The Rhetoric of Remembrance
Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address

On September 11, Ronald C. White Jr. delivered the first of the 2006-2007 Bradley Lectures. Click here for more information about this speech.

"It’s only words." It cannot be denied that the modern shibboleth "it’s only words" has sometimes seemed to win the day. In an era of speechwriters and ghostwriters, many have become cynical about both the speaker and the speech. Countless persons might complete the shibboleth by adding, "as opposed to actions."

Today, on the fifth anniversary of 9/11, each of us seeks for the most appropriate ways to remember. My wife, Cynthia, is a superb photographer. Again and again, however, people will say to her: "You must have a very good camera." She does, but photography really depends much more on where the photographer stands, how she or he frames the subject, how the photographer keeps in mind the time of the year and day and the sunlight and the shadows.

It may be that some of you stand this evening as those who lost loved ones or friends five years ago. All of you who live and work in our nation’s capital stand in a place where the debate about the meaning of 9/11 has been particularly intense. This truth was brought home last week when they revisited a group of teenagers at private school in Washington. Each of them recorded, on tape, their responses to 9/11 the day the attacks. Last week, at ages sixteen and seventeen, they offered their responses five years later. However, one of the girls had moved to the Midwest. She observed that since her move she had not been involved in any conversations about 9/11. As an historian, I would be remiss if I did not say that we stand too close to 9/11 to be able to assess its full meaning and significance.

This evening, at the invitation of AEI, I have been invited to help us stand with Abraham Lincoln who, 143 years ago, at another central moment in American history, offered words that still resonate today. We want to focus closely on the meaning of Lincoln’s words, for then and now.

Lincoln’s eloquence may prove to be his most lasting legacy. Why does Lincoln continue to enjoy such modern access to people of all walks of life in all nations? He is the representative American who is able to paint our highest ideals in word pictures. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, his words continue to cross all boundaries of time and location. At critical moments, such as an anniversary of 9/11, the nation instinctively turns to Lincoln for words of both healing and resolve.

* * *

Within days after the battle of Gettysburg, plans were set in motion that would lead to a national soldier’s cemetery. The decision was made early on that the nation’s first national cemetery at Gettysburg required an appropriate dedication. Edward Everett, the nation’s most celebrated speaker, was invited to offer the central address. Everett’s delivery was in the grand manner, committed to an ornate style of rhetoric.

Abraham Lincoln was the last speaker invited. David Wills, the Gettysburg lawyer who was the organizer of the event, included a brief word about the nature of the remarks the president was being asked to give:

It is the desire that, after the Oration, You as Chief Executive of the Nation formally set apart these grounds to their Sacred use by a few appropriate remarks.

* * *

Lincoln’s special four-car presidential train arrived at the little depot on Carlisle Street at sundown on Wednesday, November 18. As he stepped from the train, Lincoln could see hundreds of coffins on the station platform.

People had been arriving in Gettysburg for days before the dedication. The roads leading into Gettysburg were packed with people in Conestoga wagons, spring wagons, carriages, and buggies. Many citizens came by train. A good number of visitors walked.

There were far too many people for beds, even with the accepted custom of two and three in a bed. The American House, Eagle, and McClellan Hotels, as well as all the boardinghouses, were full. Where there were no beds, people slept in hotel lobbies and boardinghouse parlors. Churches opened their doors so that people could sleep on pews.

The story of the composition of Lincoln’s address has almost overshadowed the content of the address itself. Down through the years the persistent but false story has developed of a Lincoln who hastily composed his dedicatory remarks on a discarded piece of paper on the train to Gettysburg. Although the story is filled with conflicting accounts--much of it reminiscence dating from long after the events themselves--this tangled tale has had remarkable staying power.

Ward Hill Lamon, barrel-chested and walrus-mustachioed, served as marshall for the day. Lamon struggled to assemble the dignitaries in the square outside the Wills Home at 10 a.m. Lincoln came outside at the appointed hour dressed in a black suit with a frock coat. He was wearing his usual tall silk hat, to which he had added a wide mourning band in memory of his son Willie, who had died at the White House in February 1862. Lincoln, with white riding gloves, was assigned a bay horse so small that the president’s long legs nearly touched the ground.

