Home | Reviews | Blog | Daily | Glossary | Orrin's Stuff | Email

    Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition
    that all men are created equal.
        -Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address

We're all familiar with Winston Churchill's adage about the need to be liberal in youth and conservative when mature, and many, many folks do follow that pattern.  Most notoriously the entire neoconservative movement is made up of former liberal intellectuals who shifted to the Right during the 60s and 70s.  Then in the 80s and 90s a second wave--including David Horowitz, William Henry, Harry Stein, Jim Sleeper, Nat Hentoff, and Christopher Hitchens--followed suit, to one degree or another.  Against this tide swam only two significant figures of the 60s Right--Joan Didion and Garry Wills.  Ms Didion, who seems to have been radicalized by personal experiences in Central America, promptly stopped writing anything worth reading, churning out anti-Reagan hackwork instead.  But Garry Wills retained his full power--if not all his prior wisdom--and is today one of the Left's very best polemicists.  More than that though, he seemingly set himself up as a one man Shadow Government, systematically taking on the topics and personalities most dear to the Right--thus his screeds against Ronald Reagan and John Wayne and his attacks on gun rights and the like.  In Lincoln at Gettysburg he tries to adopt the iconic Republican, Abraham Lincoln, for the cause of liberalism and to attack the idea that the Constitution must be read as written.

The book contains much that's interesting and worthwhile about the mechanics by which Lincoln wrote and delivered the Gettysburg Address and it shows how contemporary funerary practices and transcendentalism influenced the address.  But all of this seems secondary to his real purpose, which is to challenge one of his old colleagues at National Review--Willmoore Kendall--who accused Lincoln of sneaking the idea of equality into the Constitution through the backdoor of the Declaration of Independence and the rhetoric of the Gettysburg Address.  Mr. Wills, borrowing Mr. Kendall's argument but turning it into a positive, says that:

    The Gettysburg Address has become an authoritative expression of the American spirit--as authoritative as the Declaration itself, and perhaps
    even more influential, since it determines how we read the Declaration.  For most people now, the Declaration means what Lincoln told us it
    means, as a way of correcting the Constitution itself without overthrowing it.  It is this correction of the spirit, this intellectual revolution,
    that makes attempts to go back beyond Lincoln to some earlier version so feckless.  The proponents of states' rights may have arguments,
    but they have lost their force, in courts as well as in the popular mind.  By accepting the Gettysburg Address, its concept of a single people
    dedicated to a proposition, we have been changed.  Because of it, we live in a different America.

Unfortunately, while we can concede that this is what the Left would like us to believe, Mr. Wills fails to demonstrate that this is actually how most of us now read the Declaration, or that it would be a good thing if we did, or that it is a good thing that courts have sometimes reward it so, or that the opposing arguments actually have lost any of their force.

The following blog post touches on the main issue of equality as an American political goal:

Mencken and Orwell, Social Critics With Little (and Much) in Common (EDWARD ROTHSTEIN, October 26, 2002, NY Times)

    Mr. Teachout shows that Mencken's influential assault on the genteel tradition included opposition to the very idea of democracy--
    not just to democratic taste but to the notion of equality itself. This was accompanied by racist comments and Mencken's allegiance
    to his family's Teutonic origins. Before World War I, Mencken wrote about the "race-efficiency" and "superbly efficient ruling caste"
    in Germany. During World War II, Mr. Teachout shows, an eerie silence was more the rule than Mencken's half-hearted declarations
    that Hitler was a boob.

    But Mencken was reacting to a tension latent in democratic life - the fear that it can level cultural life instead of allowing it to flourish,
    that it can even turn majority rule into tyranny. And yet as Mencken did not realize or did not care to, tyranny also looms in the act of
    rebelling against democracy.

    Orwell, like Mencken, was not all that keen on American life, but the tyranny trap worried him. A tension between the claims of democratic
    liberty and socialist equality may have haunted him, as well as those who followed him on the left. Could state power be used to bring an ideal
    society into being without leading to the oppressive regime of "1984" (which he called INGSOC - English Socialism)? And if the Soviet Union
    had already become such a regime, as Orwell believed, how was it to be opposed and what forces could be marshaled against it?
    Orwell was torn, uncertain; his novels were clearer that his essays. But the need to confront that regime was what the cold war was all about.

