The Gettysburg Address | Study Guide

Abraham Lincoln

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The Gettysburg Address | Main Ideas


Dedication to Shared Tasks

Lincoln was invited to speak at Gettysburg as part of the ceremony to dedicate a cemetery at the field where the Battle of Gettysburg was fought. While Lincoln fulfilled this purpose, he also did much more. As he spoke, Lincoln dedicated himself and his audience to continuing two tasks, which he intertwines and makes one: bringing the Civil War to a successful conclusion and carrying out the mission of the Founding Fathers. Lincoln therefore uses the term and concept of "dedication" in two distinct but related ways: to set aside a piece of land for a particular purpose and to commit oneself to a goal.

Everyone present at Gettysburg was there to honor the dead and dedicate the battlefield as a cemetery, so they shared two tasks before Lincoln even began speaking. Lincoln acknowledges these shared tasks and then builds on them. He links these ideas, making concluding the war an integral part of building the kind of nation the founders envisioned.

Liberty, Equality, and Democracy

The architects of America studied the classical republics of Greece and Rome for guidance in constructing a constitution and designing a nation. They valued liberty but did not necessarily see unlimited equality and democracy as part of their vision. Indeed, classical republics considered an excess of democracy a threat to liberty. Lincoln breaks with this point of view. He instead builds on the inspiring rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence to link liberty, equality, and democracy. Though he does not say so explicitly, he lays the foundation for equality of race and gender through the sentiments expressed here (and other places, like the Emancipation Proclamation).

Birth and Rebirth

In the first line of this speech, Lincoln uses biological imagery to describe the founding of the United States. The nation was "conceived in Liberty." As Lincoln used "conceived" here, it means both to become pregnant with and to have the idea of. His phrasing fuses both meanings. He indicates the nation was something the founders "brought forth," which can mean to create or present, but often means to give birth to. Lincoln dates this birth from 1776 and the Declaration of Independence. He takes the opportunity of this ceremony to call for a "new birth of freedom." He therefore transforms a ceremony acknowledging mass death into one initiating a mass, even collective, rebirth.

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