The Gettysburg Address is short, to the point, and simple to memorize. But rhetoric and meaning combine in a way that makes Lincoln’s speech far more easy to admire than to duplicate.
The Gettysburg Address is a problem. I mean it is a problem for me. I teach writing and when you teach writing, the Gettysburg Address can be a problem. The problem is that it is enormously difficult to write as Abraham Lincoln did, difficult in ways which we often don’t understand. We want to imitate the text, but we don’t know how. The triumph of the Gettysburg Address is very visible, entirely wonderful, and everyone wants to repeat it. The problem is that the foundation of that triumph is nearly invisible, entirely wonderful, and very difficult to replicate. Let’s begin with the visible triumph. Remember, if you will, the setting and the purpose of the speech. Lincoln has come to Gettysburg, in the presence of thousands of mourners, to dedicate a cemetery for the 23,000 Union soldiers killed or wounded at that infamous battlefield where 20,000 Confederates also were hurt or killed. His listeners have picked their way past rows of corpses, dug up from temporary graves to be re-interred in the military cemetery. It is November 1863, only months after battle and the deaths: The war that divides the country rages on. From our perspective, with our knowledge, the tide of war has already turned and the final victory of Lincoln’s Union seems inevitable. For Lincoln, victory was each day’s strain and suspense. Ten months after giving this speech he was still concerned that he would fail to be reelected and, as a result, the Union would be dissolved. Lincoln’s own problem, overwhelmingly, was to win the war. What then is he doing in this speech? In part, of course, he is dedicating a cemetery. Yet the received wisdom about the address remains true: Lincoln is rallying his people toward the Union cause. He seizes the opportunity to encourage and inspire flagging spirits. If we were to distill Lincoln’s immediate message into one sentence, it would be the final, extraordinary sentence: “It is rather for us to be 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.” What’s important for our purpose is that this meaning-filled sentence is indeed the final sentence. Speeches like the Gettysburg Address have in common compelling finishes—finishes that bring the speech not only to a climax of rhetoric and emotion but also to the climax of its message. The most important thing Lincoln has to say, his main point, comes just as he reaches his end. Crescendo—climax—fade to black. Whew. Lincoln is by no means the only writer who makes his main point more visible and memorable by placing it at the end of a text. Consider Churchill: “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’“ Or King: “Free at last, free at last. Thank God almighty, we are free at last.” Crescendo—climax—fade to black. No wonder people say: “I want to write like that! Who wouldn’t want to end with such triumph? That’s the problem. One of the most difficult things to teach about writing is organization, how to structure a text. It’s especially difficult to teach when writers decide they want to end in triumph, when they decide to delay their points until the very last moments. The problem is that while writers have a grand time building step-by-step toward their triumphal conclusions, their readers are more often than not left in the dust. The writers think they are progressing logically toward an inescapable conclusion; their readers, having long since lost any thread of organization, can see only that the writers are headed nowhere and getting there fast. The problem is that readers generally need to know the point before they read most of the text. Readers almost always need to use the point, or something like the point, in order to follow the discussion, in order to make sense out of all the details. Without the point, the discussion is aimless, the details are chaos. Here’s a simple example. I’ll give you four apparently random words: Imagine an idea, a concept, something the words have in common that would make sense of putting them in a single list. The words are: cup … marble … birthday … ice cream. Too many writers I work with write very much like this list. It doesn’t matter whether they are 18-year-old undergraduates or 58-year-old attorneys. They love to give readers bits and pieces, just clues to the point, building to their triumphal endings. They love the climatic last sentence when they can say, “ cup … marble … birthday … ice cream. Therefore …” (drumroll, please): “Cakes!” Cakes? to find out how “cakes” makes sense of our words, you have to go back to the list and test the specifics against the “point”: ice-cream cakes, birthday cakes, marble cakes, cupcakes. It does make sense, it is coherent, but only when you go back and reread. Readers, of course, do not ordinarily want to go back and reread, especially when the text is much longer than four words. Most often, they simply refuse to go back. Sometimes, they won’t even finish the first reading, which is a major problem for point-last, final-triumph texts. Certainly, it’s possible to write point-last