The Gettysburg Address and Its Influence

Happy Monday!

Yes, it is still Monday, although barely. Enjoy this history-loving side of me!

 

The Gettysburg Address is arguably Abraham Lincoln’s most widely-known speech. More than that, it is among the most influential speeches in history. This renown did not come of its own accord, but of the convictions of its author. Abraham Lincoln believed resolutely in the power of words to shape a nation; to direct it towards its destiny.[1] With this belief in place, he wrote with passion and integrity that was incomparable to other orators of his time. It has been said that Lincoln was “both of his time and unique within it.”[2] The Gettysburg Address, given on November 19, 1863, is not only proof of this statement, but also an affirmation of Lincoln’s theory concerning the capacity of the right words.

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Lincoln’s style of writing is unique, to be sure, which grabs the attention of any reader, making his communication more effective. While some label Lincoln a literary genius, others pessimistically claim that he was no master of the English language; he struggled to put his ideas into explicit words. For this reason, he practiced other tactics that came easier to him: “Lincoln’s art then, is an art of indirection, of finding a way of representing a deeply personal vision indirectly through parable-like stories and jokes, and, we might add, images and symbols.”[3] Here, Hurt addresses Lincoln’s use of imagery and symbolism to carry his message. For example, Lincoln uses the phrase “new birth of freedom” in the Gettysburg Address, not to imply a literalbirth, of course, but rather as a metaphor and an image for what was being represented by the death of thousands.[4] Another critic mentions his “cunning use of repetition” that gives the Gettysburg Address “thematic and linguistic power.”[5] This style permeates the writing of Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln made an oratory conquest in writing a speech that united two sides of a war in agreement, if only for two minutes. He addressed a people who, though divided in opinion, were, in that moment, united in purpose. Lincoln did in those two minutes what his companion, Edward Everett, did in two and a half hours—he created a “profound expression of the self-perception of the nation.”[6] One that would not, nor should, be forgotten. He implies that the devotion of the dead led to their consecration of the grounds of Gettysburg, which should, in turn, lead to the devotion and dedication of the living. He does this first by saying that the dead “have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract,” followed soon after by, “we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion,” and that “it is for us living, rather, to be dedicated…” Through this sequence—the devotion then consecration of the dead leading to the devotion and dedication of the living—the “dead shall not have died in vain.”[7] It was this sincere content of the Gettysburg Address that touched the grieving hearts of the American people and staked its claim in history.

The writing and presentation of the Gettysburg Address was Abraham Lincoln’s response to one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. The hearts of the American people—whether from the North or the South—were broken by the cry of ghosts on a blood-soaked, tear-stained battlefield. According to Charles A. Kent, in his article “Lincoln and Gettysburg after Fifty Years,” Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg could easily be compared to the funeral orations of ancient times, when a great number of people would gather for the sake of fallen heroes to hear the funeral speech in their honor by a fellow citizen. Abe.jpgIn this context, Lincoln was compared to Pericles and Athene.[8] This is fitting, since Lincoln so obviously cherished the past as it leads to the future. In another article, Jacqueline Laba says that “both Pericles and Lincoln do more than honor war dead; they seize the historical moment in order to inspire their listeners to the task of shaping the future.”[9] One would never say that Gettysburg was not a historical moment, nor that Lincoln’s response to it did not inspire its audience to shape the future of America.

The influence of the Gettysburg Address far outlasted the day of its presentation, the war it represented, and the life of its author. Furthermore, every citizen should hope that its influence continues to outlive each generation. The words in that two-minute speech were too powerful to speak to only one gathering, one generation, or even one war. Just as those standing there that November day were among “the living,” WE THE PEOPLE are among the “the living” today. Just as they were charged to take on the devotion of those who came before them that “the government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth,” so are WE THE PEOPLE charged today.[10] The Gettysburg Address was mistaken in this alone: “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here…”[11] The world remembers.

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[1] Ferguson, Robert A. “Hearing Lincoln and the Making of Eloquence.” American Literary History 21, no. 4 (2009): 687-724.

[2] Ibid., 689

[3] Hurt, James. “All the Living and the Dead: Lincoln’s Imagery.” American Literature 52, no. 3 (1980): 351-80.

[4] “Gettysburg Address,” Avalon.law.yale.edu

[5] Laba, Jacqueline. 1995. “Words that change our world — Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America by Garry Wills.” English Journal 84, no. 2: 124-125

[6] Hurt, James. “All the Living and the Dead: Lincoln’s Imagery.” American Literature 52, no. 3 (1980): 351-80.

[7] “Gettysburg Address,” Avalon.law.yale.edu

[8] Kent, C. (1916). Lincoln and Gettysburg after Fifty Years: November 19, 1863-1913. Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (1908-1984), 9(3), 257-278.

[9] Laba, Jacqueline. 1995. “Words that change our world — Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America by Garry Wills.” English Journal 84, no. 2: 124-125

[10] “Gettysburg Address,” Avalon.law.yale.edu

[11] Ibid.

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