The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

May 27, 2018

Inventing the Gettsyburg Address (Garry Wills)
Harry V. Jaffa (IR 28:1, Fall 1992) - 07/03/08

Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America, by Gary Wills. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1992.

Thirty years ago, Garry Wills was a rising star of the Right, a celebrity in the constel­lation of William F. Buckley, Jr. and Na­tional Review. His essay on “The Conve­nient State,” originally published in 1964 in What Is Conservatism?, a volume edited by the late Frank Meyer, was reprinted in 1970 in the first (but not in the second) edition of Buckley’s American Conservative Thought in the Twentieth Century. Taking its inspi­ration from John C. Calhoun, that essay is still looked upon as being nearly canonical by a number of conservatives. But some years ago, Wills switched sides, from Right to Left.

It has long been a wisecrack of the pub­lishing industry that the ideal title for a best seller—combining the three themes that attracted the book buying public most—was “Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog.” Wills’s lat­est book is clearly designed to exploit one of these themes, and since most Lincoln book buyers are Lincoln admirers, Wills has taken some pains not to lose them as customers. To anyone not invincibly gullible, how­ever, his real opinions are visible enough, all of them testifying to his long love affair with Calhoun, the antebellum sage of South Carolina, the leading proponent of the posi­tive good theory of slavery, the spiritual Father of the Confederacy, and the arch­enemy of the principle of equality in the Declaration of Independence. His essential loyalty to the cause of Calhoun and the Confederacy was fortified when, as a gradu­ate student at Yale, he fell under the influ­ence of the late Willmoore Kendall, whose clamorous presence broods like a poltergeist over the pages of this book.

In Basic Symbols of the American Political Tradition, Kendall had declared that at Gettysburg, Lincoln had “derailed” the American constitutional order by infecting it with a commitment to equality that it had never before possessed. Although Wills ap­pears to have accepted this “derailment,” his pretense is hollow.

The core of Wills’s thesis concerning the Gettysburg Address is given in the “Pro­logue” of the present volume. At Gettys­burg, he says, Lincoln:

. . . performed one of the most daring acts of open-air sleight-of-hand ever witnessed by the unsuspecting. Everyone in that vast throng of thousands was having his or her intellec­tual pocket picked. The crowd departed with a new thing in its intellectual luggage, that new constitution Lincoln had substituted for the one they brought there with them. They walked off, from those curving graves on the hillside, under a changed sky, into a different America. Lincoln had revolutionized the Revolution, giving people a new past to live with that would change their future indefi­nitely.
Some people looking on from a distance saw that agiant (if benign) swindle had been performed. The Chicago Times quoted the letter of the Constitution to Lincoln—noting its lack of reference to equality, its tolerance of slavery—and said that Lincoln was betray­ing the instrument he was on oath to defend, traducing the men who died for the letter of that fundamental law.
It was to uphold this Constitution, and the Union created by it, that our officers and soldiers gave their lives at Gettysburg. How dare he, then, standing on their graves, misstate the cause for which they died, and libel the statesman who founded the gov­ernment? They were men possessing too much self-respect to declare that Negroes weretheir equals, or were entitled to equal privileges.

Despite this candid depreciation of the Gettysburg Address, Wills tells us that: “[T]he professors, the politicians, the press have overwhelmingly accepted Lincoln’s vision. . . . For most people now, the Dec­laration means what Lincoln told us it means. . . .” ( 146, 147). Hence,any “attempts to go back beyond Lincoln to some earlier version” of American history are “feckless.”

In agreeing with The Chicago Times’s “feckless” editorial of November 23,1863, Wills fails to mention that it was a Demo­cratic paper, and that it had supported Dou­glas unreservedly in his campaigns against Lincoln. All the points made here against Lincoln at Gettysburg had been made by Douglas and had been rebutted by Lincoln in their joint debates. In fact, no one elected to the office of president has ever made his opinions on the great disputed questions of the day plainer than Lincoln had. Wills himself admits in the course of the book that the Gettysburg Address is the distilled essence of everything Lincoln had been say­ing for many years. In making the accusa­tion of deception, both the Times andGarry Wills (and Willmoore Kendall) assume that the American people had been paying no attention to Lincoln’s widely published speeches, and that in electing him president they did so without knowing what they were voting for!


Lincoln at Gettysburg is the sequel to In­venting America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, whichwas published in 1978. In the Prologue to that book, Wills reveals that even then he was less concerned with the Declaration itself than with undoing the myths about it perpetrated by the Gettysburg Address. In that book, as in this one, Lincoln’s deception is said to have begun with the assertion in the Gettysburg Ad­dress of the bond between independence and union. Here is how Lincoln himself summarized his view—long before Gettysburg—in his Inaugural Address of March 4, 1861:

The Union is much older than the Constitu­tion. It was formed in fact, by the Articles of Association in 1774. It was matured and con­tinued by the Declaration of Independence in 1776. It was further matured and the faith of the then thirteen States expressly plighted and engaged that it should be perpetual, by the Articles of Confederation in 1778. And finally, in 1787, one of the declared objects for ordaining and establishing the Constitu­tion was “to form a more perfect Union.

