Recent scholarship depicts the Gettysburg Address as an unchanging symbol of American democracy. This investigation shows new meanings of the Gettysburg Address arising as successive generations interpret it in light of new situations and challenges. Lincoln's supporters interpreted the Gettysburg Address as a call to arms, a plea to grasp the victory that the Union's dead had brought into sight. Throughout the late nineteenth century, the Gettysburg Address was recognized for its aesthetic appeal, but rarely commemorated. As early twentieth-century Progressive reforms redistributed political power, as Northerners and Southerners renounced old hatreds, and as foreign wars enhanced America's global role, the Gettysburg Address became a multivalent symbol of industrial democracy, regional solidarity, and patriotism. Abraham Lincoln's Address assumed its present meaning, which incorporates the often conflicting ideals of racial equality and regional unity, in the late twentieth-century. As the “cultural revolution” of the 1960s expanded, Lincoln's prestige fell dramatically. Lincoln, paradoxically, was reduced by the power of the egalitarian ideal he symbolized—even as that ideal became embodied in his own words. To resolve this paradox, postmodernist conceptions of author-reader relations are brought to bear on current understandings of collective memory.
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