Book Review: Gettysburg Replies

Gettysburg Replies: The World Responds To Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, edited by Carla Knorowski

This book, published by the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation, seeks to provide something new about something that is commonly read, and even not infrequently memorized, the 272 words of Lincoln’s justly famous and compact Gettysburg Address, by choosing 100 people to write 272 words about the Gettysburg Address, its personal relevance, its lasting effects, a challenge I have accepted myself [1]. These people are an intriguing and diverse mix of people, and not all of them chose to write their essay. Famed photographer Annie Leibovitz, for example, chose to make her essay a photograph of a miniature Lincoln memorial next to the larger one in marble in Washington DC as a point that the Gettysburg Address is a compact and small discussion of the same precise moral and ethical positions that Lincoln held and expounded upon at greater length in other places over the course of his life, a wise use of a single image to express a larger concept in a particularly elegant fashion. Some of the writers, like presidents Carter, both Bushes, Clinton, and Obama, write selections, quite a few politicians do as well, while on the other side of the scale a handful of bright high school students write on at least the same level as some of the presidents about their own views of the address. Many of the writers are familiar to me because I have read their books or been familiar with their cultural efforts [2]. Some people write about the march of equality throughout time and the incomplete work to make that equality complete, while others write about the continuing need for responsibility and personal sacrifice and a devotion to unchanging moral principles. The meaning of the Address is contested still, a point that this book brings out very implicitly.

In terms of its contents, the book is very straightforward. There is an introduction of the writing of the Gettysburg Address and its context, the manuscript copies of it that are presently extant, and the way the selections were chosen. After this the book has a consistent format for the selections it chooses, showing a photograph of the manuscript, either typed or hand-written, on the left page and a title to the selection, its author, a typed and formatted version, and then a short biographical sketch of the author with a photo. After the 100 selections are given, the book gives a brief acknowledgements section and a lengthy selection of photo credits. While the editor of the book takes a pragmatic look at the progress of Lincoln’s actions with regards to slavery, the book itself as a whole demonstrates that we are still not in agreement of what is fundamental about the rights given to us. After all, the Declaration of Independence speaks of our rights as being endowed by our Creator. They are inalienable and precious because they come from God and are threatened by other men who may be tempted to disregard the rights of others in search of their own selfish interests, as was done by slaveowners, and many others since them.

Yet while many of the people who write selections choose to talk about their own struggle for personal dignity, for their own pet causes and private efforts, and their own conceptions of the sorts of equality for which we ought to dedicate ourselves, the long chain of legitimacy for the rights we hold dear is left largely unstated. We look to the Gettysburg Address as a way of justifying the legitimacy of equality, Lincoln himself looked back four score and seven years to the Declaration of Independence, and the writers of that declaration like Jefferson and Adams looked to the dictates of equality under God (see, for example, Galatians 3:26-29) as justifying their own defense of equality. Yet the equality that we seek to justify often amounts to a rejection of the moral standards of God, who made us equal under His eyes. Yet if we reject a divine source of equality because we do not like the moral standards that come from that same source, we cut out from under us any ground to a lasting equality, because we make our civil rights dependent on men, on governments and on the practice of traditions, making control of the government to enforce our own ideas of equality a matter of the utmost importance, even if it rejects the equal humanity of those who oppose us because they see equality in a different sense. Just as in Lincoln’s time, so it is in our time that our nation is imperiled because we lack a common definition of equality, or even a recognition that we often attack the very source of the equality we support so strongly and feel so passionately about. This book is an artifact of the struggle for the soul of our contemporary society, and the fractured perspective we have because we are not often profound enough students of history to see beyond our own times and situations.

[1] See below:

At times he spoke to the leaders of a nation like San Marino, telling them that, “Although your dominion is small…” At times he spoke to the mother of a soldier who was to be shot for running from the fear of death in battle. At times he spoke to all peoples at all times, telling them truths written on the rock for all to see. At times he spoke to those who had gathered of the need to give those who have been freed the rights to make that freedom stick, while at other times he spoke to crowds of the need to show malice towards none and charity towards all, so that our nation’s wounds could be bound, and healed by the gradual process of time.

For these sentiments he was branded by some men as a coward, and for others as a traitor who must die for expressing these sentiments to a nation dedicated to the proposition that all men were created equal and untroubled by the fact that by their traditions some men were enslaved, and that the women and children who were theoretically their equals were often preferred to be silent and without defense against their wishes. And so he was murdered, cut down while spending a night in the theater, so that our nation may live. And we, the living, have dedicated ourselves to defending the equality of all men before God, and yet we no more agree on what equality is sacred and what is profane than in the past. And yet we seek to think as Lincoln thought and to do as he did.

[2] See, for example:

Ken Burns:

Richard Etulain:

Judith Sheindlin:

Allen C. Guelzo:

Harold Holzer:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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