- The Long Shadow of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address by Jared Peatman
About halfway through Moby-Dick, Captain Ahab nails a gold doubloon to the mast of the whaleship Pequod, promising it as a reward to the first man who spies the great white whale for which he is hunting. One by one, officers and crew walk up to take a closer look at the coin, which “like a magician’s glass, to each and every man in turn . . . mirrors back his own mysterious self.”
Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address has been America’s doubloon. It has been parsed phrase by phrase, assessed as rhetoric and political theory, claimed as a national scripture and disclaimed as a misreading of history, demeaned, exalted, and everything in between. Some scholars have placed it within the military and political context of its time; others have lifted it out of time into the realm of philosophy and [End Page 101] world literature. To say something fresh about it is no small feat—but Jared Peatman manages to do so in this informative and probing book.
Peatman begins with how Lincoln wrote and spoke the speech. He sorts out conflicting accounts of how it was composed in several stages (not, as legend would have it, hurriedly on the train on a “scrap of brown paper”); received by its first audience (not with stunned silence, but with delayed applause, as if it were a piece of music that the audience is not quite sure is over); reported in northern and southern newspapers (with reactions ranging from appreciation to contempt); and how, through the ensuing decades, it has been invoked as a statement of sectional reconciliation, a defense of political democracy, a call for racial justice, and, most recently, for global cooperation in the face of problems no nation can solve on its own.
Along the way, Peatman touches on many topics pertinent to the contemporary reception of the speech, such as the creation of instant journalism by the new technology of the telegraph, which delivered multiple versions to every corner of the country, and the question—still very much unresolved in the fall of 1863—of the pace and scope of emancipation. We also learn a great deal about what might be called the afterlife of the speech—how Sun Yat-sen invoked it on behalf of Chinese revolutionary nationalism in the 1910s; how during the short-lived Weimar Republic of the 1920s and early ’30s German intellectuals embraced it as the credo of the American Bismarck; and even how it has penetrated popular culture, as when, in 2004, sportswriter Frank Deford adapted it as an anthem for the Boston Red Sox.
But at the heart of Peatman’s book is the long post–Civil War struggle over the meaning of Lincoln’s remarks for America’s destiny, which has amounted to a debate over the meaning of the Civil War itself. He shows convincingly—in gentle dissent from previous readings by Garry Wills and Gabor Boritt—that it took a long time for the message of racial equality implicit in the speech to come through loud and clear. He shows how the weight of interpretation shifted slowly, and with frequent stalls and reversals, from understanding it as a defense of majority rule (“government of the people, by the people, for the people”) to a call for fulfilling the promise of racial justice implied in the equality principle of the Declaration of Independence (“a new birth of freedom”). Peatman is at his best when he shows how during the middle decades of the twentieth century an array of American leaders—from Theodore Hesburgh to Lyndon Johnson and, most decisively, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—compelled the nation finally to grapple with the Gettysburg Address as an ever more urgent articulation of the unmet challenge of achieving racial justice.
Historian Eric Foner wrote recently, in The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, that “no one could mistake the meaning” of the phrase “the new birth of freedom” when...