White on Conant, 'The Gettysburg Address: Perspectives on Lincoln's Greatest Speech'

Sean Conant, ed.
Jonathan W. White

Sean Conant, ed. The Gettysburg Address: Perspectives on Lincoln's Greatest Speech. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. xvi + 350 pp. $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-19-022745-6; $79.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-022744-9.

Reviewed by Jonathan W. White (Christopher Newport University)
Published on H-FedHist (September, 2017)
Commissioned by Caryn E. Neumann

When Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton read the Gettysburg Address to a Republican rally in Pennsylvania in 1868, he declared triumphantly, “That is the voice of God speaking through the lips of Abraham Lincoln!”[1] Indeed, the speech has become akin to American scripture. This collection of essays, now available in paperback, was originally put together to accompany a film titled The Gettysburg Address (2017), which was produced by the editor of this book, Sean Conant. It brings “a new birth of fresh analysis for those who still love those words and still yearn to better understand them,” writes Harold Holzer in the foreword (p. xv).

The volume is broken up into two parts: “Influences” and “Impacts,” with chapters from a number of notable Lincoln scholars and Civil War historians. The opening essay, by Nicholas P. Cole, challenges Garry Wills’s interpretation of the address, offering the sensible observation that “rather than setting Lincoln’s words in the context of Athenian funeral oratory, it is perhaps more natural to explain both the form of Lincoln’s words and their popular reception at the time in the context of the Fourth of July orations that would have been immediately familiar to both Lincoln and his audience” (p. 4). Lincoln’s famous closing statement, according to Cole, was “part of a much longer history of oratory that celebrated America’s form of government as a sacred trust and the United States as a nation charged with a particular and special purpose” (p. 8).

For Robert Pierce Forbes, the Gettysburg Address marks an end to the language of compromise that had characterized politics in America before the Civil War. Sean Wilentz rightly points out that for Lincoln, the Civil War was not simply about preserving American democracy but also about self-government throughout the world, which Lincoln connected to “a new birth of freedom” (p. 53). Craig L. Symonds explores the “philosophical links” between Daniel Webster’s 1830 “Reply to Hayne” and Lincoln’s later public remarks about nationalism, human liberty, and self-government (p. 82). In many ways, Symonds argues, Lincoln and the Civil War made the United States “a new nation” (p. 86).

In an eloquent essay on death, Mark S. Schantz argues that Lincoln “transformed America’s engagement with death” in the Gettysburg Address (p. 107). Drawing from his larger study, Awaiting the Heavenly Country: The Civil War and America’s Culture of Death (2008), Schantz demonstrates that the dead at Gettysburg came to belong to the nation. At the new national cemetery, all were buried in a “relentlessly egalitarian” way with “precise uniformity” (p. 113). These honored dead were citizens who had given their lives for the nation, and now the nation would take the responsibility for their bodies.

In an essay on the suffering endured by Civil War soldiers, Chandra Manning minimizes the importance of the address, claiming that it heralded “a welcome recognition of what soldiers and former slaves already knew” and that “it did not tell them anything new.” In other words, Union soldiers and southern slaves knew that the war was about emancipation long before Lincoln figured it out. The Gettysburg Address, according to Manning, “needed little comment at that moment because it repeated shared rather than novel insights, important ones to be sure, but ones that war’s participants had already figured out for themselves” (p. 140).[2]

Allen C. Guezlo traces the origins of the dedication ceremonies and destroys some of the myths surrounding the speech. Guelzo also offers an insightful analysis of the development of Lincoln’s language, from his July 7, 1863, off-the-cuff remarks that began, “How long ago is it? eighty odd years—since on the Fourth of July for the first time in the history of the world a nation by its representatives, assembled and declared as a self-evident truth that ‘all men are created equal’” to the memorable “Four score and seven years ago ...” on November 19 (p. 159). For Guelzo, the “genius of the Address” is its “triumphant repudiation of the criticisms of democracy, and in the new birth it gave to those who had become discouraged and wearied by democracy’s follies.” The address, in short, was “a remarkably optimistic document” (p. 164).

In part 2, Louis P. Masur places the Gettysburg Address within the context of the Emancipation Proclamation, arguing that the speech was a promise that “democracy and freedom must triumph” (p. 188). Several essays focus on the implications of the address for Reconstruction, immigrants, and women. Don H. Doyle places Lincoln’s great speech within the context of other revolutions around the world in the early to mid-nineteenth century, while also showing its lasting global impact after Lincoln’s death. “What gave Lincoln’s speech at Gettysburg such sweeping power among the foreign public was his framing of the war within a much greater historic contest over the fate of democracy,” writes Doyle (p. 276).

While several of the authors trace aspects of Lincoln’s antebellum thought, particularly in his eulogy for Henry Clay and some of his speeches as president-elect, none considers his 1838 speech to the Young Men’s Lyceum at Springfield as a formative statement of the ideas that would later emerge in the Gettysburg Address. In that speech, a young Lincoln called on his audience to remember and cherish the sacrifices of the Patriots of the Revolution, much like he did of the Civil War generation at Gettysburg.[3]

So many interpretations of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address call to mind Gabor Boritt’s observation in The Gettysburg Gospel that “Lincoln could not have meant all the things attributed to him over the years.”[4] Still, this is a wonderful volume. Its essays are concise and often insightful and would lend themselves well to discussion with students.


[1]. Quoted in Jonathan W. White, Midnight in America: Darkness, Sleep, and Dreams during the Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017), 170.

[2]. I have challenged Manning’s thesis in Jonathan W. White, Emancipation, the Union Army, and the Reelection of Abraham Lincoln (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2014).

[3]. Abraham Lincoln, “Address before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois,” January 27, 1838, in The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, ed. Roy P. Basler, et al. (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953), 1:108-115. 

[4]. Gabor Boritt, The Gettysburg Gospel: The Speech That Nobody Knows (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006), 1.

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Citation: Jonathan W. White. Review of Conant, Sean, ed., The Gettysburg Address: Perspectives on Lincoln's Greatest Speech. H-FedHist, H-Net Reviews. September, 2017.
URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=49519

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