Simple Words, Enduring Impact

One hundred fifty years later, why does Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address continue to speak to us?
September 17, 2013

The Gettysburg Address: delivered at the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg, November 19, 1863.

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.

Just a couple of miles from Duke's campus you'll find a modest footprint from a major drama. Bennett Place was a family farm and a convenient intersection between Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston’s headquarters, in Greensboro, and Union General William T. Sherman’s headquarters, in Raleigh. In April 1865, the two commanders met there to sign surrender papers for Southern armies in the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida— some 90,000 soldiers.

The site accents a history that still haunts the South: One in ten Confederate soldiers came from North Carolina, and the Bennett family lost two sons and a son-in-law in the conflict. On a suitably gray August morning, you’ll be led around by an earnest guide who says he can identify some thirty Confederate soldiers among his ancestors. Then his presentation segues from South to North, from Bennett Place to the battle for Gettysburg, which—in July 1863—foreshadowed the ultimate defeat of the Confederate cause.

Simple yet sublime eloquence: Abraham Lincoln giving the Gettysburg Address. Bettmann/CORBIS

It was in November 1863, four months beyond the battle, that President Abraham Lincoln delivered the 272 words that came to be known as the Gettysburg Address. But now, the Gettysburg Address is embedded in American thinking—or at least it’s taught in whatever passes for American history. We’re in a several-year phase of commemorating 150th anniversaries of Civil War milestones. Yet the Gettysburg Address transcends the litany of battles, just as Gettysburg itself stands apart, appallingly, for the sheer scale of carnage. Today, around the 150th anniversary of the address, it seems that we remember Lincoln’s words even more than we remember their bloody point of origin.

Gettysburg the battle does have a place in American history and in Duke’s own David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library: Among the letters and papers of Confederate General George Edward Pickett are descriptions provided by officers of the battle. Those descriptions refer to “the heat of a boiling sun,” orders to “charge the enemy,” and soldiers who “moved forward steadily and earnestly and stood the shock of battle with fortitude.” The collection at Duke also includes casualty lists testifying to that shock of battle. Almost 50,000 Confederate and Union soldiers (estimates are imprecise) were struck down in three days of battle.

One prominent North Carolinian played the leading role for an earlier anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, held on the site in November 1998: The main speaker was the celebrated historian John Hope Franklin, then teaching at Duke. "I should make no effort to compare the address by Lincoln with statements made by other presidents at critical points at their time in office," Franklin told the audience, "for there is simply no comparison."

He went on: "There is, for example, President Woodrow Wilson’s speech setting forth the Fourteen Points that would serve as the blueprint for the postwar period after World War I. There is the Four Freedoms address by President Franklin D. Roosevelt that set forth the major objectives of World War II. There is an address by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, warning of the dangerous threat of the industrial-military complex to the freedom achieved by World War II.” All of those pronouncements wrestled with important issues at critical times, Franklin said. “But they pale in any comparison with the Gettysburg Address,” because of “the simple yet sublime eloquence of Lincoln’s words” and because “those simple words ripped the imagination and commanded the loyalty of the supporters of the war as no other words have ever done or indeed could ever do.”

Franklin’s assessment of the Gettysburg Address—his view that it struck just the right chord in coupling the act of remembrance with a tribute to an idealized America—resonates with Duke’s Adriane Lentz-Smith. She’s an associate professor of history whose scholarly interests include African-American history. “It’s beautiful. It’s simple. Yet it’s profound,” she says. “There’s something gorgeous about it, gorgeous and sort of melancholy.” It carries “a sense of destiny,” she adds: In Lincoln’s telling, America’s grand narrative—America as the emblem of the triumph of liberty—had gone off course and required radical adjustment.

In its essence, the address calls for a new American Revolution, says Thavolia Glymph, an associate professor of history and African & African-American Studies at Duke. “It’s a wonderful line: ‘The nation shall, under God, have a new birth of freedom.’ ” The address, she notes, never singles out the South as the enemy; the enemy was, in a larger sense, an ideology that represented a departure from the founding principle of freedom. “The first birth was the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution. But freedom at the time, of course, was not full. It was limited to men who owned property. Ending slavery would mean the transformation of what historians call a slave country: Slavery may have been limited to the South, but its tentacles were everywhere. Getting rid of the nation of slavery would represent, then, a new historical moment, a moment of national rebirth.

"Lincoln did find slavery morally objectionable. Like every president before him, he understood that slavery waas a cancer eating away at the nation. But he was not a supporter of social equality; he didn’t believe blacks were the equal of whites and could live happily together with them. When he pushed the idea of emancipation, he did so in the context of winning the war and with the object of preserving the Union.”

