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Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade Americaby Garry Wills
Oratory of the Greek Revival
James Hurt says that Lincoln used "the ordinary coin of funeral oratory" at Gettysburg. Insofar as there was a standard coinage of funeral tribute, Pericles struck the master coin 2,394 years before Lincoln spoke. At the end of the first year of Athens' war with Sparta, Pericles gave a speech over the ashes of the Athenians who had fallen in that year. Thucydides put a version of that speech in his history of the Peloponnesian War, and it became the most famous oration of its kind, a model endlessly copied, praised, and cited — especially in the early nineteenth century, during America's Greek Revival.
Edward Everett lost no time referring to that speech at Gettysburg. He opened his talk with a detailed description of the annual funeral rite at which Pericles had spoken, comparing it point for point with the ceremony for the Union dead. Both rites involved reburial. Athenian soldiers or sailors were cremated where they fell, then their ashes were returned to Athens and buried, together, on the annual day of military tribute. They were buried by tribe, with a special place for those whose tribes could not be identified — as the Union dead were buried by states, except for those "unknown soldiers" who had their own special place.
But at Gettysburg the reburial was still at the battle site. The ancient parallel for this, Everett was learned enough to know, was the Battle of Marathon (490 B.C.E.), after which the Athenians were buried on the spot where they had saved Hellas from the Persians.
These references, common enough at the time, all had a special meaning for Everett, considered by some the new Pericles for a young democracy of the Western world. Ralph Waldo Emerson, who studied Greek at Harvard in Everett's classroom, was emphatic in his teacher's praise: "There was an influence on the young from the genius of Everett which was almost comparable to that of Pericles in Athens."
America as a second Athens was an idea whose moment had come in the nineteenth century. This nation's founders first looked to Rome, not to Greece, for their model. Like most men of the eighteenth century, they thought of Athens as ruled by mobs. If any Greek city was admired, it was Sparta, whose discipline inspired the severe moralists of the early Roman republic. The "mixed government" of Rome — not Athens' direct democracy — was the model invoked in debates over the proper constitution for the United States. The great republican of the new era, George Washington, was regularly referred to as a modern Cincinnatus, after the Roman who left the plow to serve the republic and then returned to his fields, relinquishing power. When Jefferson laid out the plan for his University of Virginia, he fashioned everything to Roman architectural standards.
All this changed very rapidly as the eighteenth turned to the nineteenth century. Archaeology in Greece brought the ancient democracy to mind just as modern Greece began its struggle for freedom from the Turks. Greece would prove as important to the romantic movement as Rome had been to the Augustan age. Byron died as a military participant in the war for Greek liberty. Shelley wrote a Prometheus. Keats rhapsodized on a Grecian urn. Hölderlin and the German romantics composed plays and poems on Greek themes. Architects looked to the Parthenon now, not the Pantheon. (The Elgin Marbles, taken from the Parthenon, had been moved to London by 1806.) It is significant of this changed taste that Washington completed his inherited home (as Jefferson conceived his own house) in the form of a Roman villa, while Lincoln's additions to the house he purchased were in the Greek Revival style. This was a "democratic" style in the eyes of Lincoln's contemporaries:
Thomas Jefferson's brief and highly personal Roman Revival was the product of an individual mind; the Greek Revival was the product of a popular sentiment. The fact that it became expressive for the whole of American society, from the erudite to the untutored, from the capital to the village, from the city house to the farm, gave it a national independence and set it apart from the architecture of Europe in a way and to a degree that American builders had never before achieved. Indeed, at no time in the history of Western man had a single stylistic form, however sentimentally conceived, been so spontaneously accepted by a total society. It is in this sense that the Greek Revival must be understood as America's first national style of architecture.
Everett played a key role in America's Greek Revival. Harvard established its new chair of ancient Greek studies for him. He had sped through Harvard at the top of his class, completed his divinity studies, and been appointed to the prestigious Brattle Street pulpit before he was twenty. His promise as a scholar made Harvard call him back from the pulpit to the classroom. But first the university subsidized his studies in Germany, where he was the first American to earn his doctorate at a center of the new philology (in 1817, from Göttingen). While Everett was abroad, he traveled widely and met the leaders of the romantic age, from Goethe to Byron. He went to Greece, to walk over the battlefields where the first democracy of the West won its freedom. He returned to America convinced that a new Athens was rising here.
This was a vision he found it hard to keep alive while teaching teenagers their Greek verb forms? His earlier success in the pulpit made him think he could accomplish in the secular sphere what the ancient orators had in the Greek marketplace, groves, and public cemetery (Agora, Akademy, and Kerameikos). He was confirmed in this sense of vocation in 1825, the year of Lafayette's visit to America. That return occasioned one of this country's great outpourings of romantic feeling. Here was a warrior from the age of General Washington surviving into the age of Byron. His appearances prompted rallies for Greek independence — a favorite cause of Everett. At Cambridge, Lafayette was treated to a long oration by Everett, devoted to the role of literature in America. The response was almost as great as the response to the speech Daniel Webster addressed to Lafayette, across the Charles River, in Boston. Everett's own talk propelled him into the political arena — as congressman, Massachusetts governor, minister to the Court of St. James's in London, senator (after an interval as president of Harvard), and secretary of state. But, all along, his public lecturing remained the most satisfying part of what he considered an essentially pedagogic career. Webster's orations were an offshoot of his role as statesman and legislator; but Everett, in effect, ran for and held office in order to attract an audience for his speeches.
He was always a teacher. He had merely traded the classroom for the stump. And his students followed him out into this wider world. Emerson made the public lecture his own main art form, launching his career with the 1837 address on the modern scholar as Everett had launched himself in the 1825 talk on American letters. Everett was a model to Emerson and the other Transcendentalists because he was so clearly a scholar before he became a popularizer of democratic ideals. Emerson's experience in Everett's classroom gave an entirely new direction to his life:
Germany had created [literary] criticism in vain for us until 1820, when Edward Everett returned from his five years in Europe, and brought to Cambridge his rich results, which no one was so fitted by natural grace and the splendor of his rhetoric to introduce and recommend. He made us for the first time acquainted with [Friedrich August] Wolf's theory of the Homeric writings, with the criticism of [Heinrich] Heine. The novelty of the learning lost nothing in the skill and genius of its interpreter, and the rudest un
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