The Gettysburg Address: An Analysis

On 19 November, we commemorate the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in 1863.

In one of the first posts on this blog, I compared Lincoln’s two-minute address with the two-hour oration by Edward Everett on the same occasion. Today, people regard the former as one of the most famous speeches in American history; the latter largely forgotten. Indeed, Everett himself recognized the genius of Lincoln’s speech in a note that he sent to the President shortly after the event:

“I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

In a speech of only 10 sentences and 272 words, Lincoln struck a chord that would resonate through time. Why is this short speech so memorable?

The Gettysburg Address by Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln

First, it is important to remember the context. America was in the midst of a bloody civil war. Union troops had only recently defeated Confederate troops at the Battle of Gettysburg. It was a the turning point in the war. The stated purpose of Lincoln’s speech was to dedicate a plot of land that would become Soldier’s National Cemetery. However, Lincoln realized that he also had to inspire the people to continue the fight.

Below is the text of the Gettysburg Address, interspersed with my thoughts on what made it so memorable.

Four score 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.

  • “Four score and seven” is much more poetic, much more elegant, much more noble than “Eighty-seven”. The United States had won its freedom from Britain 87 years earlier, embarking on the “Great Experiment”.
  • Lincoln reminds the audience of the founding principles of the country: liberty and equality. In so doing, he sets up his next sentence perfectly.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.

  • Here, Lincoln signals the challenge: the nation is under attack.
  • He extends the significance of the fight beyond the borders of the United States. It is a question of whether any nation founded on the same principles could survive. Thus does the war — and the importance of winning it — take on an even greater significance.

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.

  • Lincoln turns to recognize those who have fallen for their country.
  • He uses contrast effectively. By stating “those who here gave their lives that this nation might live” Lincoln makes what is perhaps the ultimate contrast: life vs death. Contrast is compelling. It creates interest. Communicating an idea juxtaposed with its polar opposite creates energy. Moving back and forth between the contradictory poles encourages full engagement from the audience.”
  • He uses consonance — the repetition of the same consonant in short succession — through words with the letter “f”: battlefield; field; final; for; fitting.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground.

  • Notice the use of a “tricolon”: “can not dedicate … can not consecrate … can not hallow”. A tricolon is a powerful public speaking technique that can add power to your words and make them memorable.
  • Say the sentence out loud and hear the powerful cadence and rhythm.

The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.

  • This sentence is full of solemn respect for those who fought. It is an eloquent way of saying that their actions speak louder than Lincoln’s words.
  • There is an alliteration: “poor power”.

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.

  • There is a double contrast in this sentence: “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here” / “but it can never forget what they did here.”
  • Note the appeal to something larger. It is not the United States that will never forget, but the entire world.
  • Ironically, Lincoln was wrong on this point. Not only do we remember his words to this day, we will continue to remember them in the future.

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 final two sentence of the address sound a call to action, a resolve to complete “the unfinished work”.
  • They are full of inspirational words such as “dedicated”, “nobly”, “great”, “honored”, “devotion”, “highly resolve”, “God”, “birth” and “freedom”.
  • There are a couple of contrasts here: “the living” with “the honored dead”; and “these dead shall not have died in vain” with “this nation … shall have a new birth of freedom”.
  • Earlier, Lincoln said that, in a sense, they could not dedicate the ground. Here, he tells the audience to dedicate themselves to “the unfinished work” and “the great task remaining before us”.
  • He finishes with his famous tricolon: “of the people, by the people, for the people”.

In an excellent analysis of the Gettysburg Address, Nick Morgan offers an interesting perspective on Lincoln’s repetition of one word throughout the address:

And buried in the biblical phrasing there’s a further device that works unconsciously on the audience, and the reader, to weave some incantatory magic.  I’ve discussed this speech many times with students, with clients, and with colleagues, and I always ask them what simple little word is repeated most unusually in the speech.  No one ever spots it. …

When they look, people notice that the word ‘we’ is repeated 10 times.  But that’s not unusual, or surprising, given that Lincoln was trying to rally the nation.  The speech was all about ‘we’.  No, what is unusual is the repetition of the word ‘here’. …

Eight times in 250 words — two minutes — Lincoln invokes the place — the hallowed ground of Gettysburg — by repeating the word ‘here’.  As a result, he weaves some kind of spell on listeners, then and afterward, that is not consciously noticed, but unconsciously seems to have a powerful effect.

Repetition is an essential aspect of great public speaking.  The trick is knowing what and how to repeat.  Take a lesson from Lincoln.  Sometimes its the little words that have the most power.

We can learn a lot about public speaking by studying the great speeches of history. The Gettysburg Address is one of the greats. Lincoln took his audience on a journey. It began with the founding of America and ended at a crossroads. He wanted to make sure that Americans chose the right path. And he did.

We might never deliver a speech or presentation that becomes as famous as the Gettysburg Address, but we can still make an impact when we speak. For a comprehensive, step-by-step overview of how to write a speech outline, please see this post.

And for a fitting conclusion to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, enjoy this video.

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