SPEAKER: This is a production of Cornell University.
MICHELE MOODY-ADAMS: Hello. I'm Michele Moody-Adams, Professor of Philosophy and Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education at Cornell University. I'm delighted to welcome you to this CyberTower forum for the 2008 Cornell New Student Reading Project.
We're here to discuss Gary Wills' Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Lincoln at Gettysburg, The Words That Remade America, chosen for this year's incoming class. Wills argues that Lincoln's 272-word address at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the site of the 1863 battle that was the turning point of the Civil War, has become a symbol of national purpose, pride, and ideals. Lincoln at Gettysburg, thus, invites readers to reflect on the ideals that should shape America's national purpose.
But in addition, Lincoln at Gettysburg encourages us 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 upon the present, and the dynamics of politics. Wills' book is a compelling work of history, to be sure, but it is also a rich and illuminating analysis of the power of effective communication and of well-crafted political rhetoric. The power of words, Wills argues, has rarely been given a more compelling demonstration than in the Gettysburg Address. Wills' Lincoln at Gettysburg is, thus, an ideal choice for the New Student Reading Project.
This year, the Reading Project will connect the Cornell community to the commemoration in February 2009 of the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth. This is fitting, since Cornell has many special connections to Lincoln's legacy. Cornell's founding in 1865 was an outcome of Lincoln's signing of the 1862 Moral Act, creating the first land grant institutions of higher education.
In addition, the Cornell University Library has one of the five known copies of the Gettysburg Address in Lincoln's handwriting. During new student orientation, the library will mount a special exhibition, including what is called the Bancroft copy of the Gettysburg Address.
This will be the eighth year of Cornell's New Student Reading Project. It was designed to provide a common intellectual experience for new and transfer students, and for the Cornell community, through campus-wide events and group discussions with students, faculty, and staff. Incoming students receive copies of the selected book to read over the summer, and Cornell's Reading Project website provides background and enrichment for readers as they make their way through the text.
On the Sunday of new student orientation, in late August, a panel of Cornell faculty members will discuss the book and invite student questions in preparation for the next day's meetings of more than 220 small discussion groups. Members of the Ithaca community, high school students across the state, and Cornell alumni also take part in reading and discussion groups of their own. And during the academic year, lectures, panel discussions, films, and other events will relate to the Reading Project to encourage discussion of the issues raised by Lincoln at Gettysburg.
Now, Wills' discussions of the dynamics of politics should prove especially provocative this year, in the context of the Fall '08 national election. Wills offers no simplistic analyses and no easy answers. Instead, he asks the reader to reflect on the complexities of political life and political agency and to resist the tendency to think in terms of simple dichotomies or absolutes divorced from the contingencies of political life.
Joining me in today's discussion of Lincoln at Gettysburg are three distinguished Cornell faculty members. Hunter Rawlings served as president of Cornell from 1995 to 2003 and again in 2005 to 2006. He's now President Emeritus and Professor of Classics and History at Cornell.
He teaches courses in Greek and Latin language and literature and in ancient history, and has recently developed a seminar on the classical influences upon American constitutional history. His research interests focus on Greek and Roman historians and upon the making of the US Constitution.
Ed Baptist is an associate professor in the Department of History at Cornell. His specialty is the history of slavery, the American South, and the 19th century US. He grew up in Durham, North Carolina and was educated in the public schools there and at Georgetown University. He received his PhD from the University of Pennsylvania. He's currently writing a book about the expansion of slavery in the United States from 1787 to 1865.
Tad Brennan is a professor of Cornell's Sage School of Philosophy, specializing in ancient Greek and Roman philosophy. Tad has a PhD in classics from Princeton University and has taught at King's College London, Yale, and Northwestern University. He's published on Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, and other classical philosophers, and is interested in the influence of the classics on American political thought.
Welcome to you all, and thank you for joining me to discuss Lincoln at Gettysburg.
TAD BRENNAN: Thank you.
ED BAPTIST: Thanks.
MICHELE MOODY-ADAMS: One interesting place to start might be with looking a little bit at that myth-- common myth-- that the Gettysburg Address was written hastily on the back of an envelope. I think Wills' book helps give us an inroad into challenging that myth. I don't know if, Ed, if you have any thoughts about where that myth takes us.
ED BAPTIST: Well, I think that, as Wills makes clear, there are several different versions of this and several different accounts of how it was written. But most likely, it was written over a longer period of time than just, let's say, the train ride up to Gettysburg. Because Lincoln's habit of composition was to take a long time to work on something very slowly, to try out multiple versions on multiple readers or multiple listeners.
So it seems unlikely, given all the different accounts of all the different people who saw him writing at one point or another, that just one of those is right. He was probably working on the Gettysburg Address at all of those different points, in front of all those different people, over a period of a couple of weeks.
MICHELE MOODY-ADAMS: Wonderful. And it is amazing to think that Lincoln had, what, maybe 18 months, total, of formal schooling. And he's just a master of the English language. And clearly, that's one of the things that emerges from the book. Might we start by talking a little bit about the origins of the Civil War and some of the political and constitutional conflicts that led us to November 19th, 1863?
