Renewed Interest in the Gettysburg Address Prompts The Question: Why is it a Big Deal?
Cornell University's "New Student Reading Project" requires Garry Wills' book, "Lincoln at Gettysburg," to be read this year, with this justification:
Lincoln at Gettysburg invites readers to reflect on the ideals that should shape America’s national purpose and allows them to consider the political implications of race, the nature of leadership, the challenge of commemorating the sacrifices of those who fight in a contested war, the bearing of the past on the present and the dynamics of politics, according to Moody-Adams. Wills's book is a compelling work of history and a rich and illuminating analysis of the power of effective communication and well-crafted political rhetoric, she said.
Blah blah blah. How is this not Americans continuing to navel-gaze while the world burns?
The problem is that if Lincoln has universal significance that is good - and this author thinks he does - Wills is one of the worst places to go to talk about that significance. Paul Rahe notes that when Wills was a conservative, he wrote in National Review about how Lincoln, Lenin and Castro were of the same cloth, as they wrote "inspirational political theories," whereas John C. Calhoun, an ardent defender of slavery, was a genuine "conservative."
So I want to introduce you to a thorough commentary on the Gettysburg Address that spins it positively. You're more than welcome to disagree with me, and Wills is one place you can go for support. Another person whose work against Lincoln is notable is Mel Bradford, and many libertarians despise Lincoln for having fought the war instead of letting the South go bankrupt (these same libertarians note that economic models show the Soviet Union should have collapsed in 1950).
My contention is that you should have at least one thing saying "Lincoln did something good" before moving onto the sources about how bad he was.
In any case, the Gettysburg Address is a big deal because all throughout his political career, Lincoln was concerned with the problem of how a modern democratic republic - a modern democracy, in effect - can preserve itself. In his Lyceum speech, he found that laws were easy for the revolutionary generation and the ones connected directly with that generation to adhere to; the good old days were literally alive. Remove that founding generation from memory and people will disregard the law - isn't democracy about doing what you want ultimately?
Lyceum concerned the particular problem of the American republic, but Gettysburg doesn't mention America. Or a Civil War as a proper noun. Or even slavery or the Confederacy or the Union. Gettysburg is about self-government generally, and for that reason it is a big deal - it is one of the few examples of genuine American political rhetoric that is applicable beyond the national interest. There are no American political philosophers, not like Marx or Rousseau or Kant or Plato. There are only a few statesmen and commentators, and Lincoln is one of those.
For more on the Gettysburg Address, see my commentary here.