Great Writing: Lincoln at Gettysburg Pt. 3

In this installment, Lincoln turns the occasion on its head and brings his message to the awaited crescendo.

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.

Lincoln begins this final section with another use of repetition, this time for the purpose of lingering on the point he is making. This is his big transition. He has travelled to Gettysburg for the explicit purpose of dedicating a cemetery, yet he states that it is beyond his power to truly do so. If for some reason his audience was not listening before, they certainly were now.

After rejecting the original stated purpose of the speech, Lincoln arrives at his real purpose. The sacrifices made by the dead were not to be honored merely at Gettysburg, but instead would best be honored by following through to justify those sacrifices. Lincoln desires that the devotion shown by the dead (“they gave the last full measure of devotion”) be transferred to the living. He has turned the occasion on its head. It is not some eulogy honoring the dead, but is instead a call to arms for the living.

I pause to consider Lincoln’s use of the word “resolve.” Every word Lincoln said that day was carefully selected, and this one is no different. He could have chosen a different word, perhaps something like decide, but he chose resolve. Why did he do so? There is a formality and finality to the word resolve that is lacking in the word decide. If you decide something, then you can just as easily decide to change your mind and take a different course of action tomorrow. You cannot so readily change course should you resolve to do something. No, official bodies resolve things when after taking their final votes. That is the meaning Lincoln wanted to convey, and decide was an insufficient word for the job. When writing, search for the best word to communicate your message even if that is not the first word that comes to mind.

Lincoln next returns to the image of a new birth. In the first sentence, he spoke of America as having been conceived in liberty. Now America is to experience a new birth of freedom. By carrying the image forward, Lincoln asserts that it was the idea of freedom that America was founded upon, but that only once slavery was destroyed could that idea be made real.

The last clause—of the people, by the people, for the people—is a brilliant turn of phrase. The Washington Post recently ran a story saying the phrasing originated with a preacher in Boston by way of Lincoln’s law partner, but other sources would probably dispute that provenance. For the purpose of analyzing the writing, the origin of the phrase is merely a sideshow. It employs parallelism in structure, giving it balance and allowing it to stick in the mind more easily. It also demonstrates the power of the correct preposition in the correct place. With three subsequent prepositions, Lincoln tells us the source, structure, and purpose of our government–and all three are the same. There is an entire narrative constructed in this one clause. Government first has an origin. Then its structure is laid out. Finally, its purpose is revealed. If you were writing a culminating essay, you could certainly do worse than to structure it in that manner.

Lessons to Apply

  1. Once you have inserted an image into a piece of writing, it is okay and to come back to that image and you should even be encouraged to do so. Crafting the right image to convey an idea is difficult. It would be even more difficult to create another, and this would only confuse your readers as they will be unsure if the second image is for the same idea or a different one. No, once you have chosen an image for an idea it is best to stick with that image so that that image sticks with your readers.
  2. Using the correct preposition matters. Most prepositions are only two or three letters, but their importance should not be overlooked. If you have ever read a text poorly translated from Spanish you will understand this. In Spanish, “en” can be translated into English as either “in” or “on.” This means that something “en la mesa” can be either in the table or on the table. Since most things are placed on the table and not in it, your readers would stumble over the incorrect translation. Your writing should not cause your readers to stumble over your prepositions like it has been poorly translated by Google Translate.
  3. Find the right word. It does not have to be the fanciest word you can find in a thesaurus, and very often it should not be, but words are imperfect tools to convey the thoughts inside the mind of the writer to the readers. Since we are dealing with imperfect tools, we must do everything in our power to select the tool closest to our needs in accomplishing the task of getting the reader to understand. Learning the nuances of different words, even those with the same dictionary meanings, takes time and repetition of being exposed to those words in good writing. That is just one more reason why it is important to read good writing whenever possible—bits and pieces of that writing seep into your own.
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