ED BAPTIST: Well, if you look at the citizenship test that most people have to take when they come to the US, and they want to become citizens, the question that asks you, what were the origins of the US Civil War? is probably the only one that has two officially correct answers. And you can answer either slavery or debates over state's rights. And this has to do with the way in which people have been arguing about the origins of the Civil War ever since it happened.
Different people say different things. But in fact, I would argue, if you look at the actual history of the period from the Constitution up to the Civil War, the one constant thing, the one constant phenomenon that is creating the conflicts that will, ultimately, divide the North and the South along a set of issues that are so heated and so contentious that they will, in fact, go to war over them, is the question of the expansion of slavery.
And that brings in both the issue of slavery and the issue of, what are the rights of the different states to determine how society will be structured within those states? So if you look at things like the Missouri Compromise in 1820, if you look at the questions which emerge following the conquest of large sections of territory from Mexico, if you look at the Compromise of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska issue of 1854, and the Dred Scott case of 1857-- in all of these cases, what's at issue is whether or not slavery is going to continue to expand.
TAD BRENNAN: My brother recently asked me whether there have ever been states' rights advocates who were not adopting this as a cloak for racism of one sort or another. And I was able to point him to one of the anti-federalist authors, Brutus, writing in New York, who makes a very interesting and principled case for states' rights without any interest in defending slavery. Can you come up with anyone after that date?
ED BAPTIST: That would have been the late 1780s.
TAD BRENNAN: That's right. So at the time of the ratification debates about the Constitution. So right, roughly 1787 or so.
ED BAPTIST: Well, I'm sure you could find some people who, at various points and times, borrowed this argument. Nevertheless, the most important public expositions and uses of this argument were consistently those who are arguing for the defense of slavery and for the right, not just of the states that already exist to maintain slavery within their bounds-- Virginia, South Carolina, and so on-- but those who are arguing that, as citizens, they have the right to move west with their slaves and establish, ultimately, new slave societies.
And so that's also a question that comes to not just involve the rights of states to determine what happens within their own boundaries but, in the hands of someone like John C. Calhoun, the South Carolina politician, it becomes an argument that you can't, in fact, prohibit slavery anywhere. Because what's involved, then, is the property rights of American citizens, who, for Calhoun, are, pretty much, all white, to carry their property-- enslaved African-Americans-- wherever they want.
And in fact, Lincoln makes great use of this sort of logical end of the argument that Calhoun is advancing to say, look, fellow Northerners, if we do not stop the expansion of slavery to Kansas, or to what is today Arizona, or any of these western territories, that, ultimately, we're going to have slavery in Massachusetts and New Hampshire and New York and so on and so forth. Because that's the logical end of this argument, that people are property, that certain people are property, and that citizens cannot be denied the right to transport property wherever they want within the bounds of the US.
TAD BRENNAN: Well, and I suppose Calhoun's stance had been ratified and endorsed by the Supreme Court in the Dred Scott decision, then.
ED BAPTIST: That's correct.
MICHELE MOODY-ADAMS: Which Lincoln says something about in an important speech. What was Lincoln's stand on the Dred Scott?
ED BAPTIST: Well, the Dred Scott case in 1857, essentially, argues that Congress does not have the right to prohibit American citizens from bringing their slaves into territories. And of course, if you can't block slavery from expanding into territories-- territories, ultimately, become states, so you have more slave states added to the Union. And that's the import of the Dred Scott decision.
Lincoln has two positions on the Dred Scott case. One is that, this is law. It's been settled. Law, of course, can be changed. We can bring another case forward. We can change the composition of the Supreme Court, over time.
We can make arguments against it, and so on and so forth. But we need to obey it while it's law. We don't need to be running around, talking about how we're not going to obey the law. We'll leave that for the secessionists.
But on the other hand, he argues that this is, in fact, a poorly-made law which is illogical and which contradicts the basic tenets of what, for him, makes America a special place, what makes America worth fighting for, what makes a union worth fighting for. And that is the principle that is enunciated in the Declaration of Independence-- for Lincoln, at least, in Lincoln's reading-- which is that all men are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. The Dred Scott decision, by contrast, insisted that African-Americans cannot be citizens and that they do not have rights in the language of the decision, which white people are bound to respect.
TAD BRENNAN: And this, I take it, in Lincoln's mind, destabilized what had been an uncomfortable, but at least somewhat stable, compromise, that there should be free and slave states, neither encroaching on the other, that the extent of slavery should not expand beyond, roughly, what it had been at the time of the Constitution. That, I take it-- Lincoln's view was that that was bad enough, but we could live with it, provided that slavery was on its way to eventual extinction.
Provided that we could feel confident that it was on its way out, then we would remain within the bounds of the Constitutional compromise. Dred Scott destabilized that by removing the last check to its expansion throughout the Union and turning the entire country into a series of slave states.
ED BAPTIST: Right, and as-- the case itself was, actually, about territories. But Lincoln says what's next is the attempt to bring slavery into the states. And in fact, there was a case that was proceeding through the federal courts by 1860-- New York versus Lemmon-- in which Southerners were, in fact, arguing precisely that, that they should be able to bring slaves into the state of New York, for instance, and have their rights to claim that property and to control that property-- "property," as they see enslaved African-Americans-- and that the federal government, if necessary, should enforce that right, even if the state of New York, which has outlawed slavery by 1860, is not willing to do that.
