The Genius of The Gettysburg Address, (Part Two of Two)

This is the second part of the Genius of the Gettysburg Address. For the first part of this post please find it here.

The Civil War was the result of a question left unanswered since the founding of the nation in 1776.

The question that was left unanswered was “who was ultimately in charge, the states or the federal government?” The Founders did not want to answer that question because they believed the nation needed a strong central power in the Federal government, evidenced by the Constitution of 1789. The also did not want to face secession by the Southern states who feared a strong central power that could emancipate their slaves.

All of this is evidenced in the early debates over the Constitution.

After the Battle of Gettysburg Lincoln had to express his answer. His answer to this debate, and his answer to the essence of the Civil War is contained in his Gettysburg Address.

As a mirror opposite of the Declaration, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address acknowledges its connection to Jefferson’s Declaration in the first sentence. Four score and seven years ago, it begins, is a fancy way of giving Lincoln’s own periodization.

This definition of the time period of his address is important because it tells us the context of his answer. Four score and seven years ago is eighty-seven years prior, or 1776.

In the first paragraph of the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln starts in the past, describing what has come before.

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.

It is one single sentence. Simple in its subject and direct in its message. It’s important to understand the structure, I explain, because it shows us Lincoln’s brilliance as a man and as a writer.

In the second paragraph Lincoln brings us into the present, explaining what he is doing.

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.

In this second paragraph we are introduced to the action of the moment. It is a speech to dedicate a cemetery of war dead. It is about twice as long as his first paragraph. It explains the essence of the conflict for Lincoln. The Civil War is about the enduring status of the nation.

Emancipation Proc

Even here he does not mention slavery, even though he had already issued the Emancipation Proclamation and started the process of drafting the Thirteenth Amendment.

In the third and final paragraph Lincoln takes us into the future. The progression from past to present to future is just one of the many beautiful elements of this speech. The natural growth in length of each successive paragraph is another notable element. In the final paragraph Lincoln not only expands the philosophical importance of his message but does it in a way masterful in its rhetoric and structure.

It reads,

“But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground.

The first sentence has three actions contained in it. Three is a powerful element of rhetoric. The ancient concept of “omne trium perfectum” establishes that everything that comes in threes is perfect, or, every set of three is complete.

Remember too, I explain to my students, that this is a three paragraph speech, which uses the past, the present and now the future as future subjects.

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.

Here Lincoln explains how the future will remember the larger meaning of the Civil War, and not the many individual expressions about the war. Note, I emphasize for the class, how he is moving us from the personal to the collective. This is key to his answer to the original debate, started in 1776 and continued to that moment.

And then Lincoln goes into the future. He tells us about the future in three final sentences, reinforcing the rhetorical perfection of three.

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.

I explain the first prediction of the future is about our collective responsibility.

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

In this second prediction he defines the first, saying that our future is inspired by those who came before us, tying the past to the present and into the future.

— 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.

And the final third prediction itself has another rhetorical third within it, the subject of which is highlighted by the famous use of “the people” but which is the unrepeated central idea of “government.”

This I emphasize to the class is poetic genius in plain sight. In three paragraphs, each longer than the one before and ending with a final sentences that is three phrases unto itself Lincoln ties the past to the present to the future and the individual to the whole of a nation.

That, I exclaimed with awe, is not easy to do.

But don’t get blinded by the poetry, I warn the students.

Pay attention to the words. Words are powerful and important.

The words describe how the collective whole, and not the individual, is the new dedication of this nation, according to Lincoln. Government of the people, government by the people and government for the people shall not perish from the earth.

This is not “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

This is government, government, government for the people, now and forever.

Lincoln, I explain, has just thrown out the Declaration and its emphasis on the individual with a new form of government where the collective interest of the people is enshrined in government.

He even calls it, “a new birth of freedom.” If something has a new birth, or a rebirth, it can be said to have experienced a revolution. The old is replaced with the new.

In short, I summize, Lincoln has just overthrown the government of the United States and replaced it with a new dedication.

The Gettysburg Address is a revolution in three paragraphs.

And then, I remind them, consider the context of the speech. Lincoln is not standing on the steps of the Capitol, as he did in his first inaugural address, imploring us to remember the better angels of our nature.

Lincoln is not the peacemaker anymore.

In the three years prior to the Gettysburg Address he has called out the Army to kill hundreds of thousands of Confederates. After the Gettysburg Address, he orders Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman to burn down the South in a March To The Sea.

This is not Abraham Lincoln the peacemaker. This is Lincoln the warrior president.

Remember, I tell the class, Lincoln is standing in the middle of a cemetery when he gives the Gettysburg Address.

He is surrounded by the dead.

The dead all around him inspire us to go forward to insure this new government he is establishing.

The dead all around him also stand as a stark warning to anyone who might continue to debate the questions of states rights.

The dead all around him are evidence of what happens to those who oppose this new collective devotion to federal supremacy. They warn us against any future secession.

This is the end of the era. This is clearly a new beginning; a new birth of freedom.

The message Lincoln gave to us on that day is a bookend of history, completing what was started by Jefferson and the Founders and debated and fought over until that moment.

To us this is a profound lesson in the power of words and the meaning of history. I strive to help my students see that words do matter. Words define who we are as nation. Words can even overthrow nations.

Sometimes a nation can experience a revolution in three paragraphs.

Author: historydojo

I’m a National Board Certified Teacher with nearly twenty years of experience teaching high school history. I blog about teaching, history, current events, the law and social justice.

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