All along the route up Baltimore Street, homes were draped with American flags. Evidence of the fierce battle fought less than five months before was to be seen in buildings pock-marked with bullet holes. Trees were defoliated not by the onset of winter but by the blasts of gunfire. The most incongruous scene was children at little stands selling cookies and lemonade and also bullets and buttons--even cannonballs.

After an invocation and a hymn, Edward Everett stepped forward to deliver his oration. Everett placed his manuscript on a table in the center of the platform. He always delivered his speeches from memory. The New England orator’s voice had enormous carrying power. Everett spoke on and on and on--for two hours and eight minutes.

Finally, Lamon introduced President Lincoln. The crowd was restless after such a long oration. A photographer who had pitched his equipment directly in front of the platform was busy adjusting his camera as he prepared to get a photograph of the president speaking. The president rose, adjusted his spectacles, and took out of the left breast pocket of his frock coat his dedicatory remarks. Beyond the sprawling crowd Lincoln could see row upon row of soldiers’ graves. He shifted his speaking text from his right to his left hand.

Lincoln began:

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.

Lincoln spoke in a high tenor voice well practiced in the art of speaking to large crowds in outdoor settings. He spoke from memory, glancing occasionally at the text.

"Four score and seven years ago" achieved even greater poignancy when contrasted with an awkward antecedent. On July 7, 1863, when news of the victory at Vicksburg was finally confirmed in Washington, crowds erupted into cheers and celebrations. A crowd serenaded the president until Lincoln appeared at a window and offered an impromptu response. After thanking both the assemblage and "Almighty God," Lincoln asked a question. "How long ago is it?--eighty odd years--since on the Fourth of July for the first time in the history of the world a nation by its representatives, assembled and declared as a self-evident truth that ‘all men are created equal?’"

In four and a half months the words "eighty odd years" would become "four score and seven years ago."

Lincoln was adept at reusing and then rewriting earlier ideas. "Four score and seven" was not a simple way to say eighty-seven. Lincoln was asking his audience to calculate backward quickly to discover that the nation’s starting point was not the Constitution nor the election of George Washington as the first president, but the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776.

The opening words that resonated to the ear were about cadence as well as content. He began with two rhyming words: four score. This set in motion a symphony of melodious sounds. The Hebrew cadence, rendered in Elizabethan English, would have been stated slowly by Lincoln: "Four . . . score." The biblical ring of his opening words was rooted in lines from Psalm 90:

The days of our years are threescore years and ten; And if by reason of strength they be fourscore years.

The Psalms were a favorite portion of the Bible for Lincoln. At noontime in the White House, multiple observers left independent reports of Lincoln’s love of reading the Bible. At Gettysburg he was not only retrieving biblical words, but employing a biblical cadence expressed in the rhythms of the King James version that he thought appropriate for the solemnity of the day.

Lincoln never named the Bible or quoted directly from the Bible in his remarks, as he would do so prominently in less than sixteen months in his Second Inaugural Address, but the whole of his speech was suffused with both biblical content and cadence.

Lincoln built the Gettysburg Address upon a structure of past, present, and future time. Lincoln started in the past by placing the dedication of the battlefield at Gettysburg in the larger context of American history. His opening words highlighted historical continuity. He began with a biblical allusion that accented permanence and at the same time noted that the nation’s continuity had already surpassed the biblical time frame for life and death. In speaking of "our fathers," Lincoln invoked both a common heritage of the Founding Fathers and at the same time identified himself with his audience.

The trajectory of Lincoln’s crucial first sentence was to underscore the timeless American truth that "all men are created equal." When Lincoln reaffirmed this truth he was asserted that the war was about both liberty and union.

A word in this first sentence that protruded for some was "proposition." Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, an accomplished speaker, did not like the word. English poet Matthew Arnold was supposed to have thrown the address down when he came to this long Latinate word interrupting Lincoln’s Saxon prose poem.