I think you're exactly right, Tad. Lincoln sees this as moving backwards, as moving backwards towards the realization of the ideals that-- or at least the movement further on the line towards the realization of the ideals that are enunciated in the Declaration of Independence.
HUNTER RAWLINGS: I think what's striking about Lincoln, throughout this, is that he insists that the country was founded on the basis of a proposition. And he says that so clearly and so powerfully. And it separates, in a sense, this country from other countries that were not so founded.
And the idea that we were founded on the basis of a proposition is, it seems to me, a kind of announcement that this is a very serious purpose and that it's the bedrock of what the country stands for. He doesn't seem to want any kind of compromise on that point, at all.
TAD BRENNAN: No compromise on the centrality of that proposition, although he's willing to compromise on its implementation. That is, he rejects the radical abolitionists' call for immediate emancipation that would, actually, run contrary to constitutional provisions. He does think that the maintenance of the constitutional forms and, as you were pointing, obedience to the law, actually, is a more important priority than the immediate emancipation of slaves.
MICHELE MOODY-ADAMS: Although he wasn't always recognized to have that position, the speech before the Cooper Union sort of involves him having to really defend himself against certain suspicions that, secretly, he's really supporting the more radical abolitionists' view. But the public position certainly was this sense that he was willing to allow the transition from slavery to non-slave world to take place more slowly.
ED BAPTIST: Yeah, that's the position that many northern Republicans come to understand him as holding when they vote for him in 1860. And he's following this middle road between the radical abolitionists and those who, like northern Democrats, would allow slavery, in fact, to expand if that was what was necessary to keep the continued stability of the political regime.
Now, Southern whites, particularly those who were adamantly pro-slavery-- which was most of the politicians in the South, by 1860-- were having none of this. They did not buy it. They felt that he was, in some ways, more dangerous than radical abolitionists because he could put together a majority of northern voters. And in fact, that's what he did. He, in fact, got a majority in the electoral college behind his position.
But the ultimate outcome of that would be the blocking of any further expansion for slavery. And the expansion of slavery, both as an economic institution, as a political force-- in other words, the creation of more states that would have more pro-slavery senators and more pro-slavery representatives in Congress and so on-- this was absolutely necessary to maintain slavery and to maintain their way of life, their mode of making money.
And in fact, the world, as they understood it-- they could not understand what their society would look like without slavery. They couldn't accept that future.
MICHELE MOODY-ADAMS: So what precipitates the crisis that leads to the Civil War?
ED BAPTIST: Lincoln's election.
MICHELE MOODY-ADAMS: Lincoln's election? And how does secession take place? What are the first pieces of that process?
ED BAPTIST: Well, the first piece is that South Carolina-- which had, traditionally, been the most radical of the pro-slavery regimes and the Southern states-- immediately after Lincoln's election, puts into place a plan which state politicians had already had in their little file folder, if you will, ready to go. It goes like this. They call a special convention, supposedly composed of representatives who are directly representative of the people.
In other words, this is not part of the regular legislative process. This is a special thing. It's sort of like a Constitutional Convention, except, if you will, it's a unwinding, or unraveling the Constitution Convention.
And at this, they declare their opposition to remaining in the Union anymore. They secede, as they claim, from the Union. And after that, a series of other deep south states go out of the Union one after the other, till, I believe, seven of them have gone by the end of January.
TAD BRENNAN: I hadn't known that, the nature of the special convention. That does explain to me-- or at least, I wonder if that's connected with Article VI of the Constitution, where members of the state legislature and all executive members of the states-- so the governor of South Carolina, every member of the South Carolina legislature, had to swear an oath of allegiance to the federal constitution.
So ex officio, insofar as I'm a South Carolina legislature, I have to swear to preserve, protect, and defend the American Constitution. On the other hand, once I set aside my legislatorial hat and become a private citizen, then it's perfectly open to me-- they might have thought, right, this might be the rationale for doing this as a special convention, not as a South Carolina legislature-- once I set that rule aside, now I'm really a private citizen, and I'm not bound by that constitutional oath to uphold the federal Constitution.
ED BAPTIST: Well, I think the other piece of it is that this is exactly how the Constitution was ratified between 1787 and 1789-- not by the sitting state legislatures but by special conventions. Because a representative body cannot make, according to this particular constitutional theory that they were following, cannot make the overarching framework of rules for themselves. They can make their day-to-day rules. What will the sergeant at arms do, that sort of thing.
But the ultimate rules which are going to govern them have to be made by some other body and, preferably, by something that is directly representative of the people. So that's what I mean by a sort of unraveling, by putting everything in reverse and backing up through the process again. It had brought them into the Union. By going through the inverse of that, they hoped to justify their going out of the Union.
TAD BRENNAN: And the war came.
ED BAPTIST: And the war came.
