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Gettysburg Address
By Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Background
Text and Notes
Theme
Style
Use of We
Possible Source
Study Questions
Writing Topics
Biography of Lincoln
Battle of Gettysburg
Gettysburg National Cemetery
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings... 2011
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Type of Work

.......The "Gettysburg Address" is an essay that was presented as a speech by its author, Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), the sixteenth President of the United States. Lincoln delivered the speech on Thursday, November 19, 1863, as the main address at the dedication of Soldiers' National Cemetery in south-central Pennsylvania near the town of Gettysburg. Soldiers' National Cemetery, also known as Gettysburg National Cemetery, is on the battlefield where the Union Army defeated the Confederate Army on July 1-3, 1863. 

Background

.......On July 1-3, 1863, the Union Army of the Potomac (numbering between 85,000 and 90,000 men) defeated the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia (numbering about 75,000 men) in the Battle of Gettysburg. Historians generally regard the Union victory as the turning point of the American Civil War, giving the Northern forces the momentum that led ultimately to the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Court House, Va., on April 9, 1865. 
.......The battle left more than 51,000 soldiers dead, wounded, or missing.
.......After the hasty burial of the dead, rain and the erosion exposed limbs and bodies and created a stench. Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin then approved the acquisition of seventeen acres of land on the battlefield for the establishment of a cemetery to give the Union soldiers a proper burial. More than 3,500 of the dead—including the bodies of 979 unidentified soldiers—were transferred to the cemetery between 1863 and 1864. 

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Text of the Gettysburg Address

Copyright Photo by Michael J. Cummings, Cummings Study Guides
Description: Statue of soldier on the battlefield site at Gettysburg

.......Four score and seven years ago1 our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.2
.......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.3 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 hallow4 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,5 but it can never forget what they did here. It isfor us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work6 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 freedom7—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.9

Notes

1....Four . . . ago: Eighty-seven years ago, or 1776, the year when the American colonies declared their independence from Great Britain. Four score and seven (rather than eighty-seven years) has a poetic, biblical, and dignified ring.
2....conceived . . . equal: Lincoln is reminding his listeners that the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom and equality for all. It is time, he is saying, that African-Americans receive their freedom and their rights under the Constitution. 
3....who . . . live: An effective contrast: Men died so that others may live.
4....hallow: Consecrate; make holy; dedicate.
5....The world . . . here: The opposite of course is true. The nation well remembers "what we say here"; the "Gettysburg Address" is probably the most famous and most quoted speech in the history of the American presidency.
6....It . . . unfinished work: Lincoln begins his call to action, attempting to rally Americans to finish the task of defeating the Confederacy.
7....that these . . . freedom: (1) Another effective contrast: Men died so that others, the slaves, will have a new life as free men.

Theme

.......The Union should dedicate itself to the task of finishing the work of the men who died at Gettysburg to end slavery and preserve America as one nation under God with a government of, by, and for the people.

Style

.......The "Gettysburg Address" is a masterpiece of elegant simplicity. The essay/speech is straightforward and easy to understand. Not a single word is wasted. 
Lincoln frequently uses anaphora, the repetition of a word or words at the beginning of successive phrases or clauses. This figure of speech helps to balance the structure of the sentences while imparting force and emphasis. Examples of anaphora in the address are the following:

  • so conceived and so dedicated
  • we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow
  • It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here. . . . It is rather for us to be here dedicated
  • that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—thatwe 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
Use of We

.......Lincoln wisely used the first-person pronouns we, our, and us to include his listeners (and later his readers) as fellow Americans who shared his sentiments. Such an approach aimed to hearten supporters of his cause while telegraphing a message to the Confederacy and foreign powers that the North was united in its resolve. This approach also enabled Lincoln to avoid sounding preachy.

Possible Source

.......In his concluding sentence, Lincoln may have been paraphrasing a speech delivered by the Rev. Theodore Parker (1810-1860), a Unitarian minister and abolitionist, at an antislavery convention in Boston on May 29, 1850. Following is an excerpt from Parker's speech that highlights the words similar to Lincoln's.

There is what I call the American idea. I so name it, because it seems to me to lie at the basis of all our truly original, distinctive, and American institutions. It is itself a complex idea, composed of three subordinate and more simple ideas, namely: The idea that all men have unalienable rights; that in respect thereof, all men are created equal; and that government is to be established and sustained for the purpose of giving every man an opportunity for the enjoyment and development of all these unalienable rights. This idea demands, as the proximate organization thereof, a democracy, that is, a government of all the people, by all the people, for all the people; of course, a government after the principles of eternal justice, the unchanging law of God; for shortness' sake, I will call it the idea of Freedom.
Study Questions and Writing Topics
  • Who are the "fathers" referred to in the first sentence of Lincoln's speech?
  • Write an essay explaining the steps taken to establish Soldiers' National Cemetery.
  • Early in 1863, Lincoln signed an important document that enabled the Union to recruit African-Americans as soldiers. What was the document?
  • What happened to the bodies of the Confederates buried at Gettysburg? Check a research source to find the answer.

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