Reflections on Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address

Picking up on my last post, one thing I have enjoyed about our walks to the Lincoln Memorial is that it has given me the opportunity to meditate more closely on the text of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. I think this may be my favorite political speech in history. Three features I have noticed:

1) Lincoln connects the Civil War with both America’s past and America’s future: at the beginning of the speech he clams the Civil War is the testing point of the democratic ideals of 1776, and then at the end of his speech he sees the war as the opportunity for “a new birth of freedom” in America. Essentially, the speech is an interpretation of America: from its birth as a nation “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the propositon that all men are created equal,” to its hope of establishing “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” The speech sees the Civil War in the context of American identity.

2) The speech connects the Civil War not only with the identity and fate of America, but also with the identity and fate of democracy in general. The speech emphasizes that what is at stake in the war is whether “any nation so conceived and so dedicated [to liberty and equality]” can long endure. In other words, the Gettysburg Address sees the Civil War as the test of the workability of democracy. If the Union splits, democracy will not only have failed in America, but it will “perish from the earth.” One gets an overwhelming sense of the transcendent importance of the cause. Could the stakes be higher?

3) The subtle contrasts throughout the speech are ingenious. After noting their purpose in gathering at Gettysburg is to dedicate a portion of the field as a resting place for dead soldiers, Lincoln claims that they cannot dedicate it, because the “brave men living and dead who struggled here” have already dedicated it. Then in the next breath he claims that it is not the field that needs dedication, but his listeners. In other words, he skillfully transitions from a contrast of who is dedicating (his listeners or the soldiers) to what is being dedicated (the field or his listeners). We have come here to dedicate this field, but the soldiers beat us to it. What we really need is to dedicate, then, is ourselves. It is an effective and powerful rhetorical strategy.

How cool would it have been to have heard him give a speech like this!!!

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