MICHELE MOODY-ADAMS: And some of the main battles that take place prior to Gettysburg-- we've described it as the turning point in the war-- can you name a couple of other battles before 1863 that seemed really pivotal in the course of the war and that will help explain why Gettysburg has this place in history for us?
ED BAPTIST: There are a couple of them. And we were talking earlier, some of us, about the various battlefield sites that we visited. So we should all chime in here.
Probably the first important one is First Bull Run, when it becomes obvious that the South is not going to be defeated very quickly, and that Lincoln's going to have to raise a much bigger army than he had thought, and that the nature of the endeavor that the government is going to have to carry out is going to be much more serious than many who had said, we'll be in Richmond in two weeks, had ever been able to conceive of.
MICHELE MOODY-ADAMS: Antietam is another important battle that we were speaking, in fact, about earlier. One of the largest-- or maybe the largest-- loss of American life in a single day of battle, 26,000 people, a battle after which it was thought the North might have been able to win the war had certain events taken place afterwards. They did not take place. Generals lost their nerve-- General McClellan, in particular.
HUNTER RAWLINGS: But Lincoln seized upon it, nonetheless, because he needed a victory very badly. And he was getting ready, as you know, to put forward his Emancipation Proclamation. But he needed to wait for some kind of signal event. And he took Antietam as such a victory, even though it was a very qualified victory, as Ed was saying earlier. So Antietam has a certain symbolic value, even if it was a bloody stalemate.
TAD BRENNAN: Sorry, so this is Autumn, '62?
ED BAPTIST: September. September '62.
TAD BRENNAN: Right. So the preparatory Emancipation Proclamation has already been issued or not?
ED BAPTIST: It's issued after Antietam.
TAD BRENNAN: I see. Even the initial one saying, look, I'm going to do this, I'm serious about this, you've got one last step to come back into the Union. OK. That's after Antietam, and then, he actually pulls the trigger in what, January 1st?
ED BAPTIST: January 1st, 1863.
HUNTER RAWLINGS: But then, interestingly, following that, you don't have a succession of Northern victories. In fact, probably Lee's greatest victory, the Battle of Chancellorsville, follows that-- precedes Gettysburg-- and, in fact, leads Lee to believe that he can, now, invade the North.
And that's what leads, eventually, to the campaign at Gettysburg. So it's still a very difficult war, and not a one-sided war, by the time the battle at Gettysburg is joined in July of '63.
TAD BRENNAN: Well, that is something we'd see on the map, right? Bull Run, Antietam, Chancellorsville-- they're all in Virginia. They're all south of the Mason-Dixon line. They're all taking place on, as it were, Southern soil, although Wills points out that Lincoln always insists, no, it's our national soil.
Gettysburg is up north. Gettysburg is in Pennsylvania, the high-water mark of the Confederacy, as it's sometimes called. So an actual counterinvasion by the South.
ED BAPTIST: Well, Antietam is an effort to make one of those invasions. And Lee is sort of replaying the same strategy the next year, only he goes much further. He actually invades a non-slave-owning state with Pennsylvania.
TAD BRENNAN: And the thought was, what, to come through Pennsylvania and, then, to swing towards the ocean, towards the coast? How was that going to work? I wonder what his next-- had that succeeded-- I wonder what his next objective was to be. I don't know, offhand.
HUNTER RAWLINGS: Well, Ed's the expert, but I think, just briefly, it seems Lee was not really planning a long-term invasion but rather trying to win a major victory or two and see if he couldn't bring the North to end the war--
TAD BRENNAN: To the table.
HUNTER RAWLINGS: --based on a couple of solid victories rather than a long-term invasion that was going to result in years of fighting.
TAD BRENNAN: Well, there had been plans to capture Washington, DC. I mean, I take it that, earlier, at any rate, there was some thought that the South would just march up and occupy the federal government and that would have, very quickly, brought the North to terms.
HUNTER RAWLINGS: Not much came of those efforts.
ED BAPTIST: Right.
TAD BRENNAN: Right.
MICHELE MOODY-ADAMS: So let's, for a moment, move a bit beyond the battle itself, since we won't have time to, necessarily, detail each of the three days. Move it forward to November 19th, 1863. And Everett and Lincoln have arrived at the cemetery and the battlefield to commemorate that as a National Cemetery.
And we get these two very different speeches. We get the two-hour oration that hearkens back to many of the classical Greek traditions of oratory. And then, we get 272 words that take about, what, two minutes, in Lincoln's vocal habits, to deliver.
And this is, really, quite an extraordinary contrast. And then, Lincoln's speech, according to Wills, is, in its own way, internally, quite extraordinary. What do we make of what the audience would have expected?
HUNTER RAWLINGS: Well, it's a wonderful contrast, as you say. And people never tire of pointing out that the two-hour oration has been, more or less, forgotten by history. And the two-minute preparatory remarks has become probably the best-known speech in American history and for good reason.
But at the time, I think the reaction was, really, quite different. And Wills brings that out pretty well in his book. Edward Everett, professor, former president at Harvard, legislator, major public figure, was regarded as the finest orator of the day-- and that was saying something at that time because there were lots of splendid orators.
He was classically trained. He spoke beautifully, very loudly. He prepared exceedingly well. He gave a two-hour talk. And the audience, from everything we can tell, liked it quite a lot.
