Here’s a question for you. Who was the main speaker at the event which became known as the Gettysburg Address? If you answered ‘Abraham Lincoln’, this post is for you. For the facts of what took place on the afternoon of November 19, 1863, four and a half months after the Union armies defeated Confederate forces in the Battle of Gettysburg, have become shrouded in myth. And one of the most famous speeches in all of American history was not exactly a resounding success when it was first spoken.
What was the Gettysburg Address?
The Gettysburg Address is the name given to a short speech (of just 268 words) that the US President Abraham Lincoln delivered at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery (which is now known as Gettysburg National Cemetery) in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on 19 November 1863. At the time, the American Civil War was still raging, and the Battle of Gettysburg had been the bloodiest battle in the war, with an estimated 23,000 casualties.
Gettysburg Address: summary
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.
The opening words to the Gettysburg Address are now well-known. President Abraham Lincoln begins by harking back ‘four score and seven years’ – that is, eighty-seven years – to the year 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was signed and the nation known as the United States was founded.
The Declaration of Independence opens with the words: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal’. Lincoln refers to these words in the opening sentence of his declaration.
However, when he uses the words, he is including all Americans – male and female (he uses ‘men’ here, but ‘man’, as the old quip has it, embraces ‘woman’) – including African slaves, whose liberty is at issue in the war. The Union side wanted to abolish slavery and free the slaves, whereas the Confederates, largely in the south of the US, wanted to retain slavery.
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 battle-field 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 immediately moves to throw emphasis on the sacrifice made by all of the fallen soldiers who gave their lives at Gettysburg, and at other battles during the Civil War. He reminds his listeners that the United States is still a relatively young country, not even a century old yet.
Will it endure when it is already at war with itself? Can all Americans be convinced that every single one of them, including its current slaves, deserves what the Declaration of Independence calls ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’?
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.
Lincoln begins the third and final paragraph of the Gettysburg Address with a slight rhetorical flourish: the so-called rule of three, which entails listing three things in succession. Here, he uses three verbs which are roughly synonymous with each other – ‘dedicate’, ‘consecrate’, ‘hallow’ – in order to drive home the sacrifice the dead soldiers have made. It is not for Lincoln and the survivors to declare this ground hallowed: the soldiers who bled for their cause have done that through the highest sacrifice it is possible to make.
Note that this is the fourth time Lincoln has used the verb ‘dedicate’ in this short speech: ‘and dedicated to the proposition …’; ‘any nation so conceived and so dedicated …’; ‘We have come to dedicate a portion …’; ‘we can not dedicate …’. He will go on to repeat the word twice more before the end of his address.
Repetition is another key rhetorical device used in persuasive writing, and Lincoln’s speech uses a great deal of repetition like this.
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.
Lincoln concludes his address by urging his listeners to keep up the fight, so that the men who have died in battles such as the Battle of Gettysburg will not have given their lives in vain to a lost cause. He ends with a now-famous phrase (‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’) which evokes the principle of democracy, whereby nations are governed by elected officials and everyone has a say in who runs the country.
Gettysburg Address: analysis
The mythical aura surrounding the Gettysburg Address, like many iconic moments in American history, tends to obscure some of the more surprising facts from us. For example, on the day Lincoln delivered his famous address, he was not the top billing: the main speaker at Gettysburg on 19 November 1863 was not Abraham Lincoln but Edward Everett.
Everett gave a long – many would say overlong – speech, which lasted two hours. Everett’s speech was packed full of literary and historical allusions which were, one feels, there to remind his listeners how learned Everett was. When he’d finished, his exhausted audience of some 15,000 people waited for their President to address them.
Lincoln’s speech is just 268 words long, because he was intended just to wrap things up with a few concluding remarks. His speech lasted perhaps two minutes, contrasted with Everett’s two hours. Afterwards, Lincoln remarked that he had ‘failed’ in his duty to deliver a memorable speech, and some contemporary newspaper reports echoed this judgment, with the Chicago Times summarising it as a few ‘silly, flat and dishwatery utterances’ before hinting that Lincoln’s speech was an embarrassment, especially coming from so high an office as the President of the United States.
But in time, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address would come to be regarded as one of the great historic American speeches. This is partly because Lincoln eschewed the high-flown allusions and wordy style of most political orators of the nineteenth century.
Instead, he wanted to address people directly and simply, in plain language that would be immediately accessible and comprehensible to everyone. There is something democratic, in the broadest sense, about Lincoln’s choice of plain-spoken words and to-the-point sentences. He wanted everyone, regardless of their education or intellect, to be able to understand his words.
In writing and delivering a speech using such matter-of-fact language, Lincoln was being authentic and true to his roots. He may have been attempting to remind his listeners that he belonged to the frontier rather than to the East, the world of Washington and New York and Massachusetts.
There are several written versions of the Gettysburg Address in existence. However, the one which is viewed as the most authentic, and the most frequently reproduced, is the one known as the Bliss Copy. It is this version which is found on the walls of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. It is named after Colonel Alexander Bliss, the stepson of historian George Bancroft.
Bancroft asked Lincoln for a copy to use as a fundraiser for soldiers, but because Lincoln wrote on both sides of the paper, the speech was illegible and could not be reprinted, so Lincoln made another copy at Bliss’s request. This is the last known copy of the speech which Lincoln himself wrote out, and the only one signed and dated by him, so this is why it is widely regarded as the most authentic.
Image: Archives New Zealand, via Wikimedia Commons.