Great Writing: Lincoln at Gettysburg Pt. 2

This is the second installment of a brief commentary on Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

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.

 

After establishing the core idea of the speech—that the United States truly meant to make real the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence—Lincoln turns now to address the current momentous crisis. That crisis was the Civil War, and although Gettysburg marked the end of Confederate offensives it would be nearly two more years before the war ended.

Lincoln masterfully frames the war’s purpose. There were many justifications offered for fighting the Civil War, but Lincoln claimed the highest moral justification available to him. This was the American ideal of all men being born with certain inalienable rights (rights that cannot be given away), among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. By choosing this elevated principle instead of a more practical justification, Lincoln appeals to his listeners to think of something greater than themselves.

Lincoln returns to the image of America as a beacon shining on a hill  when he includes “any nation so conceived.” Should his cause fail, not only will this be a betrayal of Lincoln’s principles but also the hopes of freedom-loving peoples everywhere.

The second and third sentences of the paragraph serve no descriptive purpose, but are still important within the larger work.  They maintain the speech’s slow rhythm, but Lincoln is now beginning to build up speed. This built anticipation as the audience could feel the energy slowly rising towards a crescendo. This is difficult to accomplish with writing alone, but as you advance you may experiment with the technique.

Lincoln concludes the paragraph with an understatement. Of course it is proper and fitting that a cemetery be set up on the battlefield. Dedicating the cemetery was the stated purpose of why Lincoln was even in Gettysburg that day. But the understatement is really intended as a springboard, and he will jump to his much larger point from this platform. That crescendo will be the subject of the third and final post in this mini-series.

Lessons to Draw

  1. Lincoln’s use of the word “WE” drew his audience in. In this paragraph alone, Lincoln used “we” four times. Doing so reminded the audience that Lincoln was on their side. It is much easier to listen to and agree with someone who is on your side. When possible, gently remind your readers that you as the writer are on their side. It can be something as simple as switching from “I” to “we.”
  2. When you are writing a persuasive piece, do everything in your power to frame the issue in your terms. Lincoln needed to justify the war. Was it to preserve the union? To defeat states’ rights as a doctrine? To punish the Confederacy? No, it was about liberty. Framing matters. If the war was just about preserving the union, then people would not be eager to fight. Some might have readily allowed the Confederacy to break away and said good riddance. If the war was about defeating states’ rights, then most people would not have cared. If the war was about punishment, then it was not a just war and was therefore improper. If Lincoln accepted any of those other frameworks of the issue Why Are We at War?, he would have lost the argument. He knew that, and so he framed the war as being about liberty—something no American could argue against.

 

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