The Gettysburg Address | Study Guide

Abraham Lincoln

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The Gettysburg Address | Context


Rhetorical Genre and Tradition

Because the Gettysburg Address is a speech, it should be read as a text meant to be delivered, even performed, rather than something to be read silently. Speeches are part of the discipline of rhetoric—the classical discipline of writing and speaking persuasively. This discipline contains a range of genres that shape audience expectations.


The Gettysburg Address is specifically a eulogy, a speech given at funerals to celebrate and memorialize the dead. Eulogies are more formal than many other kinds of speeches, and they assume the audience listening intends to respond to the deceased with respect. Eulogies belong to the larger category of epideictic rhetoric, which refers to formal, ceremonial works (usually speeches) intended to praise or blame something. There is an element of display to this kind of speech, which emphasizes emotion and ethical judgments.

Greek Funeral Oration

The Founding Fathers of the United States had long admired Roman thought and rhetoric. During Lincoln's lifetime, Americans developed a new interest in Greek culture and rhetoric. Lincoln's fellow speaker at Gettysburg, Ambassador Edward Everett, helped champion Greek oratory and demonstrated powerful knowledge of that tradition in his own speech. The Greek funeral oration also shaped Lincoln's speech, but more subtly, through its structure.

The Greek funeral oration contained two parts: respectful homage to the dead and advice for the living. Lincoln's first paragraph declares the purpose for his speech. His second paragraph and the start of the third honor the fallen dead. Then Lincoln smoothly transitions to advice for the living. This advice fills the remainder of his speech. Without displaying the overt classical scholarship Everett had, Lincoln recreates the structure of the Greek funeral oration.

Biblical and Political Rhetoric

In addition to its specific genres, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address derives its power from more than one rhetorical tradition. Lincoln drew on a tradition of Christian and biblical rhetoric in several ways. American lawyer Isaac Arnold, one of Lincoln's friends, wrote in a biography of him that Lincoln had memorized long passages from the Bible and knew it as well as any preacher. This knowledge allowed him to use biblical cadences throughout the speech, especially the rhythms of the King James Version of the Bible, and to smoothly borrow or echo phrases. Lincoln also shaped his speech to echo America's two great foundational documents: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

The Road to Civil War and Gettysburg

The American Civil War lasted from 1861 to 1865. The primary issue involved was slavery, though states' rights and economic issues also contributed to the conflict. The Civil War did not arise suddenly or out of nowhere; in fact the opposite was true. The seeds of the Civil War can be seen in the compromises between the slaveholding states and nonslaveholding states written into the Constitution in 1789.

Several events after 1789 marked the road to civil war. When the United States made the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and acquired over 800,000 square miles of territory from France, the government had to decide on the status of slavery in the territory. If slavery expanded into this new territory without limits, this would give the Southern states much more power in Congress. The result was the Missouri Compromise of 1820. When Missouri applied for statehood as a slave state, Maine was also admitted as a free state to maintain a political balance.

Decades later, at the close of the Mexican War (1846–48), the Wilmot Proviso would have outlawed slavery in all land the United States acquired through the war, which would have included the southwestern states and California. This legislation failed, but it sparked rigorous debate and intense emotions on both sides. The result was the Compromise of 1850, which blocked any territorial expansion of slavery but strengthened the Fugitive Slave Law requiring Northerners to return escaped slaves to their owners.

Several events filled the following decade with agitation over slavery. When parts of the Missouri Compromise were overturned, allowing the inhabitants of Kansas and Nebraska to decide if slavery would be allowed in those territories through a popular vote, supporters of both sides moved to those territories. The struggle went on for five years and resulted in violence several times.

In the middle of that political clash, another high-profile political event occurred, the Dred Scott case. Dred Scott was a slave who tried to win his freedom in court, arguing that since he and his family had lived in Northern states where slavery was illegal, he should be considered free. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court. The court not only ruled against Scott in 1857, but they ruled no slave or person of African descent could sue in American courts or be an American citizen. Finally, in 1859, a white abolitionist named John Brown led a raid into Virginia, hoping to spark a slave uprising. He was quickly caught and executed for treason, but Southern states feared other armed attacks.

Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860. His presidential platform included a promise to not allow slavery to spread into the territories. That promise was the final straw for the slaveholding states. In response, seven Southern states seceded from the nation and formed their own nation, the Confederate States of America. Four other states joined the Confederacy later.

In April 1861—just a month after Lincoln was sworn in—this act moved beyond the symbolic when Confederate forces attacked Fort Sumter at Charleston, South Carolina. Abraham Lincoln mobilized the national militia in response. The war that unfolded from this point on was incredibly bloody. By the end of 1861, hundreds of thousands of soldiers were fighting on each side.

In the first years of the war, the conflict was very much back and forth, with no clear winner. For example, the Confederates won the first real battle, in July 1861, but the Union started shutting down Southern ports in April of the same year. The two sides fought their battle in other ways, too. Jefferson Davis was elected president of the Confederacy, and he took office in February 1861. About two years later, in January 1863, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the three million slaves in Confederate territory.

The Battle of Gettysburg was the bloodiest battle of the Civil War and a decisive one. It lasted for several days (July 1–3, 1863) before the Union forces won, breaking the Confederate forces and sending Confederate General Robert E. Lee marching back to Virginia with what remained of his army. The speeches at Gettysburg commemorated this battle.

The Dedication Ceremony

Several cultural movements shaped the ceremonies and speeches at Gettysburg on the day of the Gettysburg Address. One of them was the cemetery movement that moved through 19th-century America. In fact, the word cemetery became more commonly used during this period. This was linked both to an increased interest in classical Greek culture and to 19th-century American romanticism, which emphasized nature and pastoral beauty.

New understanding regarding the Greeks' use of cemeteries as sites for philosophical reflection gave them new importance. This idea transformed graveyards into schools for living communities. Numerous towns across America, including Springfield, Illinois, where Lincoln lived and practiced for years, dedicated new cemeteries designed with attractive paths and gardens for living people to enjoy.

This was the broader context in which the ceremony at Gettysburg was planned. After the battle at Gettysburg, the battlefield was left in terrible shape. The dead bodies of more than 7,000 men and 5,000 horses were left there, unsorted and barely covered with dirt. People found them in their gardens, or worse, found their pigs eating body parts. The governor of Pennsylvania eventually allocated funds to deal with these complex problems. He appointed David Wills, one of the leaders of the town of Gettysburg, to organize the process, hire someone to bury the dead, and find an architect experienced in designing rural cemeteries. Wills planned a day of ceremonies to dedicate the cemetery and invited the period's major Romantic poets: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, William Cullen Bryant, and John Greenleaf Whittier. None accepted the invitation. He then invited Ambassador Edward Everett, one of America's top orators. Wills later invited Lincoln to speak.

Lincoln's Oratorical Style

Lincoln the Homespun Frontier Persona

Lincoln was known for telling tall tales, exaggerating, and simply telling jokes. This aspect of Lincoln's personality applies to the Gettysburg Address primarily through suspect stories about Lincoln's writing the speech quickly: some stories say he wrote it on a train or on the back of an envelope. Lincoln did enjoy telling a joke on the spur of the moment, but he was generally a slow writer for formal speeches.

Lincoln the Debater

Though public debates were a standard element of politics at the time, Lincoln's series of debates with U.S. Representative Stephen Douglas have become so famous that they give their name to an entire format of modern competitive debate, the Lincoln-Douglas debates. This aspect of Lincoln played a minimal role in this speech, since formal debates were partisan and even divisive, and Lincoln's goal in this speech was to unify a damaged nation.

Lincoln the Solemn, Ceremonial Orator

Lincoln's inauguration speeches, statements like the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Gettysburg Address reflect careful study. Lincoln studied the great speakers of his day, including the headliner at Gettysburg, Ambassador Edward Everett. He memorized long stretches of the Bible. He memorized and recited extended passages from British playwright William Shakespeare. This study provided the background structure for this speech and informed its biblical cadences.

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