The words of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address are among the most memorable ever spoken or written in the long history of human events. Many Americans, not to mention people of other countries, recognize phrases from this address; some can recite it word for word. Almost immediately after Lincoln delivered the Address on the nineteenth of November in 1863, teachers and parents began asking young Americans to memorize it. Some still do this even today, and there is good reason to do so.
The Gettysburg Address shows us something about the possibility of language: how it can be used to create something simultaneously beautiful and useful. The words of Lincoln’s Address strike the ear in just the right way, with the pleasing rhythmic precision of Shakespearean verse, and the hard Saxon consonants striking a tone appropriate for a solemn occasion—the dedication of an unfinished cemetery that would be the permanent resting place for men who had fallen just four months earlier.
But Lincoln’s mastery of the English language shows even more in the way the Gettysburg Address conveys to the mind ideas that stretch far beyond the mere sum of the words. Before Lincoln delivered his dedicatory remarks on that miraculously clear and mild November day, renowned orator Edward Everett spoke for over two hours, emphasizing the importance of the recent battle in the continuing war, and tracing its causes back to the iniquities of the seceding slave-holding states three years earlier. After Everett’s oration, Lincoln rose to take the stage, and uttered only 272 words. But in those few words Lincoln managed to elevate the occasion, placing it in the larger context of the history of the American “cause.” Lincoln’s Address transcends the martial urgency of the moment, lifting the minds of Americans toward something higher and nobler, reminding them of the principles upon which the nation was founded, the purposes for which the Union was created, and the long struggle to maintain and strengthen that Union and fulfill those fundamental principles.
The transcendent quality of the Gettysburg Address is accomplished through three distinct sections that deal with the past, the present, and the future. The memorable opening of the Address—”Four score and seven years ago”—distinctly echoes the language of the Old Testament, using the way of reckoning age we find in the stories of the ancient founders and fathers of the Hebrews, including Abraham and Isaac. The language not only points us back to the “conception” of the nation and its founders, but elevates that event and those men to a status worthy of the highest reverence and respect.
From this short but fitting acknowledgment of the past, Lincoln turns to the here and now, to the present: “Now we are engaged in a great Civil War,” and in the midst of this war he and his listeners have come to a “battlefield” in order to “dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.” And yet, as “fitting and proper” as this act might be, Lincoln calls it a small offering in comparison to the sacrifice of those brave men, “living and dead,” who had fought the battle. Lincoln contrasts the “poor power” of the present speakers to the immortal deeds of the “honored dead” who gave the “last full measure of devotion” to a noble cause—a cause that began even before the Civil War, stretching back to the very beginning of the nation.
Noting that the deeds of the fallen had advanced but not completed an “unfinished work,” Lincoln turns our attention to the future, toward the “new birth of freedom” that the present war will make possible, securing for future generations the government that Lincoln elsewhere called “the last best hope of earth.” Lincoln ties past, present and future to the higher “cause” or idea upon which the United States was founded, toward which it had labored after the founding, and for which Americans must continue to strive during and even after the war then underway. Having opened with the claim that the nation was “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” having praised the men still fighting to defend this idea, Lincoln concludes with a call for Americans to rededicate themselves to the advancement of this cause so that “government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
The great significance of the Gettysburg Address, then, is that it restates and reaffirms another great expression of the American mind, the Declaration of Independence—the opening “Four score and seven years,” in fact, points directly to the year 1776. There is one important difference, however, between our foundational political document and the Gettysburg Address: the Declaration of Independence asserts the “self-evident” truth that “all men are created equal,” whereas Lincoln refers to human equality as a “proposition.” What was self-evidently true to the men of 1776 had been challenged and even rejected by later generations, leading to a renewed defense of slavery, the great sectional divisions within the Union, and the hostilities then engulfing the nation. Likening the nation’s founding principle to a mathematical theorem, Lincoln suggests that the truth of this “proposition” is not immediately self-evident for all, but must be demonstrably proven to be true.
Throughout his life, and especially in his many speeches, this was exactly what Lincoln attempted to do—although, despite his own dedication to this cause, the question would ultimately have to be decided by the outcome of the Civil War. In light of this, we see the deeper importance of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. It was offered not only to enlighten Americans in Lincoln’s day, clarifying the just cause for which they fought, but to educate future generations of Americans as well. For this reason, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address continues to be, and will likely always be, one of the greatest expressions of political principle in human history.
Christopher C. Burkett is Assistant Professor of Political Science
and Associate Director of the Master of American History and
Government program at Ashland University.