They were expecting a long talk. It didn't shock them as being overly long. This is exactly what you did on such occasions at cemeteries, in particular, in the 19th century. And Wills spends a lot of time bringing that out as part of the cult of the dead in the 19th century and part of the cult of founding cemeteries in rural areas.
Lincoln's talk was regarded as something that presidents do. And I know about such talks, having given quite a large number in my time. You're asked to come and sort of bless an occasion. But, please, don't speak very long is the underlying demand.
And Lincoln, of course, seized the moment by compressing-- as he was just so remarkably able to do-- a lot of American thought and a lot of American ideals into a very short space. And I must say, Lincoln was not devoid of the use of classical terms, classical rhetoric.
And Wills brings out, quite clearly, how well he was able to bring that in, as well as the biblical. So it's a remarkable contrast. But it's one that's a little different, I think, from the way it's often taken to be.
TAD BRENNAN: I must say, I really enjoyed Everett's speech. I'm very glad that Wills included it.
MICHELE MOODY-ADAMS: You read the whole thing!
TAD BRENNAN: Yeah. I would urge our students to read that, to read the whole darn thing. No, it's actually a very good speech. I'm not sure that I would be able to sit through it in delivery. Two hours is a long time.
But it reads quite quickly, and you could read it in some fraction of that. And it's a very good speech. It's quite interesting. It's dramatic, vivid, and gives you a narrative recap of the day's events and, also, does tackle some of the arguments for secession.
He, actually, does take the time to say, now, the secessionists claim that they have the following rationale for what they're doing, and I have the following counterarguments against it. I think this is-- you know, they don't have the right to secede, and so on. So it covers quite a lot of territory.
HUNTER RAWLINGS: I think Tad's comments are helpful in enabling us to see what the real contrast is between the two speeches. To me, it's not really so much one of length or classical inspiration but rather, Everett mentions a lot of details in his speech. He talks about the battle itself. He goes into some length on the strategies.
Lincoln rises above the particular. He is simply not concerned with the particular. His speech comes up here, to a level of, almost, abstraction and principle and proposition, as opposed to individual description.
And this is what gives Lincoln's rhetoric such remarkable power is its ability to generalize and to idealize in a highly compressed form. And I think one of the interesting things you're asking students to do this year is to write up something about an important policy or issue in 272 words. Good luck.
MICHELE MOODY-ADAMS: Absolutely. It's a very difficult task.
HUNTER RAWLINGS: I mean, none of us knows how to do this. But Abraham Lincoln could do it-- only by rising to an altogether different plane, I think.
MICHELE MOODY-ADAMS: Absolutely.
ED BAPTIST: Well, there's some dangers that you encounter when you become abstract. There are dangers in terms of the difficulty in connecting with your audience. How do you connect with your audience if you cannot reach into them and talk about something particular that you and they share? And it might be interesting to think about how it is that Lincoln manages to be so abstract and yet so inspirational at the same time.
TAD BRENNAN: That may also explain why our appreciation of the speech is so enriched by Wills' presentation of all the surrounding context. Because if you simply didn't know what was being compressed, then it would be rather hard to read it out of the speech again. It would be, perhaps, impossible to see what this is a distillation of, whereas the more you know, the more you have to stand in awe of his ability to pack it all in.
MICHELE MOODY-ADAMS: Wills uses interesting phrases like sleight of hand-- even, an intellectual pickpocket-- who takes one thing that they come in with, one idea about what America, really, is about, and sends them off from the battlefield with another vision-- or, at least, attempts to do that. And I think it's really quite interesting to see. Now, maybe we could talk a bit, in fact, about the content of the speech and some of the potentially provocative things that Wills says.
HUNTER RAWLINGS: I think the point you just raised, Michele, is a good place to start. Because Wills' claim that he picked the pocket of the American people has become somewhat controversial. Not everyone agrees that he did that.
His point is that he is, in effect, rewriting the Constitution for the country on the basis of the Declaration of Independence. And I think Wills shows nicely how the Chicago papers, for example, pointed that out immediately the next day. What is Mr. Lincoln doing? This is completely inappropriate. It's wrong. And it's anti-Constitutional.
But what Lincoln, it seems to me, is doing, in the way that Ed is suggesting, is to breathe into the Constitution the values of the Declaration. And some feel that it, perhaps, goes too far to claim, as Wills does, that that's a sleight of hand.
But that's Will's argument. And I think it stands up fairly well. I'd be interested to know if you all disagree or think that's, perhaps, a little exaggerated.
MICHELE MOODY-ADAMS: Well, there are a number of issues that one can raise in thinking about Wills' argument. Even if you accepted the idea that he'd made this really masterful effort to reread the Constitution in some way and give you the Declaration as the founding document, rather than the Constitution-- some critics have read the book and wondered whether Wills is attributing too much power to Lincoln, that maybe he's just articulating something that was kind of in the air, maybe through some of the abolitionist arguments or the arguments of freed slaves writing slave narratives.
