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The Gettysburg Address: Structure and Style


 

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The Story of the Gettysburg Address
Text of the Address
The Life and Legacy of Abraham Lincoln
• The Battle of Gettysburg
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The Civil War

The Gettysburg Address is one of the most famous speeches in American history. Despite being only 272 words, President Abraham Lincoln's speech was filled with allusions to other famous words, including the Declaration of Independence, the Bible, and Pericles' Funeral Oration. Lincoln spoke of overarching themes like equality, freedom, and representative government. 

He included metaphors of people's lives: the nation was "conceived," the nation "might live," the government "shall not perish." He spoke to honor the dead but reminded his listeners of the "unfinished work" that, although it had been "nobly advanced," was also a "great task remaining." 

The speech begins with a wider lens, taking listeners back to the beginning of the country, one that was "conceived in liberty." The idea was at the time thought to be revolutionary not only by people in other countries but also by most Americans, not just the ones who professed their loyalties to the "mother country." The revolutionaries had fought a war to maintain the independence that they had declared and another one (in 1812) to cement it.  

Now, in the Civil War, the idea of liberty was threatened again, Lincoln argued, liberty not only on a national level but also on a personal level. Significantly, he referenced the Declaration of Independence, with its statement that "all men are created equal," not the Constitution, which included the Three-fifths Compromise for how to count slaves in the overall population.

The war was a test of the nation's and the government's ability to survive a severe constitutional crisis. The Constitution, so forged because the Articles of Confederation had proved too divisive, clearly stipulated a strong federal government as sovereign over state governments; yet the Southern states had divorced themselves from that Constitution and formed their own country, governmental framework, and standing army. Yet Lincoln would not recognize this Confederacy as a "new nation" in the way that the United States of America was a "new nation." Clearly, the American country was all-or-nothing.

Union armies invaded Southern states in order to preserve the "all." The results were deaths by the thousands, as exemplified at Gettysburg. Many observers would have thought Gettysburg a Union "victory" because the Southern troops retreated. Gettysburg was not a victory for the soldiers who died in that battle, except in the sense that, Lincoln argues, they were a part of something larger than themeselves. For Lincoln, the Union troops who died at Gettysburg — and at Antietam and Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville and Shiloh and all the other battles in the war so far and until it was finished — "gave their lives that that nation might live," advancing the cause of the whole American nation, indivisible. 

Hearkening to Pericles (who, in his famous Funeral Oration during the Peloponnesian War said "it is both just and proper that they should have the honor of the first mention …"), Lincoln intoned that "it is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this." He repeated this theme in the next few sentences, speaking of the consecration of, the hallowing of the ground on which the soldiers struggled. Here, Lincoln elevates the soldiers' efforts above anything that anyone who didn't fight might say, while also including the ones who survived: "the brave men, living and dead." 

Lincoln's argument is that the soldiers, in taking up the cause of defending the Union and its founding principles of liberty and equality for all, had "so far nobly advanced" the cause, with some giving "the last full measure of devotion" (their lives) to that cause. Their efforts should be honored, Lincoln said, by not only remembering their struggles but also continuing their struggles, embracing "the great task remaining before us" by taking "increased devotion to that cause," so that the efforts of the "honored dead" will have meant something, that they "shall not have died in vain." And here, Lincoln again echoed Pericles, who said, "You, their survivors, must determine to have as unfaltering a resolution."

The Address has Biblical allusions as well, beginning with the first six words: "Four score and seven years ago." Language such as this was common in the King James Bible, notably in the Psalms. Other words commonly found in religious texts or discussions appear: devotion, hallow, consecration, new birth. In the last sentence, Lincoln uses the words "under God."

Lincoln is also careful to use inclusive language: 

  • "our fathers brought forth"
  • "we are engaged in a great civil war"
  • "We are met on a great battle-field"
  • "We have come to dedicate" 
  • "It is … proper that we should do this" 
  • "We can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground" 
  • "our poor power to add or detract" 
  • "It is for us the living" 
  • "the great task remaining before us" 
  • "we here highly resolve."

Careful not to elevate himself above his audience or above the "honored dead," Lincoln includes himself in those uses of "we."

Lincoln is also careful to ground his listeners in the immediate. He uses the word "here" eight times in two minutes, keeping the focus on what happened, what it means for the country, and what it means for the people and their future.

The Address is definitely prose, but it contains elements of poetry as well. Alliteration can be found:

  • "our fathers brought forth" 
  • "new nation" 
  • "our poor power to add or detract" 
  • "little note, nor long remember."

Repetition is also evident:

  • "conceived in liberty … dedicated to the proposition … created equal"
  • "so conceived and so dedicated"
  • "we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow"
  • "government of the people, by the people, for the people."

Lincoln finishes by closing the loop, echoing the beginning of his speech and of the country by envisioning "a new birth of freedom" — for slaves as well as nonslaves. The final idea is another echo of an earlier part of the speech, the concept of representative government and the idea that it "shall not perish from the earth." If the Southern states were to emerge victorious, their secession allowed to stand, then it would undermine the entire premise of the Constitution, that the republic, created and empowered by the people, is the ultimate authority. Lincoln warned that such a government, the authority of which could be superseded by its own elements, would not be strong enough to survive on a global stage.

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