whose masterly, insightful, and analytic treatment of opinion is evidenced throughout this book, pays attention to the delicacies and risks involved in Lincoln’s task.

Lincoln’s revisions, at least where we have evidence that they occurred, moved from the personal toward the impersonal, from the active voice toward the oracular passive, from obviously complex formulations toward seemingly simple ones. Despite objections from some of his advisors, rough-hewn elements in Lincoln’s reasoning often persisted as incisive characterizations of unpleasant truths, e.g., in the vernacular reference in the July 4th message to Congress to the South’s “sugar-coated” attempts to persuade the North to accept its acts of rebellion. Likewise, Lincoln’s complex, forceful sentence in the First Inaugural defending the suspension of habeas corpus survived untouched through that speech’s extensive process of consultation and revision. Conversely, his acceptance and transformation of Secretary of State William Seward’s suggested lines for a conclusion showed a genius for resonant simplicity.

Wilson’s carefully sifted examples reveal that Lincoln was willing to drop a sentence from one of his public letters when, before publication, it was criticized as uncouth by a friendly newspaper editor. A few years later, he would accept Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase’s culminating sentence for the Emancipation Proclamation after rejecting the same man’s hyperbolical and polemical preamble. But then his momentous, understated, almost bureaucratic addition—”upon military necessity”—checked the swelling tone of Chase’s addition while demonstrating Lincoln’s resolve to carry out what he as president was proclaiming. Wilson concludes that Lincoln’s crafted language enforced the integrity of the Proclamation “not by eloquence” but by “inexquisite language exquisitely suited to the occasion.”

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As for Lincoln’s most famous rhetorical display, Wilson suggests convincingly that the Gettysburg Address was written in stages over the weeks and perhaps months leading up to the cemetery’s dedication, and so was not composed, or even substantially revised, on the train to Gettysburg or in the home of David Wills where Lincoln stayed the night before. The oration’s unique fusion of the themes of equality, freedom, and self-government was in the works, Wilson argues, at least since Lincoln’s speech in 1854 on the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Linguistic clues preceding the composition of the speech indicate a process of composition deeper and more slow-moving than what we normally recognize. Far from compromising the Address’s appeal, this extended process of invention and assembly helps to reveal, in Wilson’s analysis, the weight of Lincoln’s words.

Gabor Boritt’s The Gettysburg Gospel takes an apparently opposing view: that Lincoln’s address remains “the speech that nobody knows.” Professor of Civil War Studies and Director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College, Boritt has studied hundreds of newspaper accounts and the letters and journals of Gettysburg residents, as well as testimony from later generations. He frames his inquiry as a pursuit of the speech’s meaning in its immediate context and over time, without assuming from the outset that he knows its precise meaning or significance. In fact one of the premises of the book is that the exact meaning of the speech Lincoln delivered on that day has been in some ways indeterminate. The printed and draft versions of the speech are too diverse, the occasion too complicated and overladen with different expectations and experiences to preserve for posterity a single, detailed understanding of Lincoln’s message.

Boritt’s analysis of his sources provides a rich texture to the occasion for the speech, including a local history of Gettysburg in the months between the battle and the dedication of the cemetery at the battle site. During that time, the town had become a vast hospital caring for the thousands of wounded. The close-knit community of Gettysburg had experienced the lingering cost of the battle in a very concentrated way. For months it had faced the challenge of reconciling that cost with what was gained, with what might have been gained. Major newspapers covering the commemorative speeches hesitated to report these horrors. But Edward Everett, the featured speaker at the dedication, had studied the diary of a local nurse and noted her report in his oration. Lincoln later complimented him for his kind words for the nurses at Gettysburg. Boritt’s book is largely concerned with telling the story behind those acknowledgments.

Newspaper coverage of the dedication was incomplete in other ways. Boritt’s reading of letters and local journals shows that the press hardly registered the gleeful mood of the crowds the night before the ceremony. Among the 20,000 tipsy revelers, most of them visitors, were an inebriated and enthusiastically oratorical William Seward and one of Lincoln’s secretaries, John Hay. Were the crowds anticipating inevitable victory, or sensing the Union’s narrow escape? Was the occasion dominated by anticipation of the upcoming election cycle, or was it a response to dread? What would victory mean, if it came? Most of the wounded had been moved to more permanent hospitals, but the celebration seems to have carried with it a sense of relief and sadness as well as jubilation. The press generally missed that mixture of moods, too, though the letters and journals preserved it. Boritt’s interesting history of the townspeople’s heroic agony makes us wonder.

