How I came to appreciate The Gettysburg Address

The Union League in Philadelphia was founded in 1862 “to support the policies of President Abraham Lincoln.”  Listening to technology presentations in its library, I could not help but think it unfair to juxtapose expense tracking software with the Gettysburg Address carved into wood and lettered in gold behind the speaker.  However, this presented a wonderful opportunity to study Lincoln’s speech.

Lincoln chooses his 271 words like a poet:  his symmetry and meter empower the address.  The speech is book-ended by the difficult birthing process, beginning with “our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty” and ending with “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.” 

Between these births, Lincoln explores “dedication,” using the word six times to describe the original dedication of the nation, the dedication of the dead and the re-dedication of the living “to the great task remaining before us.”  Again and again, he returns to dedication:  his first sentence states that this nation was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” and Lincoln reminds us in the very next sentence that the nation is “so dedicated.”  He could have dropped the entire phrase and simply said, “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation can long endure,” but he underscores the birth of the nation, the dedication of its fathers and the universal significance of the struggle by adding the phrase, “or any nation so conceived and so dedicated.”  This nation was born and will be re-born in freedom, Lincoln says, and we, its people, must constantly dedicate ourselves to its preservation.

I love the way Lincoln explores that binary idea, “devotion.”  One is usually devoted or not devoted.  To be devoted is to devote oneself wholly, but Lincoln urges us to “take increased devotion” and reminds us that the dedicated dead “gave the last full measure of devotion.”  What brilliant and sensible hyperbole that he hammers home with short beats:  “to that cause for which they gave the last full measure” and “that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth…”  To capture the full drama of these lines, you have to speak and stress each word out loud.

Lincoln’s symmetrical phrases are most beautiful:  “we can not dedicate – we can not consecrate – we can not hallow – this ground.”  “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated…” / “It is rather for us to be here dedicated…”  “that from these honored dead we take increased devotion…” / “that we here highly resolve” / “that this nation” / “and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Finally, Lincoln is unflinchingly practical.  He names his purpose plainly in the third and fourth sentences:  “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.”  No words chronicle the battle or, as would be fashionable today, tell the emotional story of a certain soldier.  Lincoln does not even point out that the battle successfully repelled an enemy.  What politician before or since has missed an opportunity to alleviate the pain of the living by promoting the successes of the dead?  Lincoln simply concludes, “It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.”  However, he firmly focuses on that place.  Where you and I would probably edit out extraneous words, Lincoln emphasizes location:  he uses “here” eight times, finishing not only by urging resolution, but by saying, “that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain…”

What a pleasure to read this elegant speech by a mystical man reviled by many in his time, but who nonetheless helped midwife “a new birth of freedom” and left this reminder that we must also dedicate ourselves to the “great task” of its preservation.

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.

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Published in: on March 23, 2007 at 5:43 am  Leave a Comment  

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