    Now the issue returns in a slightly different way as new forms of tyranny are faced. That is why Orwell still matters and why Mencken may

This is, I believe, quite wrong.  Mr. Mencken continues to matter precisely because even so great a critic of society as George Orwell could not in the end face the truth that Mr. Mencken never ceased speaking, that democratic freedom contains within it the seeds of its own destruction, chiefly in the ease with which it can be turned into an egalitarian leveling force.  Woe are we if we ever forget the warning that has echoed from Burke to de Tocqueville to Ortega y Gasset to Mencken to Willmoore Kendall to...ah, but who will say it now?...that equality is the enemy of freedom.

The fundamental tension within democratic conservatism is, has been, and will be the recognition that democracy is necessary but at the same time dubious, even dangerous.  As Mencken put it:

    I enjoy democracy immensely. It is incomparably idiotic, and hence incomparably amusing. Does it exalt dunderheads, cowards, trimmers,
    frauds, cads? Then the pain of seeing them go up is balanced and obliterated by the joy of seeing them come down. Is it inordinately wasteful,
    extravagant, dishonest? Then so is every other form of government: all alike are enemies to laborious and virtuous men. Is rascality at the very
    heart of it? Well, we have borne that rascality since 1776, and continue to survive. In the long run, it may turn out that rascality is necessary
    to human government, and even to civilization itself - that civilization, at bottom, is nothing but a colossal swindle. I do not know:
    I report only that when the suckers are running well the spectacle is infinitely exhilarating. But I am, it may be, a somewhat malicious man:
    my sympathies, when it comes to suckers, tend to be coy. What I can't make out is how any man can believe in democracy who feels for and
    with them, and is pained when they are debauched and made a show of. How can any man be a democrat who is sincerely a democrat?

Conservatism's predicament is that it refutes utterly the idea that men are all equal in fact but espouses a political philosophy that demands that all be treated and listened to as if they were equal.

Now we are all familiar with the ringing statement in the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal", and this was fine so long as it was understood to mean that men are equal at birth, each free to make himself into a greater or lesser man.  But in what Mr. Kendall scorned and Garry Wills hails as a "giant, if benign swindle", Abraham Lincoln elevated the doctrine of equality in the Gettysburg Address and performed , again in Mr. Wills's words, a "daring act of intellectual sleight-of-hand" which has ever since made actual equality of station an end, if not <b>the</b> end, of government.

It is then the solemn and often unpleasant duty of conservatism to constantly remind the masses that they are not all equal, that, as Russell Kirk declared in one of his canons of conservative thought:

    [C]ivilized society requires orders and classes.  The only true equality is moral equality; all other attempts at leveling lead to despair,
    if enforced by positive legislation.

The danger of allowing all men to think themselves equal and of allowing them to create legislation to impose this equality--the very need for which would seem to put paid to the idea that they are equal in the first place--was expressed by Mr. Ortega y Gasset, looking out across a Europe which had already succumbed to the dangerous notion:

    European history reveals itself, for the first time, as handed over to the decisions of the ordinary man as such. Or to turn it into the active voice:
    the ordinary man, hitherto guided by others, has resolved to govern the world himself. This decision to advance to the social foreground has
    been brought about in him automatically, when the new type of man he represents had barely arrived at maturity. If from the view-point
    of what concerns public life, the psychological structure of this new type of mass-man be studied, what we find is as follows: (1) An inborn,
    root-impression that life is easy, plentiful, without any grave limitations; consequently, each average man finds within himself a sensation
    of power and triumph which, (2) invites him to stand up for himself as he is, to look upon his moral and intellectual endowment as excellent,
    complete. This contentment with himself leads him to shut himself off from any external court of appeal; not to listen, not to submit his
    opinions to judgment, not to consider others' existence. His intimate feeling of power urges him always to exercise predominance. He will
    act then as if he and his like were the only beings existing in the world and, consequently, (3) will intervene in all matters, imposing his own
    vulgar views without respect or regard for others, without limit or reserve...

