- Reviewed by
In recent years, the biography of a speech has found its place in [End Page 103] the niche of historiographical approaches to the study of the past. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Lincoln canon, led particularly by the works of Ronald C. White, Douglas Wilson, Harold Holzer, Gary Wills, and Gabor Boritt. Lincoln speeches analyzed and hashed over include his 1854 address in Peoria, Illinois, his 1860 presidential breakout speech at Cooper Union, and his pastorally magisterial Second Inaugural Address in 1865. But of all of Lincoln's public remarks, none has captured the imagination of writers and admirers more than his Gettysburg Address of November 19, 1863. Since the publication of Wills's Pulitzer Prize-winning Lincoln at Gettysburg (1992), no other single Lincoln speech has received such attention. The works of Carl F. Wieck, Ronald White, Gabor Boritt, and Douglas Wilson are all indispensable contributions to Lincoln literature. Now A. E. Elmore's Lincoln's Gettysburg Address: Echoes of the Bible and Book of Common Prayer can be added to the list.
Proving to be a prodigious researcher when tackling weighty issues, Elmore convincingly argues that Lincoln was a master at making biblical and literary allusions in his greatest speech as well as in pulling from the likes of Euclidian geometry, Shakespeare, and John C. Calhoun, among other slavery apologists. While on the surface this seems like nothing new, it proves to be quite revelatory. Wieck attributed Lincoln's Gettysburg Address to his understanding of New England minister and abolitionist Theodore Parker and Wills presents the Gettysburg Address as an American version of Pericles's Funeral Oration, but Elmore digs deep into the religious context of the time and fleshes out more completely here than other writers Lincoln's wealth of understanding of the Bible. To read this book is to cast aside all images of Lincoln as an infidel, an accusation he lived with, but rather to see a man so attuned to phrase, meter, and pace of elements of the Bible that he is able to take scripture, apply it to the narrative of American history, and elevate his rhetoric to a place that few subsequent American presidents have been able to do.
Elmore plays with each phrase of the Gettysburg Address and places them in a context that, sadly, Americans today might not be able to understand. But in Lincoln's world, proponents as well as [End Page 104] enemies, particularly the elite Confederate leadership, mostly being Episcopalian, would understand the moment they heard or read his words. It is with this kind of "cold, calculating reason" and its application to scripture that Lincoln undermined his adversaries.
For Elmore's Lincoln the Civil War was nothing short of America's physical embodiment of the birth of Jesus Christ; thus the American conception of liberty in 1776 brings forth a new age in mankind and just as Christ's birth was a paradigm shift in the story of humanity, so too, for Lincoln was the birth of the United States. But more than the New Testament is at work in Elmore's Lincoln, for the sixteenth president reaches into the Book of Common Prayer, a book which with most Protestant folks above and below the Mason-Dixon Line were familiar, drawing inspiration for the words, "consecrate," "dedicate," and "hallow."
At work here as a writer, Elmore, a professor of law, builds his case for his argument much in the way Lincoln would for a client. It is hard not to escape Lincoln the lawyer at work on these pages as well as he prepares his remarks—the ultimate argument being one of the greatest speeches in history. Delving into texts, such as the English Oxford Dictionary and other etymological references from western literature, the author demonstrates his understanding of the role and development of language over time, a language that Lincoln was able to take to transcendent heights.
Once, while leading a group of Russian English...