Even as Lincoln began his address by invoking the Declaration of Independence, his use of the word "proposition" spoke to a different certainty than Jefferson’s "truths," which were "self-evident." Lincoln chose to emphasize at Gettysburg that the United States was an experiment still in process. He had come to understand the fragility of the Union. In the architecture of his speech, the word "proposition" functioned as a turning point wherein Lincoln shifted his trajectory from past ideas to present realities:

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. (emphasis added)

After his long introductory sentence, Lincoln traveled rapidly forward from the Revolution to the Civil War. With quick brushstrokes he recapitulated the meaning of the war. As a speaker, he was sparing with his adjectives, but on this occasion he modified both "civil war" and "battlefield" with "great." Unlike Everett, he spent none of his words on the details of the battle. His purpose was to transfigure the dedication with a larger meaning of the purpose of the nation, a word he would use five times in his address. The Civil War was a "testing" of the founding ideals of the nation to see whether they can "endure."

Lincoln employed many rhetorical devices in his artistry with words, but his mature speeches are especially characterized by (1) grammatical parallelism, (2) antithesis, (3) alliteration, and (4) repetition. He would use all four strategies in his brief address at Gettysburg.

At the beginning of the body of his address he used two perfect parallels: "that nation so conceived" and "any nation so dedicated."

As Lincoln spoke about different dimensions of the past, he constructed the content of his political purposes by the repetition of key words:"great civil war," "great battle-field," "so dedicated," and "come to dedicate."

Lincoln’s use of repetition allowed him to underscore his rhetorical purpose even though he had been limited by Wills to offer only "a few appropriate remarks":

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.

His words, "But in a larger sense," were his clue to the audience that he was about to expand the parameters of his intentions for this day. He was announcing his purpose to speak to a "larger" subject.

But before he lifted their eyes beyond the battlefield, Lincoln started by telling the audience what they could not do: "we cannot dedicate--we cannot consecrate--we cannot hallow."

Lincoln, the logical thinker, started with the negative side of the argument. He sounded like the lawyer in the courtroom speaking to a jury. Stating the negative first served to prepare the audience to agree with his evocation of what each person in the audience could do. These three parallel clauses focused on the present space: "this ground."

At this point, Lincoln employed a dramatic antithesis. He contrasted "the brave men" with "our poor power." At the same time, he framed his words "living and dead" at the beginning of the sentence, and "add or detract" at the end of the sentence, in another striking parallelism:

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it cannot 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.

In the last three sentences of the address, Lincoln shifted the focus a final time. In the architecture of his address, Lincoln had recalled the past and what the nation did at its beginning, recited what the soldiers did in the near present, and now prepared to open out the future and speak to the responsibility of the hearers.

In the first sentence he pointed away from words--there had been more than two hours of words already--to deeds. In yet another antithesis he contrasted "what we say here" with
"what they did here."Although Lincoln spoke in the plural, his tone continued the personal self-effacement that had characterized his whole address.

The initial words of Lincoln’s next to last sentence achieved their energy from his use of contrasts: The first, "It is for us the living," contrasted with "those who gave their lives here"; the second, "the unfinished work which they who fought here," was an invitation to finish the work. Although Lincoln extolled the "work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced," the emphasis had clearly shifted from what they did to what he would ask the audience to do.

Lincoln’s closing paragraph, in a speech known for its brevity, was a surprising, long, complex sentence of eighty-two words. The simplicity of Lincoln’s speeches has often been oversold.

In his final paragraph, Lincoln continued his use of repetition: "to be dedicated we take increased devotion," and "to be here dedicated the last full measure of devotion."His use of repetition had the rhetorical effect of reiterating the accountability of the audience.

Lincoln, who always took much time in choosing his words, used here the words "dedicate" and "devotion." They were both religious words which conjured up the call to commitment present in the revival services of the Second Great Awakening and in the Presbyterian and other Protestant churches Lincoln was attending in Washington during the war.

At this point that Lincoln made his only extemporaneous addition to his speaking text. He added the words "under God."His speaking text read, "that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom."

We do not know what prompted Lincoln to add these two words. His addition, "under God," right in the middle of two verbs, "shall" and "have," produced an awkward construction which broke the grammar of his sentence.

Unlike extemporaneous words in some earlier speeches, after the Gettysburg Address there was no apology for the interjection of "under God." Lincoln decided to include these words in all three subsequent copies he prepared at later dates.

The interjection of "under God" pointed backward and forward. The words pointed backward to "this nation." Lincoln, the Whig and the Republican, had always insisted that the American nation drew its breath from both political and religious sources. His words were consistent with invocations of God in almost all of his major presidential speeches. Lincoln, as president, walked back and forth across the line between religion and politics.