Lincoln at Gettysburg remains an arresting image. Paul Teller ’93 testifies to that the day after he returns from an August retreat, sponsored by the conservative Heritage Foundation, at Gettysburg. Teller is executive director of the Republican Study Committee, a conservative caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives. In the context of touring the battlefield and the information center, participants considered how the “prudence and statesmanship” that Lincoln displayed would find a modern-day equivalent, Teller says.

“Lincoln’s rhetorical structure infects you, and you don’t even know it. It bespeaks perfection, glory, high purpose, virtue, godliness, transcending above self.” 

Participants talked admiringly of Lincoln the rhetorician and of how a wartime president could recognize sacrifice and inspire a nation. At the same time, “we sat around talking for a significant portion of the morning about how Lincoln may have violated the Constitution,” says Teller. “And if Obama did something similar today, we’d be sending out press release after press release pushing back against the abuse of power. Were those things at the time of Lincoln okay, because this was a national crisis and the country was literally splitting in two? Or is it in times of crisis when the Constitution should be at its most powerful, not in times of peace and normalcy?” The group didn’t really arrive at a consensus around those questions, he says.

Teller has a hard time imagining a modern-day political leader who might be remembered for a singular piece of rhetoric, in part because political events are so extensively orchestrated as to seem inauthentic. The closest example he can think of comes from President Ronald Reagan’s June 1987 challenge to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. At Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, Reagan demanded of Gorbachev, “Tear down this wall.” Like the Gettysburg Address, those words—perhaps now iconic—initially received little media coverage.

When we think about the lasting power of the address, we’re considering it not just as a historical signifier but also a model of rhetoric. Lincoln the rhetorician has been a long-standing interest for George Gopen, a professor emeritus of English at Duke. Lincoln had no formal schooling in which he was taught advanced rhetoric, Gopen says. He was, though, a great admirer of Shakespeare’s work.

“Gettysburg was a turning point in the war, the battle still reverberated, and Lincoln could have said almost anything, as long as it was well said,” Gopen says. “His rhetorical structure infects you, and you don’t even know it. It bespeaks perfection, glory, high purpose, virtue, godliness, transcending above self. It all goes together perfectly. Not only is every moment brilliant, not any one resembles any other in its precise effect. It’s music.”

A Civil War turning point: The battlefield at Gettysburg. Library of Congress.

Gopen calls the opening of the address—“Four score and seven years ago...”—both imaginative and daring. It’s imaginative in that “anyone would be really stymied as to what could be done with an unmemorable number like eighty-seven.” It’s daring because it reaches for “Shakespearean heights” in attempting echoes of the Bard’s blank verse.

There are other explicit echoes, balancing, or parallels later in the text. For example: testing whether “that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated” can long endure; from these honored dead “we take” increased devotion to that cause for which “they gave” the last full measure of devotion. There’s repetition in successive phrases (formally known as anaphora): “We can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground.” And, the dead “shall not” have died in vain, the nation “shall have” a new birth of freedom, and government of, by, and for the people “shall not” perish from the Earth. (“People” and “perish” also form an alliterative pairing.) There’s even near rhyming: “war” and “endure.”

In Gopen’s view, Lincoln, or any master of rhetoric, would have a harder time breaking through today. “We don’t look for formality, we don’t look for uplifting qualities in speech. We have lost our sense that eloquence is a good thing in and of itself.” As he puts it, “We have decided culturally that a splash in your face” rather than an exercise in intricacy is “the way we should get our highs.”

We have lost that sense, according to Gopen, because of several cultural shifts. We’ve largely abandoned the study of Latin, and therefore we’ve degraded our ability to look at the structure of English from the vantage point of a related but unfamiliar language. Our schools don’t teach the diagramming of sentences, and it’s traditionally through that practice that we’ve learned how parts of speech relate to other parts of speech. And we live in a time when classical music has largely disappeared. “If you listen to music today, it is unchanging from beginning to end. In some kinds of music, it is unchanging from one song to the next.” If our music is, so to speak, lacking musicality, it’s easy to see how our rhetoric might lack flourish.

As an undergraduate, Rob Goodman ’05, now a Ph.D. student in political theory at Columbia University, studied with Gopen. Before beginning graduate work, he was a speechwriter for then-House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and then-Senator Chris Dodd, both Democrats.

