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BOOK REVIEWS Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America. By Gary Wills. (New York: Simon and Schuster. 1992. Pp. 304. $23.00.) Gary Wills believes that words shape the way we see the world and that if we understand the words that guided the nation's founders and leaders we will understand the meaning of the nation. His brilliant studies of the Declaration of Independence and The Federalist have advanced our understanding greatly. Now he turns to Lincoln, whom he once accused of reformulating the Declaration in ways that distorted Jefferson's original vision. Focusing once more on the Declaration Wills now engages the Gettysburg Address—the "words that made remade America," as he calls them, to elaborate just what Lincoln did say. Providing imaginative and often insightful background on classical funeral orations, on the meanings of cemeteries to nineteenthcentury Americans, on the relationship between transcendentalism and Lincoln's thought and touching the connections between Webster's constitutional ideas and Lincoln's and recreating the events of the president's visit to Gettysburg, Wills's main interest is those words. His concern is very Lincolnian—to find instruction for today in the words of the founders. Wills comes close to getting Lincoln right. He knows that both the Declaration and the Constitution mattered to the president. But his goal of answering modern conservatives pushes Wills near a serious failure, even though it is a matter of degree. For the degree almost becomes a matter of kind. Wills wants Lincoln to rebut Robert Bork, Edwin Meese, Ronald Reagan , and Wilmore Kendall who challenged the idea that equality was a national commitment. They wanted states respected and local government revered, and they opposed national government efforts to interfere in statecentered race relations. And so Wills gives us Lincoln the nationalist who speaks of saving a nation whose commitment is to equality. Implicitly conceding the Constitution to opponents of modern equality, he gives us Lincoln who respects the Constitution but must redeem it by putting it in service of the superior ideal of the Declaration that all men are created equal. What Wills does not attend to is the fact that Lincoln was very much a conservative in his own age. While he certainly believed in the Declaration's ideals, and grew in his understanding throughout his life, Lincoln's major emphasis was on means and process, on the ways that the ideals of the Declaration are to be achieved. He almost never protested slavery until it threat- BOOK REVIEWSI55 ened the rule of law and the constitutional system. Wills misses this fact most obviously in one telling example. He believes that Lincoln "thinks the Declaration somehow escaped the constraints that bound the Constitution. It was free to state an ideal that transcended its age, one that serves as a touchstone for later strivings." Then he quotes the famous passage about the Declaration as a "standard maxim for free society" that would be "constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence . . ." What Wills forgets is that this speech is about the Dred Scott case and is, among other things, Lincoln's effort to deny that the Constitution supports that decision—to argue, in effect, that the Constitution properly read provides the means to realize that ideal of equality in the Declaration. The Constitution establishes the process which will allow that "standard maxim for free society" to be realized, or at least labored for, to be approximated, and to spread and deepen its influence. Contrary to Wills's belief that the Declaration was primary in Lincoln's thinking, Lincoln emphasized constitutional process. His major purpose was to show and teach that equal liberty could be realized through selfgovernment , the Constitution, the rule of law that characterized Americans as nothing else did. His first major speeches defended the "respect for the laws" as "the political religion" of the nation. He took his oath to "preserve , protect and defend the Constitution." He contested secession in order to defend the constitutional means of changing governments. He constantly debated Democrats and members of Congress about constitutional alternatives . His debates with Douglas, five years...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 154-156
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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