Great Writing: Lincoln at Gettysburg Pt. 1

I am currently reading Team of Rivals, a book about President Lincoln’s leadership style. Reading about Lincoln’s wizardry of storytelling and control of the English language, I decided to begin my Great Writing series with Lincoln’s most famous words. While he delivered them as a speech, he went through several written drafts in the days leading up to his visit to the battlefield at Gettysburg.

The Gettysburg Address

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. 

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. 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. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. 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. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Observations on the Opening Sentence

Lincoln begins by saying four score and seven years ago. Lincoln could have begun saying eighty-seven years ago. The meaning of the words would have been the same, but something would have been lost. By beginning with four score and seven, Lincoln made the time seem longer and more serious than if he had said eighty-seven. He also established the speech’s slow rhythm in the very first phrase.

By saying “fathers,” Lincoln evokes the idea of the Founding Fathers, the almost god-like men who formed our government. When Lincoln chose “continent” instead of “land,” he made his first reference to a project unfinished—the great theme of this speech. Manifest Destiny, while slowed by the Civil War, still stirred American hearts. When Lincoln spoke of “a new nation,” he played on the Puritan image of America as a city on a hill shining brightly as an example for the Old World from which the United States had broken away, even if Lincoln did not explicitly invoke the image. Use of the word “conceived” also adds to the image of the founding of America being a new birth or beginning.

Lincoln finishes his first sentence with a citation to the Declaration of Independence. The choice of the Declaration of Independence instead of the Constitution, the document outlining the structures of the federal government, is telling. The Declaration of Independence set out broad ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; it was not concerned with practicalities. It was those ideals that Lincoln wanted to stir in the hearts of his audience. If the last clause were written in a newspaper today, the word “all” would be written ALL, that is all-caps, bolded, and underlined. Lincoln goes on to talk about how the Civil War as a great test for the nation, and in his vision the guiding principles of the Declaration of Independence would finally be realized for every man—black or white.

As for the Constitution, by July 1863, Lincoln knew that it would need to be amended after the war. There was not a consensus on what those changes would be, but three amendments were ratified to the Constitution after the Civil War and the very nature of the federal government was changed forever. Lincoln did not live to see the impact of those provisions, but by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation the previous year Lincoln had made it perfectly clear that there would be no going back to the prewar status quo and that the war was now about more than just piecing the country back together.

While it may be unrealistic to attain Lincoln’s mastery of the English language, especially as an orator, we can learn valuable lessons from studying what he wrote. These are only a few observations, hardly all-encompassing, and they are only about the first sentence of the address. In follow-up posts, I will continue through the remainder of the address and point out how Lincoln used stylistic devices to great effect.

Lessons you can apply to your own writing:

(1) Value every word—While you will not always have days and days to rewrite a message or a paper, work to ensure that every word and phrase is adding to or carrying the message you are trying to communicate.

(2) References or images can be both subtle and effective—Lincoln knew that his audience had heard or read the Declaration of Independence. He did not need to tell them that the Declaration of Independence said our nation is dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. If you go back and read in “and the Declaration of Independence said,” the words lose some of their power. The same thing could be said about the other references like that to the Emancipation Proclamation as an emphasis on “all” in “all men are created equal.” Applying this lesson requires knowing your audience, a skill that comes with time and practice.

(3) Jump straight to your message—Lincoln did not waste time at the beginning of the Gettysburg Address talking about the weather or how terrible the battlefield must have smelled. No, he went directly to his main point about America being special and based on a unique principle. By going directly to your main point, you set the tone for your readers and help them comprehend your message.



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