Or we talked earlier about Harriet Beecher Stowe and Uncle Tom's Cabin, that it may be that, implicit in that sort of picture of what was wrong with slavery was an appeal to the Declaration. I would say, nonetheless, that even if Lincoln is articulating something that's already there, it's done so masterfully.
And it's not just that it's done with so few words but that it's done without actually saying, I'm doing something that you need to be attentive to. I'm forcing you to see the founding ideals of America in a way somewhat different from what some of our contemporaries think it is. So even if he's not the first person to say it, he says it with such eloquence-- and such elegance, I'll even say.
TAD BRENNAN: And he makes it the rationale for the struggle and sacrifice that they're faced with, that this is, in some sense, the point that we are fighting this war, that a certain kind of governmental structure shall not perish from the Earth. It has not merely national but international eternal significance for, as he says, for the whole family of man, whether this form of government can be practiced.
That seems to me, in some sense, a stronger rationale for the sacrifice and struggle we're undertaking. Because, in a way, the Constitution, although it does, in one way, enshrine certain values, in other ways, is much more of a, as it were, bureaucratic or administrative document.
Only in the preamble does it express grand values. The rest is rather technical, really. A lot of it is what you might have in a computer operating system. How should these parts interact with each other?
So to find the point of all this-- why did these people die? Why did Lincoln himself-- I just ran into this the other day-- have to write a letter to a mother saying, the war office has shown me evidence that you've lost five of your sons in order, and I simply want you to know why we're doing this, that we appreciate your sacrifice and the sacrifices you've made? It would be hard to sacrifice for anything less important than the fate of free government and the fate of equality for human beings all over the earth for all time.
HUNTER RAWLINGS: Well, think about this, to add to Tad's point. Lincoln manages to do this in a speech in which he never mentions the word slavery. Now, to me, this is just remarkable to take on an issue like this in such a powerful way and never even mention the term slavery or the term slave.
And yet, everyone knows what this speech is about. We know exactly the point of this speech. And he avoids the word altogether. It's just astonishing.
MICHELE MOODY-ADAMS: Did he think it was too charged, do you think, Hunter, that it would distract people from the higher principles that they--
HUNTER RAWLINGS: I don't know about that. But I just think he's on such a high plane that he can pull this off.
TAD BRENNAN: I guess I'm inclined to think that he just doesn't think that there are two separable issues here. That is, the point of fighting for government by the people is to resist tyranny, which has held sway over history for as long as history has been written.
Only the United States, exceptional in the world, has a system in which individuals are free and equal and the wrongness of slavery simply is the wrongness of tyranny applied to a specific case. I think that's the reason not only why he doesn't have to mention slavery but why, in some sense, he can have felt that it was more important to keep the Union together than to free the slaves.
It's not that he thought slavery was less bad than we think it is. It's that he thought the badness of slavery is exactly the badness of tyrannical government everywhere. And this policy alone-- the policy of keeping the Union together and vindicating government by self-rule-- is the only way to attack tyranny in all its forms, of which slavery is a vivid one but not the only one.
ED BAPTIST: Well, I was just going to say that he says repeatedly-- and he will repeat this in the second inaugural-- that the essence of slavery is you make the bread, and I eat it. You make it with your sweat, and I eat it in comfort. And this is, in fact, tyranny. And this is, for too much of human history, this has been the condition of much of humanity.
And the promise of the United States is the promise of breaking out of that kind of tyranny. But as long as we have this massive contradiction and, in fact, a growing contradiction by 1860, then we stand to fail in establishing this proposition that Hunter was talking about that was the essence of the claim to nationhood that the United States had made.
But I do want to say that Lincoln has-- in some ways, he doesn't have to spell all that out in November 1863 because he's been doing that since 1854. When he reenters politics after a sort of hiatus-- he'd been a congressman very briefly in the 1840s, had gone out of politics, to a large extent, except as a behind-the-scenes organizer. And in 1854, when his local senator, Steven Douglas, supports the Kansas-Nebraska act, which expands the territory of slavery, he jumps back in.
And this is his issue, that, in fact, slavery should not be allowed to expand because it is an explicit undermining of the promise of America. It is a contradiction to everything. So he's been making the case, and he's been making it in all sorts of ways and continually.
As his law partner, William Herndon, says, he gets to the nub of the issue at hand better than anyone else. And he does it with abstraction. Or he does it with folksy examples that can do that sort of particular work in certain ways.
He talks about slavery as, a snake gets into bed with your sleeping children. When you find out that there's a snake in the bed, do you jump in there? No, because you don't know if, perhaps, in the tussle that follows, your children might get bitten.
Or on the other hand, he talks about slavery as a cancer that's growing in a man's arm. Well, he can't cut it out right away because it's wrapped around these arteries. But what is he going to do about it? He has to do something about it at some point.
TAD BRENNAN: And you don't want it to spread.
ED BAPTIST: Right. So he's been building this argument over time. And this allows him to be abstract in that very powerful way that Hunter brought up.
HUNTER RAWLINGS: One of the great devices I think he uses in the Gettysburg Address to do this-- and again, to come back to the rhetoric of the speech-- is the birth, death, rebirth. And it strikes me that's a very vivid, powerful way that is partly biblical and partly classical-- pagan, that is-- as Wills brings up, very effectively, in his book.