The words "under God" pointed forward to "shall have a new birth of freedom." In the first years of the Civil War, Lincoln found himself wrestling in new ways with the purposes of God in history. The death of so many soldiers brought him face to face with the meaning of life. With the death of his son Willie in February 1862, he was confronted with the meaning of eternal life. His evocation of "a new birth" had deep meaning for the evangelical Protestantism that intersected his life with increasing frequency and intensity in his presidential years.

The phrase "a new birth of freedom" was layered with both political and religious meanings. In each case the metaphor starts with a contrast with the old. As Lincoln looked into the faces of a mournful audience, many of whom had lost a son, husband, father, or brother, he sought to find words of comfort and assurance. The "new birth" which slowly emerged in Lincoln’s politics meant that on November 19 at Gettysburg he was no longer, as in his Inaugural Address, defending an old Union, but proclaiming a new Union. The old Union contained and attempted to restrain slavery. The new Union would fulfill the promise of liberty, the crucial step into the future that the founders had failed to take.

The "new birth" in Christian preaching and theology contrasted the old physical birth by which men and women came into the world with a new spiritual birth which often came suddenly by means of conversion. This spiritual new birth offered both abundant life and eternal life.

The "new birth" was a paradox in both politics and religion. Lincoln had come to see the Civil War as a ritual of purification. The old Union had to die just as the old man had to die. In death there was preparation for a new Union and a new humanity. As Lincoln had said in his annual message to Congress of the previous December, "As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew." Almost one year later at Gettysburg, Lincoln was more ready to speak of "the new birth of freedom."

As Lincoln approached the unexpected climax of his address, he uttered the words that would be most remembered: "and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

Much of the scholarly detective work on the sources of the Gettysburg Address has centered on earlier words by New England politician and orator Daniel Webster and New England Unitarian minister Theodore Parker. But this historical detective work has overshadowed the fact that Lincoln was more apt at Gettysburg to be building on his own words. The primary sources of Lincoln’s words may be found closer to home, in two of Lincoln’s previous presidential speeches.

In his First Inaugural Address, Lincoln declared, "The chief Magistrate derives all his authority from the people." In his message to Congress in special session on July 4, 1861, he wrote that "the affair at Fort Sumter" had provoked the question of "[w]hether a constitutional republic, or a democracy--a government of the people, by the same people--can, or cannot, maintain its territorial integrity against its own domestic foes."

Lincoln was working with a definition of democracy which he expanded and refined from the First Inaugural Address to the above message to the Gettysburg Address.

Lincoln was finished. The audience was expecting a longer speech. They were surprised when Lincoln stopped after speaking in less than three minutes. He concluded before the photographer could begin.

The following day, Edward Everett wrote to Lincoln, "Permit me . . . to express my great admiration of the thoughts expressed by you, with such eloquent simplicity & appropriateness, at the consecration of the cemetery." Everett, who had almost three years earlier confided to his diary his criticisms of Lincoln’s speaking abilities when Lincoln traveled from Springfield to Washington, now offered his opinion that "I should be glad, if I could flatter myself, that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours, as you did in two minutes."

In conclusion, did you notice that a remarkable feature of the Gettysburg Address is how Lincoln disappears? Lincoln literally disappears in his two greatest speeches coming at the end of his life: the Gettysburg Address and the second Inaugural Address.

The voice we hear in the Gettysburg Address is not an individual voice. The address is full of first-person references, but every one is plural. Ten times Lincoln uses the plural "we," and three times "us."

At a first hearing or reading, we are aware of what is being said and not of who is saying it. Yet at a second or third hearing or reading, Lincoln’s character, the ethos or credibility which is the first principle of Aristotle’s rhetoric, is everywhere present. Lincoln’s very reticence to speak about himself--how different from modern politicians--is what made his voice by the end of his address so decisive.

Is it only words? Rendered by Abraham Lincoln, words are actions. Lincoln’s words can become strangely contemporary as we seek today to remember the meaning of 9/11.

Ronald C. White Jr. is Professor Emeritus of American Religious History at San Francisco Theological Seminary, a visiting professor in the history department at UCLA, and a fellow at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California.

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