Manner of Speaking

The Gettysburg Address: An Analysis

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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 the former is universally regarded as one of the most famous speeches in American history; the latter is 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.”

Abraham Lincoln

In a speech that was comprised of only 10 sentences and 272 words, Lincoln was able to strike a chord that would resonate not only with his audience, but one that would resonate through time. Why is this short speech so memorable?

First, it is important to remember the context. America was in the midst of a bloody civil war. Union troops had only four months earlier defeated Confederate troops at the Battle of Gettysburg which is widely recognized as 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 to honour the fallen. However, the Civil War still raged and 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.

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 can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not 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.

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 that began with the founding of America and ended at the crossroads at which the country found itself at that moment. He wanted to make sure that Americans chose the right path. And he did.

For a fitting conclusion to this post, I want to share this wonderful animated video of Lincoln’s speech that adds a new dimension to his words.

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