Conservatism, having recognized the potential for tyranny in government by the elite, counterbalanced the elite institutions by shifting power to the hoi polloi.  But this sets up an inherently dangerous situation, for who will stop the masses once they get a wind in their sails?  Thus, we need the Menckens--despite their irascibility and their bigotry--to whisper in our ears, like the slaves who followed Roman Emperors, that: Thou art mortal.  It takes a Mencken to keep us humble, to try to constrain what will otherwise be a natural tendency to exchange an unequal freedom for an imposed equality.  The Menckens help to keep us free men of the sort that Eric Hoffer described:

    Free men are aware of the imperfection inherent in human affairs, and they are willing to fight and die for that which is not perfect.
    They know that basic human problems can have no final solutions, that our freedom, justice, equality, etc. are far from absolute,
    and that the good life is compounded of half measures, compromises, lesser evils, and gropings toward the perfect.  The rejection of
    approximations and the insistence on absolutes are the manifestation of a nihilism that loathes freedom, tolerance, and equity.

This is an unpopular message and one inevitably makes oneself unpopular in enunciating it--as witness Mencken--but it is vital nonetheless.  It ensures that conservatism will always be a minority philosophy, but, just perhaps, if it's conveyed often enough, loudly enough, and as wittily as Mr. Mencken conveyed it, it may serve to preserve us as free men.  But you wouldn't bet on it...

We need only add that Mr. Lincoln could not of course legally achieve what Mr. Wills claims for him.  It is not, in our system, left to individuals, no matter their power or their greatness, to rewrite the Constitution and its principles.  One man can not "remake" a constitutional republic and, where it is not openly hostile, the Constitution is silent as regards the Left's goal of equality.  It is obviously inaccurate to say that a text which does not even count blacks as fully human and which extends no rights to women has as its central function the pursuit of universal equality.  That the Left has been able to successfully claim that egalitarianism is the purpose of our government was very clever on their part, but can in no way be justified by the Constitution, the Declaration, or the Gettysburg Address.  In fact, Mr. Wills does not even bother to try to show that the "sleight-of-hand" is anything more than trickery.  In this regard, Mr. Wills, as always, is better at getting conservatives' goats than at producing well-reasoned argument.  He presumably learned the former during his stay on the Right, but in leaving the movement may have sentenced himself to the latter.  This book is thus highly readable but ultimately its purposes are rather dishonest.


Grade: (C)


See also:

