The old adage that "the pen is mightier than the sword" may be difficult to accept as we observe all the armed conflicts around the globe at the moment. But you don't need to believe in the superior power of the pen to consider the possibility, as Wills puts it, that words are sometimes necessary "to complete the work of the guns." Yet how is it that words get their power? To answer this question, if Wills is right, we must delve into the origins of "linguistic might," and we should expect that the more powerful the words in question, the more complex their origins are likely to be. Wills leads us on a dense and sometimes complicated exploration of the literary, religious, philosophical, and socio-political roots of the Gettysburg Address. In addition, his own language occasionally requires us to pick up a dictionary. But if we stick with him, we can come to a deeper understanding of how 272 words helped to bring to completion what the massive death and destruction of the battle of Gettysburg (and indeed the American Civil War as a whole) could not do alone.
Does the power of words have anything to do with the greatness of political leaders? We may not think so, especially if we believe that the careers of great leaders are best defined by the decisions they make and by actions they take in light of those decisions. But what if the full measure of some political greatness will escape us until we understand the role that language and rhetoric might play in decision and action? Wills has been influential in making the case that this is a reasonable assumption to bring to reflection on Lincoln's career and legacy. But over the course of his career, Wills has extended this approach to discussions of the broader importance of language and its uses in political contexts. You may find it interesting to look at a May 2008 article entitled "Two Speeches on Race," in which Wills makes some provocative comparisons between presidential candidate Barack Obama's speech on race and one of Lincoln's speeches delivered in the months before he won the presidency. Whatever you might make of these comparisons, it is important to ask whether Wills's views in Lincoln at Gettysburg might help us reflect on the sources, power, and value of contemporary political language in the broadest sense.
Finally, why should you be interested in Wills's discussion of the Gettysburg Address if you are either not a citizen (naturalized or native) of the United States, or if you are perhaps an American citizen who is impatient with those who fail to focus on questions of global importance? Well, if Wills is right, the power of Lincoln's words was partly a function of his conviction that America's national purpose was rooted in ideals of equality and democracy that have value for all human beings. Consider, too, that Lincoln's words influenced the labor movement in nineteenth century Germany and political movements in mid-twentieth century India, and they resonate in the language of twenty-first century defenders of human rights around the globe. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru kept a cast of Lincoln's hand on his desk, along with a statue of Mahatma Gandhi, to remind himself to combine Gandhi's compassion with Lincoln's capacity for strength and unity. A 2007 conference on Lincoln focused on his relevance as "A Humanitarian as Broad as the World," and an international conference to celebrate the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth in 2009 will be entitled "Lincoln Without Borders." Might this long-standing global interest in Lincoln suggest that his words have the power not only to remake America, but to help remake the world?
During New Student Orientation, on the day before the small group discussions, three distinguished Cornell faculty members will help us understand the power of Lincoln's words: Professor Edward Baptist of the history department will deliver a talk entitled "A Nation Not Like Any Other Nations," Cornell President Emeritus and Professor of Classics Hunter Rawlings will talk to us about "Lincoln and the Athenian Tradition of State Funeral Orations," and Professor Tad Brennan of the philosophy department will deliver a talk entitled "Any Nation So Conceived."
This faculty panel discussion will be held from 3:30 to 5:00 on Sunday August 24, 2008 in Barton Hall. I look forward to seeing you there and then to learning more about your approach to Lincoln in the essays you will submit during the small group discussions on Monday August 25.
Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, Michele Moody-Adams