Study Guide

Gettysburg Address Analysis

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  • Rhetoric


    While Lincoln had the stature (dude was tall) and gravitas that comes with being president, he was hardly the main attraction of the ceremony. He was there to give some short remarks following Edward Everett, the preeminent speaker of his time.

    But the president's heartfelt appeal to a tired and reeling populace (along with some important military victories) turned the tide of the war in favor of the Union.

    Get it, Abe.

    Consider this line:

    The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. (7)

    If he wasn't nicknamed Honest Abe, it might seem to be a bit of pandering. But seriously—every person in the United States was touched by the Civil War. And by reflecting on the sacrifices made by soldiers (both living and dead), Lincoln was guaranteed to have the support of those listening.

    War speeches aren't about logic, they're about fanning the flames of passion. And the Gettysburg Address was like a bellows strengthening Northern resolve.

  • Structure

    What's so remarkable about this speech is how little fanfare it received. In the age of Twitter and 24-hour media cycles, it's easy to become oversaturated with information and "hot takes" on every speech or gaffe or tweet.

    But Lincoln's words were relegated to the background. Famed orator Edward Everett and his two-hour deep dive into battle specifics and classical allusions were given top billing.

    Fast-forward 15 decades, and pretty much no one can remember Everett's speech. Lincoln's, however, lives on.

    The president's words speak for themselves. Reading them, one can sense the swell of pride that must have overtaken each listener. However, as Lincoln proved over and over in his career, he was a fantastic speaker. These words were meant to be heard, and hearing him at the site of so much carnage must have elicited an overwhelming wave of emotion.

    It is said that the president did not think much of his speech since he heard only polite applause when he finished. But perhaps this was more of a stunned silence than a hostile crowd. In two short minutes, Lincoln was able to establish that they were in the midst of a terrible war, that many men had given their lives for a cause stretching back generations, and that now it was the job of every American to work toward ending this conflict in the name of freedom.

    Yeah. We can't even do a good job brushing our teeth in two minutes. That Honest Abe was an impressive guy.

    How It Breaks Down

    Section 1: Recap-ture the Momentum

    This section is classic recap. President Lincoln delivered the finest opener in history before launching into an explanation of what was going on for anyone living under a rock: we're at war, there was a great and terrible battle here, and now we're gonna honor it.

    Section 2: Hold on a Second

    In the middle section, Lincoln focused on the sacrifices that the soldiers at Gettysburg made by giving their lives. Even as president of the United States, his thanks meant little; God and history will be the real judges.

    Section 3: Now It's Our Turn

    Like every great politician, Lincoln spent the last lines of the speech asking the American people for something. Not for votes or more tax dollars, but for the courage, grit, and determination to win.

    Because if the Union should lose, that whole "land of the free" thing would go with it.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Although the Gettysburg Address goes by the basic naming convention of location + type of speech = TITLE, its very plainness speaks to how important the contents were. It was a speech with no hype and few expectations, and its simple title makes sense—Honest Abe knew that only directness could honor the complex emotions he spoke about.

  • What's Up With the Opening Lines?

    Lincoln would've made a pretty great D.J. Before the devastating bass drop at the end of the address, he got the crowd riled up with a recap of their current situation.

    First, he hooked 'em with "fourscore and seven years" (1) and acknowledged the desperate situation the country was in. Then, he described the reason for the season: a great battle happened, and we came to pay our respects.

  • What's Up With the Closing Lines?

    Lincoln pretty much guaranteed the speech would be a hit with his final line. It sounds like something Aragorn said in The Lord of the Rings, if The Lord of the Rings had way more bureaucratic language.

    People must have been cheering and fist-pumping at this line:

    […] 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. (10)

    But these lines also warned of the price of failure. Giving in to Confederate demands would be a betrayal of the values on which the country was founded. The very idea of a government for the people was at stake.

    Now get out there and win, boys.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (2) Sea Level

    Though there are some tricky words here—"consecrate," "hallow," and "score" (why not just say "20"?)—the text is straightforward. Basically, Honest Abe was saying, "Don't let these men have died in vain; keep our country whole."

    Besides, this speech is oh so short and sweet.

  • Shout-Outs

    In-Text References

    Historical and Political References

    • Washington, Adams, Jefferson, etc.—a.k.a., the Founding Fathers (1)
    • The Declaration of Independence (1)
    • The Constitution (1)
    • The Bill of Rights (1)
    • The Battle of Gettysburg (throughout)

    References to This Text

    Historical and Political References

    • John F. Kennedy, remarks on the 100th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address
    • Martin Luther King Jr., "I Have a Dream" speech

    Pop Culture References

    • Relient K, Five Score and Seven Years Ago
    • The Simpsons, several episodes
  • Trivia

    The phrase "government of the people, by the people, for the people" was actually first used in the 14th century, predating the printing press, the United States, and Betty White. (Source)

    So many people flocked to the small town of Gettysburg to attend the dedication that, the night before, even the governor of Pennsylvania had to share a bed. (Source)

    There were actually five different versions of the speech. Probably to prevent spoilers from leaking. (Source)

    The fact that Abraham Lincoln became such an eloquent speaker at all was amazing given the fact that he was, for the most part, self-taught. In his own words, his childhood was a bit...wild. No mention of vampires, though. (Source)

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