The Long Shadow of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.
The question of how audiences have responded to Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address has been debated almost from the moment Lincoln sat down after uttering the words for which he would ultimately become best known. Indeed, the issue of how the attendees present at the address initially reacted has been contested by scholars of Lincoln, in general, and of the Gettysburg Address, in particular. In his new book, The Long Shadow of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, Jared Peatman is less concerned with the immediate reaction to the address, though he considers that topic, than with how Lincoln's address has been interpreted and used (and abused) by later generations of Americans and by people throughout the world. In short, Peatman examines the Gettysburg Address as a study in historical memory, and, in doing so, he puts forward an argument--written in clear, jargon-free prose, and rooted in extensive primary source research and in the relevant secondary literature--that is ultimately convincing.
Peatman argues that there were (and have always been) essentially two distinct concepts at the heart of the address: what Peatman refers to as "equality," as articulated in the words "all men are created equal" that Lincoln quoted from the Declaration of Independence in his opening sentence; and what he calls "democracy," as expressed in the famous peroration "government of the people, by the people, for the people." For the first hundred years after the address, speakers, writers, and audiences mostly fixated--though for various reasons, differing over time and place--on "democracy" while largely eschewing "equality," racial equality in particular, and its more radical connotations. Peatman maintains that Lincoln intended for these two concepts to be understood together, but later generations, armed with their own agenda, have instead chosen to focus on democracy, the safer of the two concepts.
Not until the civil rights movement, particularly during the late 1950s and early 1960s, Peatman argues, did the equality component of the address, and its radical implications, come to be fully appreciated. Martin Luther King Jr., for example, effectively began his "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963 by paraphrasing Lincoln's own opening with the words "Five score years ago." Peatman shows that this process of rediscovery was also driven by the sesquicentennial of Lincoln's birth and the Civil War centennial, as well as by a recognition during the Cold War of the United States' abysmal racial history, which provided the Communist bloc with considerable political ammunition.
While Peatman ostensibly covers the entire period from the delivery of the address through the early 1960s, he frames his book around particular time periods that illustrate his central argument. The first two chapters detail, respectively, the circumstances surrounding Lincoln's delivery of the address and the immediate reaction to it, with the latter assessing, in particular, responses in Gettysburg (local), New York City (the North's main media center), Richmond (the Confederacy's main media center), and London (international). The next three chapters examine, first, the opening two decades of the twentieth century, a period that included the centennial of Lincoln's birth, the fiftieth commemoration of the battle of Gettysburg and of the address, and the dedication of the Lincoln Monument (actually, 1922); second, the use of the address during both the First and Second World Wars, which Peatman uses to make effective comparisons; and, finally, the years 1959-1963, during which time the address's radical, equality component was rediscovered.
For each of these time periods, Peatman delineates the dominant narrative surrounding the address, which focused almost entirely on democracy, but he also attends to the counternarratives that various constituencies put forward. While Peatman's analysis is devoted largely to the United States, he also demonstrates how the address was used during the twentieth century, especially, in the aftermath of the Second World War, by nations throughout the world. In certain instances, foreign nations were simply parroting what they believed their American overlords wanted to hear, in order to keep foreign aid flowing, but in others, especially in the newly independent nations experiencing the process of decolonization, the embrace of both democracy and equality in the address represented a genuine element of the aspiration for national self-determination.
In his epilogue, Peatman shows how the Gettysburg Address has been employed in recent years, especially in popular culture, including in such feature films as Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and Steven Spielberg's Lincoln; by President Barack Obama; and by the international community. This highly accessible book will be of interest to specialists and to general readers alike.
--John C. Rodrigue
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|Author:||Rodrigue, John C.|
|Publication:||Presidential Studies Quarterly|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Nov 20, 2015|
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