The words from the Preamble were itali­cized by Lincoln himself, since he evidently thought it impossible to deny that the Union preceded the Constitution, if the Constitu­tion itself speaks of forming “a more perfect Union.”

However, in his 1978 book, Garry Wills ridicules the “four-score and seven years ago” of the Gettysburg Address. He says Lincoln chose “his Biblically shrouded fig­ure” because it:

. . . takes us back to 1776, the year of the Declaration, of the self-evident truth that all men are created equal. But there aresome fairly self-evident objections to that mode of calculating. All thirteen original colonies sub­scribed to the Declaration with instructions to their delegates that this was not to imply formation of a single nation. If anything, July 4, 1776, produced twelve new nations (with a thirteenth coming in on July 15)—conceived in liberty perhaps, but more dedicated to theproposition that the colonies they severed from the mother country were equal to each other than that their inhabitants were equal [xvi. Italics are Wills’s).

In 1981, I reviewed Inventing America.1I pointed out that Wills’s confident assertion about the instructions of all thirteen colo­nies to their delegates in the Continental Congress was simply not true. I quoted from these documents—which Wills, per­haps relying upon Kendall, apparently had never seen. (I surmise also that Kendall, relying upon either Calhoun or Jefferson Davis, had never seen them either.) In the majority of cases, the colonies had instructed their delegates to vote for independence and union. Not one instructed to the con­trary. All of them did, however, reserve to themselves individually their “internal po­lice.” This reservation marks what is probably the first appearance in our political literature of the principle of American fed­eralism. Although Americans have been disputing for 200 years how to draw the line between state and federal authority, no one thought, either then or now, that federalism is inconsistent with union, or that union is inconsistent with nationhood. In adopting Kendall’s thesis that the thirteen colonies, in becoming independent of Great Britain, became independent of each other, Wills is simply—shall we say it?—swindling his readers.

Let us consider further how the relation­ship of independence and union was looked back upon in the after-light of the Found­ing. In 1825, Jefferson asked Madison for his recommendation of books or documents that ought to be made authoritative—norma docendi—forinstruction by the law faculty of the new University of Virginia. In re­sponse, Madison did recommend—and Jef­ferson incorporated his recommendation into a resolution adopted by the Board of Visitors of the University—some of the “best guides” to “the distinctive principles of the government of our own State, and of that of the United States.” The first was the “Decla­ration of Independence, as the fundamental act of Union of these States.”2

In his earlier book, Wills refers to the Declaration and the Gettysburg Address together as “war propaganda with no legal force” ( 362). But this is to ignore the testimony of Madison and Jefferson, that the Declaration was “the fundamental act of Union.”“Act” here means “law.” Article VI of the Constitution declares that:

All debts contracted and engagements en­tered into before the adoption of this Consti­tution shall be as valid against the United States under this Constitution as under the Confederation.

Article XII of the Articles of Confederation declares, in like manner, that all debts contracted under the authority of Congress before the Articles went into effect shall be considered charges against the United States, and honored as such. This more than con­firms Lincoln’s contention that the legal and moral personality of the United States, as a Union, extends continuously not only to the Declaration of Independence, but before that to the Congress of the Union that declared independence, and which had incurred debts from the beginning of the war in 1775. The Declaration of Indepen­dence is today the first of the four organic laws of the United States, according to the United States Code, as adopted by the United States Congress.3 Article VII of the Consti­tution, as signed by George Washington, and submitted to the states for ratification declares that it was “done in Convention in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty-seven and of the inde­pendence of the United States of America the twelfth.” All acts and deeds of the United States are by the Constitution itself dated from the Declaration of Independence. How anyone could write two books on this topic, as Garry Wills has done, and remain igno­rant of these most elementary historical and legal facts, is difficult to understand.

The enduring significance of the Decla­ration of Independence—embodied in the Gettysburg Address—is accordingly less in marking the separation of the colonies from Great Britain, than of marking the union of the states with each other. This enduring significance, however, is constituted less by the legal fact of union, than by the moral fact that—according to Madison and Jeffer­son—the Declaration embodies the prin­ciples of government of the States severally, and of the United States corporately. More­over, the Constitution of 1787 guarantees “to every state of this union a republican form of government,” without ever defining that form. Can there be any doubt that, as indicated by the testimony of the aforesaid witnesses, such form is best defined in the Declaration of Independence?