It's a way of saying the only way you can solve this terrible problem is through what sounds like, frankly, a terrible method-- namely, death. But what he finds in these deaths-- and he refers to those in such a tangible way, these men, these deaths-- that is what gives us the devotion, then, to go and make this enormous change, which the country absolutely requires.
MICHELE MOODY-ADAMS: This new birth of freedom.
HUNTER RAWLINGS: Yes, but Lincoln never finds easy answers to difficult questions. And it's the thing I've always admired so much about him. The answers are always terribly difficult, horribly painful.
And what he's saying, it seems to me, in the Gettysburg Address is this is a really painful thing. But it's only through this level of pain that we can get what we absolutely have to get. And so all of these verbs, in particular, of creation, in the beginning of the speech, and leading to, then, the death on the battlefield and then the rebirth of the nation, seems to me, make this point terribly, terribly well.
TAD BRENNAN: I'd like to propose that you could divide the address into two big elements. And the one element would be this abstract argument that he's offering about the eternal significance of our making good this experiment in self-rule, where we're testing a proposition, and if we don't get it right, no one can get it right. This is an obligation we have to the whole human family, to do this right. And that's why it's worth struggling as we're struggling.
Combine that argument, that particular content, with what, in other ways, is, to an extent, a fairly formulaic instance of the funereal oration. Wills spends a fair bit of time talking about the Thucydidean background for this. And it's really quite delightful how Wills puts these two in parallel-- here's Thucydides, here's Lincoln, here are the immense numbers of parallels.
And yet, the content is something very different. Thucydides is defending an imperialistic, slave-owning, deeply inegalitarian state. Lincoln is not. Lincoln's putting new wine in these old bottles, if you like. But there is, as it were, the rhetorical frame that was, to some extent, ready-made for him. And I wonder if that made his job somewhat easier, as well, that it's almost reach-me-down.
Off the shelf, you could buy the structure of a funeral oration from Thucydides and, then, pack into it this argument that, as Ed has been saying, he's been making for quite a while-- that tyranny and slavery are one, that self-rule is the only opposition to both of them, and that the logical self-rule means we must eliminate slavery. So there's two elements, the Thucydidean rhetoric with the new egalitarian argument.
HUNTER RAWLINGS: I think there's something in that. On the other hand, it seems to me, what Lincoln does is so different that you have to give him credit for something quite original here. I mean, the Gettysburg Address is, what, probably 10% as long as the Thucydidean funeral oration.
Edward Everett used the Thucydidean Epitaphios, as well, to good effect, in his speech. But he follows that full style of rhetoric, whereas Lincoln, again, has compressed so severely. So while you may find some of the same elements-- and Wills, I agree, does a good job of finding those parallels-- Lincoln has done something here quite different, I think, from the Periclean funeral oration.
MICHELE MOODY-ADAMS: In chapter 5, I think Wills is really trying to make the case for that. After having traced some of the historical traditions in the speech, it's chapter 5 where we discover this is a modern political speech. It doesn't really simply reproduce traditions from the past.
TAD BRENNAN: Right, the revolution in language that [INAUDIBLE].
MICHELE MOODY-ADAMS Absolutely. Absolutely.
HUNTER RAWLINGS: Yeah, I mean, Everett, it seems to me, is the real heir to the Greek tradition, whereas Lincoln is founding something new. And it's something that, I think, has been seen by every president since then as virtually unattainable. But that doesn't stop them from trying. The only thing is, they try at great length.
MICHELE MOODY-ADAMS: And I think it would be fun for our listeners, our viewers, to think about other Lincoln speeches, that it would be worthwhile for them to ponder as they're thinking about the Wills text. I think the second inaugural, which is somewhat longer-- it's something like 700 words or somewhere on that order-- but another really great speech where Lincoln is trying to do different things but also managing to encapsulate some really difficult and large ideas in a relatively short number of words.
HUNTER RAWLINGS: That's the one that I think comes immediately to mind.
MICHELE MOODY-ADAMS: Absolutely. Some people say it's his greatest speech.
HUNTER RAWLINGS: Well, Lincoln himself, apparently, felt it was. And that's pretty remarkable, I think. But it is the one to which you want others to turn after they've-- I mean, if you liked the Gettysburg Address, be sure to read the second inaugural.
MICHELE MOODY-ADAMS: Have I got a speech for you.
HUNTER RAWLINGS: But it was a flabbergasting speech, actually, and terribly, terribly moving.
MICHELE MOODY-ADAMS: And I'm hoping that our readers will take this as an occasion to think about Lincoln's career, also, broadly, and about the links you mentioned, Tad, the extent to which the ideals that Lincoln thought we were fighting for were, in fact, the greatest ideals in human history-- at least, as far as a polity could achieve and attain. And I think it's important to know this is just not simply appealing to people who are interested in American history but in thinking about the possibilities of human existence.
You know, what kinds of ideals can we realize in political life? And Lincoln is fighting very hard to tell us what one ideal amongst that group might be. And I think that's very important.