Goodman notes that Aristotle identified three kinds of rhetoric: deliberative, which is for persuading people in the assembly; judicial, geared toward persuading people in the courts; and epideictic, which puts forth exemplars to follow in our own lives. “The Gettysburg Address is a really outstanding example of that third kind of rhetoric. It’s not persuading people to take any immediate action. It’s not persuading them to argue a certain way in a court. But it is persuading them that there are certain civic ideas that these soldiers who died exemplified, and that their cause should set the standard of our community behavior.”

Lincoln came from a culture steeped in speechmaking; it was a culture of sermons, orations, and lectures. He also was feeding off a classical tradition of oratory, exemplified by the funeral speech of the Athenian leader Pericles, in 431 B.C.E., at the end of the first year of Athens’ war with Sparta. Pericles praised the slain soldiers of Athens for having been “made heroes by their actions.” He outlined the virtues of the Athens they had sacrificed for—its democratic tradition, stress on public service, formidable military prowess, deliberately open borders, and enlightened moral code. Finally he offered an exhortation to the living: “Such were the city these men fought for, rather than lose to others; and shall we, their survivors, not take up the labor?” Joining in Gopen’s lament, Goodman says rhetoric is a lot less central to our political culture than it was in Lincoln’s (or Pericles’) day. We often see rhetoric as manipulative or frivolous; for his part, Plato, back in classical Athens, dismissed rhetoric as a form of pandering, a noxious capacity for lowering yourself to the standards of public taste and giving the crowd exactly what it wanted. Communications technology, of course, can make noteworthy speeches a lot more accessible than ever. But for political leaders, the noteworthy speech may be a lot less necessary than ever. President Obama, for example, this summer granted The New York Times an interview for the first time in three years; around the same time, he answered questions on Zillow, a website that sells homes, and appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. He’s also been a presence on Google, Twitter, and Facebook.

And today’s sound-bite imperative makes it tough to reach for complexity—or as Goodman puts it, to develop an argument. “One of the important parts of rhetoric that classical rhetoricians, and especially Aristotle, talked about was ethos, the question of who you, the speaker, are, and why I should trust you. It’s not simply the part of the speech where you list your résumé. Rather, it’s the complete process of watching a speaker deal with opposition, deal with adversity, deal with the other side’s argument, develop an argument of his own, and present himself as a complete person.”

Goodman says that Lincoln, in the Gettysburg Address, reached for “that sweet spot between artifice and authenticity,” eloquence that at once takes the form of plain speaking and achieves soaring heights. “Lincoln, in the way he chooses to express himself in just a few hundred words, is expressing a lot about what his side is fighting for, what his cause means, and the character of the speaker.”

H. Jefferson Powell, a professor of law who also has taught at the divinity school at Duke, sees in Lincoln the political leader an unusual character: a combination of “deep moral seriousness and a remarkable set of political skills.” He says scholars might question whether Lincoln originally applied the right strategy to stave off a contestable claim to the Constitution and its meaning. (He notes that the South made a deliberate attempt to embrace the American Revolution as a model action for overthrowing a repressive government.) In any case, Lincoln grew more and more convinced of the need to preserve the Union. “The Union, in his mind, is unambiguously good. For him it’s an emotional commitment that preceded the war. The additional factor, once he comes into the presidency, is the oath of office.”

 

“The Union, in Lincoln’s mind, is unambiguously good. For him it’s an emotional commitment that preceded the war.” 

Powell says the Gettysburg Address marks just one stop on Lincoln’s long political (and theological) trajectory. In the first inaugural address, in March 1861, “Lincoln the lawyer made a legalistic argument against secession.” The Gettysburg Address “is full of language that is biblical—the burden of consecrating a hallowed ground, a nation under God seeing a new birth of freedom. There’s no triumphalism, sense of righteousness, or vilification of the enemy. In some ways, it’s a classic sermon: You tell people where they think they are in being true to God’s plan, you tell them their thinking is not quite right, and then you show them what to do.”

By the time of the second inaugural address, in March 1865, “it’s a message of reconciliation” from Lincoln, “a completely theological interpretation of what this struggle is all about. He knows that slavery is wrong, that this experiment in government is right, and that providence is deeply involved in what is happening.”

The Gettysburg Address shows Lincoln as the “storyteller-in-chief,” as Powell describes him. “He’s not, strictly speaking, reciting history. He is doing what Americans always have done since the founding. He’s using the founding to tell us that we can’t escape the burden of moral choices. And so Lincoln is consciously speaking beyond the immediate occasion. This is a moment that tests whether a government so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. The question is not whether we should continue to fight a war, but what kind of republic is worth preserving.”