Garry Wills Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Garry Wills
    -     -ESSAY : Lincoln's Greatest Speech:  Frederick Douglass called it "a sacred effort," and Lincoln himself thought that his Second Inaugural, which offered a theodicy of the Civil War, was better than the Gettysburg Address (Garry Wills, September 1999, Atlantic Monthly)
    -ESSAY : How to Speak to a Nation's Suffering: The meaning of the Gettysburg address, which will be read aloud twice on Sept. 11, must be made new to give birth to further creativity. (GARRY WILLS, 8/18/02, NY Times)
    -ESSAY:  Putnam's America (Garry Wills, July 17, 2000, American Prospect)
    -ESSAY: The Double-Talk Express (Garry Wills, March 9, 2000)
    -ARCHIVES: Garry Wills Column
    -LECTURE: A Necessary Good or a Necessary Evil (Garry Wills, 11/17/00, National Heritage Lecture)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: To Keep and Bear Arms (Garry Wills, September 21, 1995, NY Review of Books)
    -GERGEN DIALOGUE: David Gergen talks with Garry Wills, author of "A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government." (Newshour Online 12/03/99)
    -INTERVIEW: The Outrider: The prolific Garry Wills on Camille Paglia, the death of JFK Jr., Clinton's infidelities, and more (Seth Gitell, NOVEMBER 8, 1999, Boston Phoenix)
    -INTERVIEW:  Garry Wills, the author of Why I Am a Catholic, talks about faith, scandal, and the importance of constructive criticism (Atlantic Unbound | July 24, 2002)
    -INTERVIEW:  Kim Lawton's interview with Garry Wills (Religion & Ethics Weekly, PBS)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Garry Wills on Papal Sin (Fresh Air)
    -PROFILE: That rarest of birds: Wills is a public Catholic intellectual with a sharp pen and broad appeal (James T. Fisher, 11/03/00, National Catholic Reporter)
    -ESSAY: Garry Wills' Pedophilia Problem (J.P. Zmirak, May 23, 2002,
    -ESSAY: Caveat Lector (Msgr. George G. Higgins, July 31, 2000, The Yard Stick)
    -Study Questions: Wills' Lincoln At Gettysburg
    -ESSAY: Equality as a Conservative Principle (Harry V. Jaffa,
    -ESSAY: Defending the Cause of Human Freedom (Harry V. Jaffa, April 15, 1994, The Claremont Institute)
    -ESSAY: Jaffa Versus Mansfield: Does America Have A Constitutional or A "Declaration of Independence" Soul? (Thomas G. West, November 29, 2002, The Claremont Institute)
    -ESSAY : Learning From Lincoln (Herman Belz, Claremont Institute)
    -ESSAY: Did Lincoln Kill the Constitution? (Allen C. Guelzo, Family Research Council)
    -ESSAY : The Imaginary Secessionist: A Reply to Joe Sobran?s "Imaginary Abe" (Harry V. Jaffa, August 31, 2001,
    -ESSAYS: Rhetoric of Freedom: Lincoln, Emerson and Douglas (September 16, 1999, Atlantic Monthly)
    -ESSAY: The Apotheosis of the Lie (Joe Sobran, SOBRAN'S, Bonus Issue 2000)
    -ESSAY :  Morality and American Society (Religion & Liberty, May and June 1992)
    -ARCHIVES: Garry Wills (NY Review of Books)
    -ARCHIVES: Garry Wills (Atlantic Monthly)
    -ARCHIVES: "garry wills" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW: of Lincoln at Gettysburg by Garry Wills  (Todd Volker, Illinois Periodicals Online)
    -REVIEW: of Lincoln at Gettysburg (DKD, Christian Scholar's Review)
    -REVIEW: of Lincoln at Gettysburg (Jeff Wissot )
    -REVIEW : of Lincoln at Gettysburg (Paul A. Rahe, Reviews in American History)
    -REVIEW : of John Wayne's America (JONATHAN LETHEM, Salon)
    -REVIEW: of John Wayne's America (Virginia Wright Wexman, Film Quarterly)
    -REVIEW: of John Wayne's America (Stephen M. Kocis, III, From the Right)
    -REVIEW: of John Wayne's America (Keith Phipps, Onion AV Club)
    -REVIEW: of Necessary Evil (David Boaz, American Enterprise)
    -REVIEW: of Necessary Evil (Richard A. Epstein, Reason)
    -REVIEW: of A Necessary Evil  (Myles Kantor,
    -REVIEW: of Necessary Evil (John McGreevy, Commonweal)
    -REVIEW: of A Necessary Evil (Gary Rosen, Commentary)
    -REVIEW : of A Necessary Evil (Nicholas Lemann, Washington Monthly)
    -REVIEW: of A NECESSARY EVIL by Garry Wills (David Gordon, Mises Review)
    -REVIEW : of A Necessary Evil  (Andrew Milner, City Paper)
    -REVIEW: of A Necessary Evil (Robert Westbrook, Christian Century)
    -REVIEW: of A NECESSARY EVIL by Garry Wills (David Gordon, Mises Review)
    -REVIEW: of Papal Sin (John Garvey, Commonweal)
    -REVIEW: of Papal Sin (Eamon Duffy, Commonweal)
    -REVIEW: of Papal Sin (Robert Royal, National Review)
    -REVIEW: of Papal Sin (Dan Bischoff, Tikkun)
    -REVIEW: of Papal Sin (Susan K. Wood, Christian Century)
    -REVIEW: of Saint Augustine. By Garry Wills (John Peter Kenney, First Things)
    -REVIEW: of Saint Augustine (James Patout Burns, Christian Century)
    -REVIEW: of Saint Augustine (Glenn Tinder, Commonweal)
    -REVIEW: of Chesterton by Garry Wills (Luke Timothy Johnson, Commonweal)
    -REVIEW : of  Why I Am a Catholic  By Garry Wills (Paul Wilkes, Boston Globe)
    -REVIEW: of Why I am a Catholic (Jeffrey Hart, National Review)
    -REVIEW: of Why I am a Catholic (Steve Rabey, Religion News Service)
    -REVIEW: of Why I am a Catholic (MICHAEL DRESSMAN, Houston Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of Why I am a Catholic (Scott Appleby, America)
    -REVIEW: of Why I am a Catholic (William Droel, National Catholic Reporter)
    -REVIEW: of Garry Wills's James Madison (ROSS DAVIES, Find Law)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Confessions of a Modernist (MICHAEL WARREN DAVIS, 1/03/22, Crisis)