What made the Declaration of Indepen­dence the best of all guides to educating the guardians of republican freedom? In 1978, as we have seen, Wills, following Kendall, thought that the equality mentioned in the Declaration referred to the collective legal equality of the States with each other, not to the moral equality of the human persons who were their “inhabitants.” We have seen Wills quote with full approval—in opposi­tion to Lincoln—the assertion that:

. . . the statesmen who founded the govern­ment . . . were men possessing too much self-respect to declare that Negroes were their equals. . . .

That the Declaration of Independence in­cluded Negroes in the proposition of hu­man equality is the heart of hearts of Lin­coln’s alleged “new past.” Wills also inher­ited this thesis from Kendall, who had charged Lincoln with “a startling new interpretation of . . . ‘all men are created equal’” ( 39). The denial that Negroes had been included in the humanity of the Dec­laration had also been the contention of Chief Justice Taney in his opinion for the Court in Dred Scott. By a strange twist of fate, what was an article of faith for the old defenders of slavery has become unques­tionable orthodoxy among “black power” historians and their allies of the radical Left, who take it as proof of the racism of the American Founding.

Where does the truth lie? Are individuals equal, or are only “peoples” collectively equal? Consider the Massachusetts Bill of Rights of 1780—whose author was John Adams, a member of the committee charged by the Congress in 1776 to draft the Declaration:

The body politic is formed by a voluntary association of individuals; it is a social compact by which the whole people covenants with each citizen and each citizen with the whole people, that all shall be governed by certain laws for the common good . . .

And the premise upon which this voluntary association is formed is that:

All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seek­ing and obtaining their safety and happiness.

Here is an authoritative gloss upon the doc­trine of the Declaration, prefaced to a Revo­lutionary state constitution.

In 1835, after being engaged in mortal combat against the doctrine of state rights enunciated by Calhoun during the nullifi­cation crisis (1828–33), James Madison drafted an essay on the meaning of sover­eignty in constitutional jurisprudence. He wrote:

To go to the bottom of the subject let us consult the theory which contemplates a cer­tain number of individuals as meeting and agreeing to form one political society, in or­der that the rights, the safety, and the interest of each may be under the safeguard of the whole.
The first supposition is, that each individ­ual being previously independent of the oth­ers, the compact which is to make them one society must result from the free consent of every individual.

Therefore, there can be no doubt that the consent that brings the body politic into existence, the consent upon which majority rule and the “just powers of government” depend, is “the free consent of every indi­vidual.” It is true that communities of men founded in this way are themselves equal to other independent communities. But this collective equality is a by-product of the equality that individuals enjoyed, as con­tracting parties, prior to forming them­selves into a people. The equality enjoyed by citizens and persons under the constitu­tional law of a free society is a consequence of the antecedent equality belonging to them under the laws of nature and of nature’s God. It is this natural equality that defines the ends, and limits the powers, of all legiti­mate governments. This is the philosoph­ical core of the idea of limited government. For Calhoun—and his followers to this day—state rights are sui generisthatis to say, they have no anterior justification. State rights, severed from the natural rights of human persons, are not limited in what they can do—and what they did do was to place the legal right to own human persons on the same level as all other rights.

The proposition of human equality, un­derstood to refer first and foremost to the rights of individuals, forms the core of the Gettysburg Address because it forms the core of the Declaration of Independence. Even more importantly, it forms the moral core of our existence as civilized human beings. When Abraham Lincoln said, “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master,” he was saying no more than was demanded of him by the Golden Rule:

So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law of the prophets.

At Gettysburg, Lincoln added neither a jot nor a tittle to the Declaration. Not for a moment did he think that he was imposing any interpretation upon that faith that did not authentically belong to it as it came from the hand of God and the Continental Congress.

The proposition “that all men are created equal,” within the context of the second paragraph of the Declaration, means that no man has, in principle, any right to gov­ern another man, without that other man’s consent. It means that those who live under the law should share in making that law. It denounces as tyranny whatever departs from these essential norms of free government. It denounces asimmoral American slavery in the antebellum South. It denounces as im­moral the tyrannies of communism and national socialism, and all other tyrannies, now or hereafter, that attempt to collectiv­ize the rights of man. It is, as Lincoln said, “a rebuke and a stumbling block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression” for all time. The glory of the Gettysburg Address is that it restores to the American people—uncompromised and untainted—the pristine majesty of the true American Revolution.


  1. “Inventing the Past: Garry Wills’s Inventing America and the Pathology of Ideological Scholarship,” The St. Johns Review, Vol. 33, No. 1, Autumn 1981. Re­printed as Chapter 5 of American Conservatism and the American Founding, Carolina Academic Press, 1984, 76–109.
  2. The others were: the Federalist, the Resolutions of the General Assembly of Virginia of 1799, and the Inaugural Speech and Farewell Address of President Washington. The Writings of James Madison (Hunt ed.) IX, 221.
  3. The other three, in order, are the Articles of Confed­eration, the Northwest Ordinance, and the Constitu­tion of 1787 with amendments.
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