As I listened to news reports and commentary this week about the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, I heard it referred to numerous times as a “simple little speech,” or “short, simple speech.” It’s true, the speech was short—272 words and less than 3 minutes—but it was far from simple.
In fact, the Gettysburg Address is rhetorically very complex in that it incorporates a sophisticated use of classical rhetorical principles and techniques to deliver a persuasive message concisely, forcefully and eloquently. I would argue that it is this adherence to rhetorical principles that makes the Gettysburg Address one of the greatest speeches in American history. Let me offer just a few examples.
First, and foremost, this is a deliberative speech. While the occasion of dedicating the cemetery would call for a ceremonial (epideictic) speech, Lincoln chose instead to use the speech to offer advice for the future (thus making it deliberative). It begins with praise for the men who fought at Gettysburg, but closes with Lincoln counseling his audience to work toward a brighter future:
It is for us, the living, rather, 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.
On the surface, the structure of Lincoln’s speech appears simple. That’s part of its great appeal. It consists of only three paragraphs, conforming to what we would today term the introduction, body and conclusion; or classical terms, the proem, body and epilogue. But when we look at it more analytically, we see that there is a lot going on rhetorically within those three paragraphs. They not only comprise an introduction, body and conclusion, they also reflect the concepts of birth, death and rebirth as well as the past, the present and the future. The introduction begins in the past with a narration (Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation…) that praises our fathers for the righteousness of creating a nation conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
The introduction continues into the second paragraph and moves into the present (Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war..) At this point, Lincoln introduces the subject of his speech, or the reason all are there (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.) And he then moves into the body of the speech by stating his argument (It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.). This is a classic rhetorical enthymeme: They gave their lives so that our nation might live (major premise); in America, we honor those who give their lives for their country (inferred minor premise); therefore, it is fitting and proper that we should honor them (conclusion).
But how shall we honor them? The body of the speech continues into the third paragraph and moves into the future. Lincoln answers this question by constructing another enthymeme that both builds upon and proves the opposite of his previous enthymeme. It goes something like this: We have rightly come here to dedicate this battle-field and to honor the men who fought here (major premise; and the conclusion from the previous enthymeme), but we cannot pay them the honor that they truly deserve (minor premise); therefore, the best that we can do is to dedicate ourselves to finishing their unfinished business (preserving the democracy) to ensure that they did not die in vain.
In building this enthymeme, Lincoln is answering the question of how to honor the men who fought there, by offering counsel and advice to the audience as a way of persuading them to pull together and do their part to preserve the union.
It is for us, the living, rather, 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;
Lincoln’s epilogue (or conclusion) provides the payoff for their action. It answers the question: “What will be the outcome or the benefit if we do this?” and that that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
In the epilogue, Lincoln employs one of his favorite rhetorical devices, a maxim in the form of an asyndeton (a style that omits conjunctions between words or phrases; it’s often used to produce a hurried rhythm in the speech)— government of the people, by the people, for the people… There are other examples of asyndeton in the speech: We are engaged…We are met…We have come (note the omission of “and” before we have come). Also, we cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. It’s interesting to note that Lincoln relies on asyndeton in many of his other speeches, most notably, his second inaugural (With malice toward none; with charity for all.). Some rhetorical scholars have speculated that Lincoln liked to use asyndeton because it created a rhythm in the speech reminiscent of the 23rd psalm (The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…) which is written almost entirely in the form of asyndeton.
Lincoln employs the use of other rhetorical devices in the speech, as well. The entire speech is built on the metaphor of life, death and rebirth. Additionally, the metaphor of the dedication of a child is developed throughout the speech (our fathers brought forth…a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal as well as the frequent use of the words, dedication and devotion, and the call for a new birth of freedom. Lincoln also employs antithesis (using contrasting words and phrases for emphasis) to make his points resonate in the minds of his audience: the contrast among the past, present and future; between birth and death; between the living and the dead (…for those that gave their lives that that nation might live). Perhaps the most obvious example is the phrase: The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but can never forget what they did here (note the contrasts: remember-forget; we-they; say-did).
Lincoln incorporates the use of maxims and aphorisms throughout the speech (All men are created equal; government of the people, by the people, for the people). These maxims are essentially appeals to the greater good and contribute to the ethos of the speech and the speaker. Aristotle would call these “non-artistic” proofs, but when incorporated with the “artistic proofs” developed through the enthymemes in the speech, they combine to create a very persuasive message.
Finally, a word about the language: It is clear, concise, appropriate and dignified for the occasion. There are only three compound words in the entire speech (Fourscore; battle-field; and resting-place). The use of words and phrases such as Fourscore and seven years ago and we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion give the speech a tone of dignity based on universal principles that support the main argument of the speech.
It’s interesting to note that while the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg was a very emotional occasion, Lincoln made no overt attempt to stir the emotions of the audience. There was no reference to the enemy—no condemnation, no blame, no getting even. In fact, the way the speech was constructed, one could infer that the enemy could be included among the brave men who struggled here. Instead, Lincoln allowed the pathos of the occasion to speak for itself, and while appealing to the greater good, developed the ethos in such a way so as to carry the persuasiveness of his argument. The structure of the speech, his use of evidence (both artistic and non-artistic) and his choice of rhetorical style and language all contributed to this.
It is clear from this speech and others that Lincoln was a master writer and practitioner of the art of rhetoric. In 1859, Lincoln delivered a lecture on inventions and discoveries in Jacksonville, IL, in which he proclaimed that writing is the greatest invention of all. Here is what he said:
"Writing—the art of communicating thoughts to the mind, through the eye—is the great invention of the world. Great in the astonishing range of analysis and combination…great, very great in enabling us to converse with the dead, the absent, and the unborn, at all distances of time and space; and great, not only in its indirect benefits, but greatest help, to all other inventions."
Lincoln certainly proved his point in that “simple little speech” he delivered in Gettysburg 150 years ago. A simple little speech?— I’ll let you decide.