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Lincoln: The Gettysburg Address

by Professor Will Huhn on February 10, 2009

in Abraham Lincoln,Wilson Huhn

    The Gettysburg Address is widely considered to be the greatest speech in American history.  In this essay both the style and the substance of the Address are analyzed.

     On November 19, 1863, Lincoln delivered this brief speech at the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.  Gettysburg was the site of the most important battle of the Civil War – the turning point of the war, in which the southern army was decisively defeated and the South lost all hope of securing foreign assistance in support of seccession.  Lincoln used the occasion of the dedication not to glorify his role or the role of his military commanders nor did he vilify the rebels.  Instead, in the words of the historian Garry Wills, he "remade America" by redefining why we love this country – why it is worth fighting for and dying for.

     The Gettysburg Address is remarkable in many respects.  Many of us memorized it as children and all of us have heard it dozens or hundreds of times, yet it never loses its power to inspire us.  Let us examine both Lincoln's message and the craft that he employed in constructing it.

     Here is the entire text of the Address:

Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us–that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion–that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.

     The Gettysburg Address is poetry.  It is one of the finest examples of free verse in the English language.  Lincoln voraciously read and enthusiastically watched Shakespearean plays, and this speech approaches Shakespeare at his best.  The message is also important and powerful.  It seeks to persuade us that America is a wonderful country not because of its wealth or its armies or its fruitful land or even its people (or, as many people of the South believed, because of White Supremacy), but because of the enduring principles to which we are devoted.  Here is a list of the stylistic techniques and principal messages of the Address. 

1.  Rythym:  FOUR SCORE and SEVen YEARS Ago, our FAthers brought FORTH unto THIS CONtinent a NEW NAtion, conCEIVED in LIBerty and DEDicated to the PROPoSItion that ALL MEN are creAted Equal.  There is a steady drumbeat, a marching step, a beating heart to the entire speech.

2.  Repetition:  Certain terms are repeated and interwoven to emphasize Lincoln's themes: Dedicated … dedidicated … dedicate … dedidicated / conceived … conceived / a new nation … that nation … this nation / great battlefield … that field / unfinished work … great task remaining / devotion … devotion / government of the people … by the people … for the people.

3.  Religious allusion:  Lincoln uses biblical imagery in a number of effective ways.  The words "Four score and seven years ago" echo biblical imagery.  "And Abram was fourscore and six years old when Hagar bore Ishmael to Abram."  (Genesis 16:16).  "And Moses was fourscore years old, and Aaron fourscore and three years old, when they spake unto Pharaoh."  (Exodus 7:7).  This language also draws an analogy between the founders of this country and God, who "brought forth" the Jews from slavery in the land of Egypt (2 Chronicles 6:5), and the Virgin Mary, who "brought forth" the infant Jesus.  (Matthew 1:24-25)  All of these allusions helped to reinforce the concept that the Civil War represented a form of salvation or redemption from the sin of slavery, a point that he makes in even stronger terms in the Second Inaugural.  Lincoln also uses the phrase  "under God" which is later added to the Pledge of Allegiance.  Finally, he uses the terms "consecrate" and "hallow" as synonyms for "dedicate" and "devote," thus drawing an analogy between religious faith and our dedication to the principles of liberty and equality. Finally, the phrase "government of the people, by the people, and for the people" quotes the 14th century religious reformer John Wycliffe, who used the same words to describe the purpose of his English translation of the Bible – a watershed in the Protestant tradition.

4.  Metaphor:  Lincoln develops a powerful metaphor of birth/life/death/rebirth that reflects both the life of Jesus and the cycle of Nature.  He uses these terms: "our fathers brought forth a new nation" … "conceived" … "can long endure" … "final resting place"… "gave their lives" … "the nation might live" … "living and dead" … "the living" … "these honored dead" … "these dead" … "this nation shall have a new birth." 

5.  Duty:  Lincoln does not merely eulogize the dead at Gettysburg – he calls us to service, as he does in so many of his speeches, letters, and remarks.  Unlike the Greeley letter described in a previous post, Lincoln does not use the word "I" even once – instead he uses "we."  At Gettysburg Lincoln tells us that the purpose of the war will be determined by what we do, and whether we are willing to dedicate ourselves and devote ourselves to a principle worth fighting for – the equality of all mankind, which Lincoln considered to be the "sheet anchor" of democracy – the idea that all persons have an equal right to govern themselves (liberty), an equal right to participate in the political process (self-government), and the right to "an unfettered start, and a fair chance in the race of life."

     Lincoln was a politician who helped found the the Republican Party and led it to victory in two national elections; a military leader who saved the Union by actively commanded the army and navy of the United States in securing victory in the Civil War; and the Great Emancipator who freed millions of slaves through the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation and persuading Congress to adopt the Thirteenth Amendment.  But his greatest accomplishment was to convince Americans that the Union and the Constitution and America itself all serve a higher law – the universal principles of liberty and equality expressed in the Declaration of Independence.

Many of the ideas in this essay are explored at length in Gary Wills' masterpiece, "Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America." Another outstanding resource is John Channing Briggs' "Lincoln's Speeches Reconsidered."  I also wish to thank the students in my Jurisprudence class and the faculty and students at Pace Law School for their insights into the Gettysburg Address and other Lincoln works.

{ 1 comment }

earl March 8, 2011 at 11:11 am

when the frost is on the pumkin and the fodders in the shock and you hear the kyock and gobble of the struttin turkey cock

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