Study Guide

Gettysburg Address Main Idea

By Abraham Lincoln

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  • Main Idea

    Down, but Not Out

    When President Lincoln spoke in November 1863, the United States was at its most fragile point since Washington's winter at Valley Forge. The North had repelled an attack on their home soil but, as in a bunch of battles throughout the Civil War, the casualty count was high.

    Really high.

    Life was difficult for those at home and out in the fray. So when the time came to honor the dead from this important battle, the president took the occasion to remind the Union that they were fighting not just to reunite the country…but to uphold the principles of equality and freedom. That's some stirring rhetoric, right there.

    Questions About Main Idea

    1. Arguably the two most important works of Abraham Lincoln's presidency are the Gettysburg Address and the Emancipation Proclamation. Both had profound ramifications on the course of the Civil War and American history as a whole. Which do you think was more important—and why?
    2. By some estimates, there were 15,000 spectators out in the middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania, for the president's address. Who do you think these people were? Who was the speech's target audience?
    3. In the opening lines of his speech, Abraham Lincoln conjured up memories of the all-important founders of the country, tacitly implying that they were on his side in this war against the South. Based on your knowledge of these figures, what do you think their reaction would be to the Gettysburg Address? And do you agree that they would have backed Lincoln's cause to reunify the country?

    Chew on This

    Lincoln's Gettysburg Address was instrumental in rekindling the spark in Northern troops and led to the successful resolution of the Civil War.

    The Civil War continued for several more years following Lincoln's speech at Gettysburg, so the speech wasn't the key to ending the war—after all, actions speak louder than words.

  • Brief Summary

    The Setup

    In the wake of tremendous losses by both the North and the South in the Civil War, Lincoln was asked to speak at the dedication ceremony for the national cemetery at Gettysburg. His speech paid respects to the fallen soldiers while reinforcing that a failure to take back the South would be a failure to maintain the principles set out by America's Founding Fathers.

    Oh, yeah, and did we mention that Abe had smallpox while delivering this speech? What a boss.

    The Text

    Right at the top of the speech, President Lincoln basically said, "Hey guys, remember that the revolution wasn't all that long ago, and right now we're in almost as desperate a circumstance."

    People at the time were shocked by the scale of the conflict, and by the casualty counts printed in the papers. Spirits were understandably down.

    But Abe went on to say that it was essential to tune out the haters that wanted to sue for peace with the Confederates because they were fighting for the very survival of the United States. As Lincoln had said years before, "A house divided against itself cannot stand."

    He saw the impossibility of two separate societies coexisting in America. Eventually, either slavery or abolitionism would have to win out. Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose.


    Like Henry V or Gordon Bombay, President Abraham Lincoln delivered one heck of a halftime speech that spurred on the Union to a victory two years later.

  • Questions

    1. Somehow, contemporary reaction to the Gettysburg Address was as mixed as The Life of Pablo reviews. Now, imagine yourself in the midst of this gruesome struggle. Would Lincoln's speech hold up in your eyes?
    2. Presidential speeches are a veritable gold mine of juicy quotes. From "read my lips" to "nothing to fear but fear itself," they've become iconic, repeated cultural touchstones. Where would the Gettysburg Address rank in your most important speeches list?
    3. Write an alternate history of the Civil War in which Lincoln never gives this speech. What does it look like? Have events changed or is the course of the war the same?
    4. Given that the speech was written more than 150 years ago, its message holds up remarkably well. But some of the language is a bit...outdated. What would a modern-day version look like?
    5. The Gettysburg Address is considered a turning point in the course of the war; from here on out, Gen. Winfield Scott's Anaconda Plan worked to slowly squeeze the Confederacy into submission. But it's not the only candidate for this position. What other event would you call a turning point in the Civil War and why?

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