The Gettysburg Address: A Graphic Adaptation, a nuanced and moving history of race, slavery and the Civil War

The Gettysburg Address: A Graphic Adaptation sat in my pile for too long, and it shouldn't have. I loved The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation, the previous effort by Jonathan Hennessey and Aaron McConnell, so I should have anticipated how good this new one would be. Having (belatedly) gotten around to it, I can finally tell you that this is an extraordinary, nuanced history of the issues of race and slavery in America, weaving together disparate threads of military, geopolitical, technological, legal, Constitutional, geographic and historical factors that came together to make the Civil War happen at the moment when it occurred, that brought it to an end, and that left African Americans with so little justice in its wake.

Hennessey and McConnell are some of the best nonfiction graphic novelists working. They use the graphic component -- illustrations, composition, layout -- to make a complex story feel comprehensible by a layperson. As a Canadian, I have only a simple understanding of the history of slavery in America, and only the Simpsons episode where Apu is taking a citizenship test and begins to rattle off long explanation for the causes of the Civil War (only to be told by the examiner to "Just say 'slavery'") gave me a sense of the real depths lurking beneath the slavery story.

Which is not to imply that the creators try to downplay the role of slavery in America! Far from it. Rather, since slavery was already an established institution in America at the time of the Civil War, they are investigating what caused that Civil War to break out, then -- and why, for example, the war did not break out again during the Brown v Board of Ed fight.

As the title implies, Gettysburg uses the Gettysburg Address as a framing device for their story, showing how Lincoln's still-familiar short oratory managed to stake ground on issues as diverse as the relative importance of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, theology, theories of government and self-determination, and the role of the state. They don't whitewash Lincoln, either -- his substantial failings as a liberator, egalitarian and beacon of freedom are on vivid display. But while they never excuse him, they go a long way to explaining him in his historical context.

Tellingly, the book treats the story of Gettysburg as still ongoing in our present day, and they trace the threads of race, discrimination, cruelty and greed right up to the 21st century in the final few chapters. Even as a Canadian, I've heard the words of the Gettysburg Address many times -- but I never felt I understood their significance and enduring resonance until I read this book.

The Gettysburg Address: A Graphic Adaptation