The Gettysburg Address | Study Guide

Abraham Lincoln

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The Gettysburg Address | Summary



First Paragraph

Lincoln begins by saying that the United States was founded "four score and seven," or 87, years ago. The nation's founders dedicated the new country to the principles of liberty and equality.

Second Paragraph

The United States is now fighting a civil war, Lincoln states. This civil war will test if the United States survives as a nation, and whether nations dedicated to liberty and equality can survive at all. He says a great battle was fought at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Everyone assembled is here to dedicate part of this battlefield as a cemetery for the soldiers killed here. This, Lincoln says, is the right thing to do.

Third Paragraph

However, Lincoln continues, the people assembled can't really consecrate this battlefield because the soldiers who fought here have already done so. Their bravery did more to make this field sacred than anything an official could do. Few people will remember today's speeches and ceremonies, but they will remember the soldiers' brave sacrifices. The people who survive must dedicate themselves to completing the work the soldiers began. These brave dead men inspire the living to greater dedication to the cause of liberty because in giving their lives they gave their complete dedication. We must all commit ourselves, Lincoln urges, to carrying on their mission so their deaths have meaning and purpose. We must commit to creating a new era of freedom for America so it—and its democratic principles and government—will survive.


Historical Positioning

In 1863 when the Battle of Gettysburg was fought, it was not clear how the Civil War would end. While that battle ultimately proved to be a key pivot point, the war would stretch on until the spring of 1865, almost two years after the Gettysburg battle. It was not yet clear what the meaning of the Battle of Gettysburg would be.

Nevertheless, both of the day's speakers felt compelled to try to position the battle in history to help give it meaning and help the nation understand it. Edward Everett, the day's main speaker, treated the Union dead like classical heroes. He made extended and explicit references to classical Greece. He used his extensive learning to demonstrate how their deaths tied to great moments in the English and American struggles for liberty throughout history.

Lincoln also linked the battle and war to history, but more simply. Rather than evoke specific mighty heroes of the American Revolution such as Patrick Henry and George Washington, as Everett had done, Lincoln linked the Civil War to one main moment in American history: the founding of the country, which he dates as starting with the Declaration of Independence. Likewise, he links the fallen dead not to specific heroes but to one generation of men—the Founding Fathers of the United States.

Everett ended his speech by turning his sights to the past. He made the battle glorious and indicated its mighty stature by linking it to Pericles and the Peloponnesian War. Lincoln, by contrast, completes his act of historical positioning by linking the Battle of Gettysburg and the larger Civil War to the present and the future. Rather than this eulogy only being about celebrating the dead's role in history and the past, Lincoln indicates their main purpose is to inspire the living. Their deaths give the future a direction and a sense of meaning, as if the Battle of Gettysburg were a midpoint, not just for the war, but for the whole of American history. This is why Lincoln can call for "a new birth of freedom" for the nation. Lincoln is essentially restarting American history with the Civil War.

Rhetorical Positioning

Lincoln didn't just position the Battle of Gettysburg and the Civil War historically; he also positioned them rhetorically. The United States has two famous founding documents: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. They both contain famous lines about American values, but they are very different. The Declaration is a passionate cry for freedom. It makes sweeping claims about shared humanity and universal rights. The most famous of these is that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Lincoln evokes the Declaration explicitly in his opening paragraph: "Four score and seven years ago" is 87 years before the Battle of Gettysburg, or 1776, the year of the Declaration. He then echoes the wording by saying the United States was "conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."

The Declaration of Independence is wonderful, passionate rhetoric. However, it has no legal standing. The nation's founding legal document is the Constitution, which takes a much more abstract, measured, legalistic position on liberty. The Preamble does say the nation is established to "secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity." However, this claim is decidedly not universal. Later the Constitution mentions slaves as being "other persons." As many scholars have noted, the Constitution is a document of compromise; the men who wrote it made careful deals among themselves and the regions they represented to construct a legal framework for the new nation. The Constitution was a great triumph, but it is much more careful than the Declaration. By starting with an explicit evocation of the Declaration, Lincoln is linking his speech and his political vision to the bold absolutes of the Declaration—liberty for all.

Lincoln also borrows some of the more inspiring rhetorical authority of the Constitution in his conclusion. The Preamble to the Constitution famously begins with the phrase "We the people," and it articulates a theory of government in which governmental authority flows from the people to the government. The Tenth Amendment to the Constitution (the final entry in the Bill of Rights) reserves all rights not specifically given to the federal government or to the states for "the people." In his concluding paragraph, Lincoln refers to "government of the people, by the people, for the people." There had long been rhetorical distance between these two great founding documents. In this address, Lincoln builds a bridge between them: he starts with liberty and ends with the people.