Book-related and General Links:

-ESSAY: How One Week in Chicago Changed Abraham Lincoln’s Life—and the Fate of the United States: Edward Achorn on the Miraculous Nomination of an Illinois Lawyer (Edward Achorn, February 16, 2023, LitHub) GETTYSBURG ADDRESS:
    -Friends of the National Parks at Gettysburg
    -Recollections of Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg (Abraham Lincoln Online)
    -Lincoln at Gettysburg Photo Tour (Abraham Lincoln Online)
    -ESSAY: ON LANGUAGE: Four Score and Seven (WILLIAM SAFIRE, February 9, 2003, NY Times Magazine)

    -Abraham Lincoln (The American President) -REVIEW: of The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War by Thomas J. DiLorenzo (David Gordon, Mises Review) -REVIEW: of Our Secret Constitution: How Lincoln Redefined American Democracy by George P. Fletcher (David Gordon, Mises Review) -REVIEW: of Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln's White Dream by Lerone Bennett, Jr. (David Gordon, Mises Review)
    -ESSAY: IN SEARCH OF THE  REAL ABE LINCOLN: He was on the national stage only six years, but in that period this enigmatic man from the Heartland became the human fulcrum that kept the American nation from collapsing (Midwest Today, February 1993)
    -ESSAY : Was Lincoln gay? : Firebrand Larry Kramer says he has the evidence to prove it. Lincoln scholars are holding their fire until they see it. Get ready for the second Civil War. (Carol Lloyd, May 3, 1999, Salon)
    -ESSAY : Mr. Lincoln's neighborhood : Jan Morris discovers that the inspiring spirit of Abe Lincoln lives still in the streets of Springfield, Ill. (Jan Morris, 03/18/98, Salon)
    -ARCHIVES : Directory | Abraham Lincoln : A complete listing of Salon articles on Abraham Lincoln
    -ESSAY : Lincoln and the Abolitionists : To the abolitionists of his day, the president we now revere for ending slavery in America was no real enemy of slavery at all. (Allen C. Guelzo, Wilson Quarterly)
    -REVIEW : of Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President by Allen C. Guelzo (George McKenna, First Things)
    -REVIEW: A Passive President?  Lincoln, by David Herbert Donald (James M. McPherson, The Atlantic)
    -EXCERPT : Chapter One of Lincoln's Greatest Speech -The Second Inaugural by Ronald C. White, Jr.
    -REVIEW : of Lincoln's Virtues by William Lee Miller (Eric Foner, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Lincoln's Virtues (Laura Miller, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of Lincoln's Greatest Speech -The Second Inaugural by Ronald White (Max Byrd, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Lincoln's Greatest Speech -The Second Inaugural by Ronald White ( Jack Riemer, Jerusalem Post)
    -REVIEW : of "Abe: A Novel of the Young Lincoln" by Richard Slotkin (Laura Miller, Salon)
    -REVIEW: of The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War by Thomas J. DiLorenzo (David Gordon, Mises Review)
    -REVIEW: of Our Secret Constitution: How Lincoln Redefined American Democracy by George P. Fletcher (David Gordon, Mises Review)
    -REVIEW: of Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln's White Dream by Lerone Bennett, Jr. (David Gordon, Mises Review)
    -ESSAY: Lincoln, Douglas, and the "Freeport Question" (D. E. Fehrenbacher, April 1961, The American Historical Review)
    -ESSAY: The Availability of Lincoln's Political Religion (William S. Corlett, Jr., November 1982, Political Theory)
    -REVIEW : of Lincoln's Virtues (David Horn , CS Monitor)
    -REVIEW : of On Hallowed Ground: Abraham Lincoln and the Foundations of American History by John Patrick Diggins (Daniel Walker Howe, Journal of American History)

    -See Brothers Judd's Harry Jaffa Links