TAD BRENNAN: Oh, there's so many speeches that are wonderful to read. I'm sure Ed would have a list, as well. I just ran into one I hadn't known-- a temperance speech he gave before he was in politics, in 1842.
MICHELE MOODY-ADAMS: I don't know this one.
TAD BRENNAN: It's fascinating. And already, you can see the germ of the argument that the Declaration, the American Revolution, rules out slavery. It's already present there. He's already thinking about it.
He's been writing the Gettysburg Address for a long time. I think that's one thing that reading more of the speeches shows you. The Dred Scott speech-- that would be another fabulous one to read.
ED BAPTIST: The series of speeches that he gives in his debates with Stephen Douglas, in 1858, which are longer but which are fascinating, both for the ways in which he tries to navigate the politics of a state-- Illinois, which is anti-slavery or, certainly, anti-slave expansion but is also, in many areas, virulently anti-black and virulently racist-- and the ways in which he tries to not turn off those potential voters but also to not give away the game that he's trying to play.
TAD BRENNAN: You mentioned the Cooper Union talk, earlier.
MICHELE MOODY-ADAMS: Which is a magnificent speech.
TAD BRENNAN: Just between the two of us, he's a philosopher, right?
MICHELE MOODY-ADAMS: He is. He is.
TAD BRENNAN: It's astounding. He thinks like a philosopher.
MICHELE MOODY-ADAMS: Absolutely. That comes through in the speeches, in particular.
TAD BRENNAN: Which, of course, is high praise when we say it.
MICHELE MOODY-ADAMS: Well, two philosophers on this panel will take that. Absolutely.
TAD BRENNAN: No, there's just something about the way that he reasons, which is-- I suppose it's his legal training. But it may have been a cast of mind.
ED BAPTIST: Not all lawyers can reason like that.
HUNTER RAWLINGS: If you think of these influences that we're mentioning, it seems to me it's worth enumerating them. The biblical influence was terribly important to Lincoln. We're told he read the Bible virtually every day, and it was something that he memorized large portions of. It meant a lot to him.
He knows this Periclean funeral oration, obviously, extremely well. And so he's familiar with that. His legal training is superb. And his ability to argue a point is, obviously, very, very strong.
So he has a lot of different elements to his rhetoric. And he seems to be able, in this late phase in his life, to bring them together in a way that's very effective. It doesn't seem artificial.
MICHELE MOODY-ADAMS: No, not at all.
HUNTER RAWLINGS: You would think that having so many strains would make it a very artificial product, but it's not. He seems to be able to integrate them.
ED BAPTIST: And that's one thing we can definitely say about the second inaugural. I think, there, we see the triumph of his process of bringing all those things together. And it's interesting to compare the reaction of Frederick Douglass-- who was probably the leading public figure among African-Americans of that day-- to the first inaugural, on the one hand, where Lincoln's making a argument against secession that's also trying not to push Kentucky and Maryland, which are slaveholding states that have not seceded, out of the union.
And Douglass is deeply disappointed by the lack of an overt assault on slavery. In the second inaugural, we see one of the most powerful condemnations of slavery that you've ever seen by a white American in history that has so many depths in it that one simply has to read it and think about it as a document that is philosophical, that is religious, that is legal, that is political.
And to that, Frederick Douglass had a very different reaction. When he heard that, he decided he was going to, actually, attend the reception after the inaugural. And he and Lincoln, actually, had a very friendly talk, at that point.
MICHELE MOODY-ADAMS: Well, I think we've come to the end of a really wonderful discussion, one that I think should really help our students and our readers find the book really intriguing-- a lot of provocative observations we've made. And we'll give them the sense that this is not simply about American history-- although that's a pretty good thing to think about. It's about big ideas that really matter to the species, whatever our national origin.
It's about language. It's a power of communication. And I think there's, really, a lot for people to sink their teeth into. And we'll invite them to go ahead and do that.
And as we end our discussion today, I'd also like to invite you to take a look at the Cornell University Reading Project website, which will contain references to all sorts of wonderful resources. It will help you work your way through the book, if you're doing that on your own and feeling a little bit lost.
There will be a blog, or set of blogs, that involve contributions from some faculty, students, administrators, library staff. And we will hope that you might contribute to the discussion that gets generated by the blogs, as well.
And with that, I'll bid you adieu. And I'll thank my panelists, Tad Brennan, Hunter Rawlings, and Ed Baptist. Thank you.
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The power of words has rarely been given a more compelling demonstration than in the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln was asked to memorialize the gruesome battle. Instead he gave the whole nation "a new birth of freedom" in the space of a mere 272 words. His entire life and previous training and his deep political experience went into this, his revolutionary masterpiece.
"Lincoln at Gettysburg" by Garry Wills is the selection for the 8th New Student Reading project.
The panel is chaired by Michele Moody-Adams, Hutchinson Professor of Ethics and Public Life, and vice-provost for undergraduate education.
She is joined by: Hunter Rawlings, the former president of Cornell University and currently professor of classical history; Ed Baptist, associate professor of history, whose academic focus is the 19th-century United States; and Tad Brennan, professor of philosophy, with interests in ancient philosophy, and topical interests centering around ethics.