I am kind of in a mode recently of reading a lot of history books, and one of the questions that arise, especially in reading American history, is how is the history being written impacted by who is writing it, the focus they’re taking, and the things they end up saying. That’s true about all histories, but US history presents some thorny questions that almost always need addressing, or else face the potential of basically saying nothing.
The Civil War is at the heart of all this thorniness. Another recent book that seemed unwilling to readily engage with the ways in which race impacted their specific reading left me cold in response. This book also doesn’t really spend a lot of time dealing with the question of race at anything like we readily seem to be talking about it now, but it frames its study in such a way that this doesn’t feel like a huge omission, but a specific limiting of a conversation in order to establish some important ideas first.
This is a slim book that investigates the specific rhetorical history of Lincoln’s speech at Gettsyburg, bringing in historical and contemporary understandings of rhetoric, Lincoln’s other three most famous writings: his two inaugral addresses, and the Lincoln/Douglas debates, and the different versions of the text. So the focus here is textual analysis, as opposed to a holistic historical study. This tight focus is very limiting, but it also sets some terms very clear that do allow some of the interesting questions about Lincoln to come through. So much of the study of Lincoln contemporarily focuses on his specific opinions on race, and while that is still part of this discussion, the focus on language helps to show the rhetorical purpose of these speeches, and place them within a context of a president making an argument for a specific goal, knowing that we’ll never fully know what Lincoln felt about much of anything.