Redefining America

Lincoln included so much in such a short space that it is worth noting what he left out of the speech and how it helped redefine America. Gettysburg was the site of the bloodiest fighting in the Civil War. Lincoln mentions the war and the fallen dead, but not the causes for the war. He does not cast blame on the Union or Confederacy; he gestures past them, to include the entire nation. Though the Civil War was largely fought over slavery, Lincoln does not mention this divisive subject. That topic could still start arguments. Instead, he addresses slavery by implication through focusing on the American value of liberty—the opposite of slavery. He does not mention any of his political opponents. He does not even mention specific American heroes. Instead he groups them all into the category of "fathers" and makes everyone present part of the American family through implication. Finally, though he refers to specific famous documents (the Declaration, the Constitution, and the Bible), he does not identify them by name because he trusts his audience to recognize these shared foundational documents.

Historical Importance of the Gettysburg Address

It is difficult to overstate the importance of the Gettysburg Address in American history. One of the first ways to measure this importance is to consider how many myths and stories circulate about it. People say Lincoln composed the speech on the train on the way to the event or scribbled it on an envelope. He didn't: Lincoln started working on the speech in July of that year, and drafts exist from before the event. A more credible criticism is one arguing Lincoln left the phrase "under God" out of his speech. There is a draft of his speech that does not contain those words, but later drafts and eyewitness testimony indicate Lincoln did include the phrase in the version he delivered. It is essentially a myth to call this speech "the Gettysburg Address," since he wasn't the only speaker there: the main speaker was the famous Edward Everett. Other stories circulate about the audience's reception of the speech. Some claim the brevity of the speech caught the audience off guard. This seems to be an invention after the fact. A final myth is that everyone loved the speech. The audience did applaud, and Edward Everett praised the speech, but other sources found it flat and uninspired. One criticism even said it insulted the fallen Union soldiers by distorting the meaning of the Constitution.

This last criticism had some validity and was central to some of the speech's profound historical importance. Lincoln's speech was important in part because it did change the meaning of the Constitution. To be more specific, it presented a vision of America in which liberty and equality were both central principles for the nation. This vision has been so completely adopted that it may be hard to recognize now that before the Civil War, equality was not a major principle of the United States. Jefferson had evoked liberty as part of his grand rhetorical appeal in the Declaration of Independence, but it had not been built into the Constitution or a central part of American politics. In fact, inequality was written into the Constitution. Only male property owners could vote when the Constitution was ratified, and the Constitution protected slavery.

Lincoln recovered the meaning of liberty and equality for the United States. He transformed liberty from a distant ideal to something pressing and current that each person should act on. He also changed liberty's place in the national identity, and in doing so he changed American national identity. The seceding Southern states thought of themselves as acting to preserve their liberty and thought of the American Civil War as a second American Revolution. In their view, the South left the United States to preserve its liberty from a threatening central government. Lincoln reversed that idea here, fusing liberty with the ideal of American nationalism while also weaving in equality. Lincoln fused liberty and equality for all, and he insisted everyone play an active part in bringing these values into being. In doing so he elevated the Declaration over the Constitution, holding the ideal above the written law.

Two factors contributed to Lincoln's success in doing this. The first is positive: his speech is a rhetorical masterpiece. It is skilled, perfectly positioned, elegant, and beautiful. Time magazine ranked it fourth in a list of the greatest political speeches of all time. The second factor is negative: Lincoln was assassinated shortly after his reelection. This helped elevate Lincoln to a mythic status, as people began to forget how very unpopular Lincoln had been with much of the American population when he was president. It transformed him into a visionary of American liberty, when the reality was much more complex.

The Gettysburg Address lives on in many ways. Gettysburg celebrates the Gettysburg Address, as well as the people who died in the war, every November 19th, which is called Remembrance Day. A parade honors the Gettysburg Address, and living history groups march in uniform. Candles are lit on the soldiers' graves and speeches are given in honor of the dead and the day.

On Memorial Day in 1963, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson spoke at Gettysburg. On the 100th anniversary of the speech, organizers invited President John F. Kennedy to speak at the ceremony. He could not attend because he had other obligations, but former president Dwight D. Eisenhower did attend and give a speech honoring Lincoln and calling on Americans to finish the task Lincoln called them to. Fifty years later, President Barack Obama was invited to speak at the 150th anniversary, but he too had to decline because of other obligations.

When he gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial, near the start of his speech, Martin Luther King included the words "five score years ago," echoing Lincoln's words, even as he issued his own call for a new birth of American liberty.

Many high-profile Americans have recorded readings of the speech: Sam Waterston, Colin Powell, Jeff Daniels, and Johnny Cash, among others. Denzel Washington's character Coach Herman Boone referred to the Battle of Gettysburg and borrowed phrases from the speech in the movie Remember the Titans. Members of the audience who were present for the speech have had their memories recorded, and those accounts are part of the consecration of the speech, part of what transforms it into a sacred American text.

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