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The Gettysburg Address | Quotes

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1.

Four score and seven years ago.


Abraham Lincoln

A score is 20. Four score is an archaic term taken from Middle English; it dates from somewhere around 1200 AD. "Four score and seven years" means 87 years. By starting with archaic language, Lincoln gives his speech gravity.

He gave this speech in 1863, 87 years after 1776. Lincoln is dating his chronology of the nation from the year of the Declaration of Independence, not when the Revolutionary War was over or the Constitution was written.

Because the book of Psalms in the Bible gives the life span of a human as "threescore years and ten," and because Lincoln's audience was overwhelmingly Christian in orientation, his listeners would have recognized this as a reference to the Bible, hearing that text's echoes in Lincoln's words. They might even hear the specific reference to a time frame: since the United States had lived longer than a human should, it is time for a new beginning (as the speech then calls for).

2.

Our fathers brought forth on this continent.


Abraham Lincoln

The second half of Lincoln's first sentence does several things. First, the term "fathers" reshapes America as a family and asserts everyone listening has a family relationship. Second, the phrase "brought forth" appears repeatedly in the Bible, and the use of biblical language contributes to the entire speech having similar cadences to those of the Bible, especially the King James Version. "Bring forth" or "brought forth" often refers to giving birth, which is part of the Lincoln's rhetorical act of making the entire nation into a family.

3.

A new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.


Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln explicitly echoes the Declaration of Independence, which claims all men are created equal. This borrows some of that great document's authority. It also establishes a kind of lineage. By linking his speech and the purpose of the war to the Declaration rather than the Constitution, Lincoln elevates the glorious vision of that document above the more mundane legalistic reasoning of the Constitution. He is essentially asking his audience to live up to the spirit of America that was put forth in the Declaration, rather than just the letter of the law as it is written in the Constitution. This was one of the guiding principles of Lincoln's political vision: to uphold the Declaration above all else. As Gary Wills wrote in his Lincoln at Gettysburg, Lincoln's references in this speech elevated the Declaration and shaped how later Americans would read it.

4.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.


Abraham Lincoln

While his audience already knew the Civil War was important, this phrase elevates its importance still further. Lincoln makes the American Civil War into a philosophical, even existential, test of a broad idea: can nations built around the idea of liberty survive?

5.

We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.


Abraham Lincoln

This is largely a straightforward statement of the day's purpose: Lincoln and the other speakers are at Gettysburg to dedicate the battlefield as a military cemetery. However, in addition to this factual statement, Lincoln rhetorically shapes the purpose of the battle. He makes their deaths almost mythic, a kind of secular sacrifice: these men died so the nation could live.

6.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground.


Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln is well known as an orator, and this line gives a powerful example of his skill in constructing speeches for delivery. He repeats the same idea three times. This slows the speech down and emphasizes the importance of what he is saying. He also uses a parallel structure, repeating the words "we can not" to build a powerful, rhythmic cadence.

7.

The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here.


Abraham Lincoln

Technically, Lincoln and the others in attendance at Gettysburg were there to consecrate a cemetery for fallen Union soldiers. However, throughout his speech, Lincoln never specifies this. He provides just two categories into which soldiers should be divided: "living and dead." This leaves a rhetorical and conceptual space for considering the Confederate dead as part of the "brave men" who consecrate the battlefield through their deaths.

8.

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.


Abraham Lincoln

This line includes one of several examples of antithesis in this speech. Lincoln sets two linked ideas in opposition here: forgetting and remembering, saying and doing. This makes the speech more memorable, and it emphasizes the second part of the line.

Historically, this line contains a kind of situational irony for modern audiences. While people reading this speech may know the Battle of Gettysburg happened, they likely don't remember any of the details (unless they are Civil War historians). However, Lincoln's brief speech has become one of the most famous speeches in American history.

9.

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.


Abraham Lincoln

This line reverses the apparent purpose of the day and of Lincoln's entire speech. The thousands of people in the audience were technically there to dedicate the cemetery for the dead. Instead, Lincoln issues a call to action here. He asks his listeners to dedicate themselves to finishing the work the fallen soldiers began. He also does not define that work, which leaves the call open to include both the war and the larger task of creating a nation of liberty.

10.

It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us.


Abraham Lincoln

Here Lincoln rededicates himself and his listeners to a "great" but carefully unnamed task: he asks his listeners to help with the war and to build a nation of liberty.

11.

That from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.


Abraham Lincoln

In the earlier parts of this speech, Lincoln held to his declared purpose: to dedicate the battlefield as a cemetery for the soldiers killed there. In the final extended section of the speech, he transforms his purpose. Instead of dedicating the field, Lincoln is dedicating himself and his audience. He's essentially performing a ceremony through his words, transforming everyone present into warriors for liberty.

12.

That this nation under God.


Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln uses biblical references throughout this speech and writes in a biblical cadence. He also uses spiritual concepts, such as hallowing something (making it holy). However, this is the first explicit mention of God. This phrase did not appear in the earliest drafts of the speech; Lincoln added it later. There has been some controversy over the years as to whether the version of the address Lincoln delivered actually contained these words.

13.

Shall have a new birth of freedom.


Abraham Lincoln

In the first line of his speech, Lincoln says the nation's founders "brought forth ... a new nation." While bringing something forth can mean presenting it, it can also mean bearing fruit or reproducing—more specifically, giving birth. In this line Lincoln returns to his opening words. This creates a sense of unity for the entire speech. By calling for a "new birth" of liberty, Lincoln also gives his audience a chance to re-create the United States as the Founding Fathers created it.

14.

That government of the people, by the people, for the people.


Abraham Lincoln

The Preamble to the Constitution of the United States opens with the words "We the people." The Constitution also uses the phrase "by the people" several times, most notably in the Ninth Amendment, which asserts that giving rights to specific branches of government does not deny others "retained by the people." By using this phrase, Lincoln is evoking the power of the Constitution as he did earlier with the Declaration.

Lincoln is also using the rhetorical technique of a balanced sentence, in which two or more parts of a sentence have roughly the same grammatical structure and importance. The section also uses epistrophe, in which a speaker ends multiple phrases with the same word.

15.

Shall not perish from the earth.


Abraham Lincoln

In the final phrase in his address, Lincoln once again echoes the Bible without explicitly indicating he is doing so. Several translations of the Bible, including the King James Version, use the term "perish from the earth" or "perishes from the earth." For example, Jeremiah 10:11 says, "Thus shall ye say unto them, The gods that have not made the heavens and the earth, even they shall perish from the earth, and from under these heavens." This verse refers to false gods and idols disappearing from the earth and people forgetting them. Lincoln is saying this is not the case for the United States: it is a true vision that will not be forgotten.

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