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As for the address itself, this book assembles synoptic versions of Lincoln’s mutable “gospel” text so that one can compare the surviving drafts (generally very similar, despite a few slight but significant modifications) and journalists’ transcriptions (generally consistent, though sometimes ludicrously variant). Boritt reminds his readers that the subtle changes in Lincoln’s diction and phrasing in the more finished (though apparently composite) version consistently increase the message’s gravity and scope. “Carried on” gives way to “advanced,” and “This we may, in all propriety do” becomes “It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.”

Boritt’s book supplies us with his interpretation of the Address, but with a caution arising from his study of its problematic history in American opinion and commentary. He asserts that Lincoln chose to deliver a speech that was ostensibly apolitical and yet deeply political. He argues that Lincoln’s plain but artful choice of words was designed to unite those “desiring a quick radical route to equality” and those who supported the Union but “did not care about the issue of slavery or were actively hostile to the idea of Emancipation.” Without overt reference to Christianity, he composed an oratorical poem of birth, sacrifice, and rebirth. Without calling a nation to arms, indeed by conceding the honored role to those who had struggled and died, it was also a war speech of inner preparation for new battles.

And yet whatever were Lincoln’s purposes, did the audience hear his words? Did they understand them? Was the proliferation of slightly varying texts a sign of the power of Lincoln’s central message, or a sign of its malleability? Do the varying texts now help us discover Lincoln’s waxing oratorical power, perhaps strengthened by an emergent faith in the Divine (for example, in the phrase “under God” that appears in some versions), or are they better understood as signs of the indeterminacy of the event—the immense complexity and sometimes contradictory interplay of speech and context that we call the Gettysburg Address? Boritt’s analysis of the contemporary testimony reveals that spectators on the periphery wandered the battlefield while the audience around the platform observed a respectful silence punctuated with sometimes hesitant applause. The many meanings of the occasion—its mingling of mourning, jubilation, confusion, and consecration, its stimulation of efforts to renew the Union’s resolve to fight and to begin the campaign for the next presidential election—fractured and layered the audience’s response and our memory of what happened there. Boritt reports that Lincoln, upon leaving the platform after delivering his ten sentences, is said to have greeted his ceremonial guard of wounded veterans as though they were the actual speakers, the real occasion. He called them “orators” whose “appearance spoke louder than tongues.”

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Although his book’s emphasis on multiple contexts and sources of testimony makes its reading of the actual speech sometimes disappointingly diffuse, Boritt’s general approach helps to capture something important about how Lincoln’s remarks were heard and remembered. Despite the problem of identifying an authoritative Gettysburg text, Americans continue to turn to Lincoln’s Address as an invocation of basic principles in times of crisis and commemoration. Read in solus by New York’s mayor in lower Manhattan after the destruction of the towers, it served both to rally the living and to remember the fallen. The speech has become embedded in an understanding of what it means to be an American. At the same time, Boritt does not hesitate to question the increasingly fashionable notion, held by Garry Wills and others, that the “miraculous powers” of Lincoln’s words have remade America. “How could a speech do that,” Boritt asks, “especially one that was not heard distinctly in its own day?”

Although some newspapers and notable individuals praised the speech, he shows that it was neglected for years after Lincoln delivered it. The Emancipation Proclamation got almost all the attention. Only a couple of decades later did the Gettysburg Address grow prominent, Boritt argues, when Americans’ reverence for Lincoln combined with their newfound desire to give democracy a “spiritual dimension” in order to foster political reconciliation without mandating full racial equality. Both North and South could adopt the speech as a gesture of inclusion (for all those who struggled) and use it to affirm the unity (confederated? federal? national?) of government of, by, and for the people. The nearly nonpartisan appropriation of Lincoln’s words in the next century, and by revolutionaries in Asia, Africa, and Boritt’s native Hungary (where he participated in the 1956 uprising that quoted Lincoln’s address), demonstrates the speech’s continuing power.

But universal acceptance is no guarantee against profound misunderstanding. The Address has been used to justify the Lost Cause. The schools have taken the speech for granted and thus ignored it, or mummified it in meaningless recitation. Since the 1960s much of the American Left, especially in the universities, has treated it and its author as racist. Scholarly treatments and Lincoln idolatry have occasionally twisted its meaning and influence to the point of monstrosity. Fortunately, American public opinion remains largely untouched by such misreadings. With informative, accessible prose, Douglas Wilson and Gabor Boritt demonstrate that close study of the Address and its context can broaden and deepen public opinion still.