texts that work. Churchill did. King did. Lincoln was a master of the form. But what these writers understood is that if you’re not going to use an early point to organize your text, you need to give readers other kinds of structures. In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln withholds from his readers the kind of coherence that comes from knowing his point, but in its place he provides other kinds of coherence that come from other kinds of organizing structures. It is these structures which are the nearly invisible foundation of the triumph of the Gettysburg Address. Yet here is another problem: invisible things are hard to see. How can we understand the effect of structures that we don’t even notice? How can we learn to notice them? I’ve learned from my “Little Red Schoolhouse” colleague Joe Williams to practice what he calls “critical imagination.” Want to see the effect of some part of a text? Imagine it differently. How does the difference on the page change your experience in reading? When you can see the effect of a change in the text, you can understand the effect of the original. Try this with the Gettysburg Address. Start with its famous opening reference to the Declaration of Independence: “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers …” Now, heretically, imagine it different. How else might Lincoln have begun? He could have said: “In Philadelphia, our fathers …” or “With surpassing wisdom, our fathers …” or “Bickering amongst themselves whether it should be ‘inalienable’ or ‘unalienable,’ our fathers …” If we change the opening phrase, what changes in our experience of the speech? What may seem to be a small change of a few words would actually undercut a crucial source of coherence for the entire text: chronology. Lincoln helps us to organize the address by structuring it as a movement through time. He begins in the past: “Four score and seven years ago …” He moves to the present: “Now we are engaged in a great civil war … we are met … It is fitting …” Such a chronological sequence organizes the information so well that we can even predict the ending: Lincoln will move to the future. And so he does: “That this nation shall have a new birth of freedom … that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.” The coherence we feel from the chronological structure begins to replace the coherence lost by delaying the point. Let’s imaginatively challenge the next phrase: “our fathers brought forth … a new nation.” Here, it is not difficult at all to imagine other wording. Very few of us would have chosen Lincoln’s language. Remember, he is describing the founding of the country. How would you describe this? Something like: “our fathers created … a new nation” or “the founders established … a new nation.” But “our fathers brought forth”? It’s the language of birth, and odd indeed, since it is mothers who bring forth, not fathers. Yet there’s little question that this is the language of birth. It is, after all, a nation “conceived in liberty.” Here Lincoln is constructing another kind of organizing structure for the address. This is the order of nature, the cycle of the seasons: birth, death, rebirth. He opens with these birth images and moves to the language of death (the middle of the address is filled with such language). As in nature, winter is followed by spring, so in this text death is followed by rebirth: “… this nation … shall have a new birth of freedom.” The speech has evoked and fulfilled a fundamental structure in our experience of life: the structure of nature. Critically test the next phrase: “…brought forth on this continent …” Why the reference to geography? Would the speech lose anything if we changed or omitted this phrase? It would lose another structure of coherence. Consider the pattern of Lincoln’s references to place: continent nation battlefield resting place this ground fought here this nation perish from the earth As Garry Willis has pointed out in Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America, Lincoln insists that his listeners pay attention to place. This insistence serves the hourglass structure of place and it creates another kind of structure, one born of repetition. Lincoln adds coherence to the address by the simple technique of repeating words. In addition to the eight uses of “here,” he uses a form of “dedicate” six times. Taken together, these two words constitute 5 percent of the entire speech. Most of my students are horrified at the thought. Some have been taught along the way never to use the same word twice in a paragraph. None imagines the great writers are so repetitive. Yet this very repetition is one tool Lincoln uses to make his writing great. Having denied us the organizing effect of knowing his point from the outset, he continues to provide us with other kinds of structure. And, as we know from the rhythms of music, simple repetition—a beat—can create fundamental coherence. All of these structures, and others, work upon us as we read or listen to this text. Yet there is another structure, one which we teach in every “Little Red Schoolhouse” program and which I think may be the most powerful source of organization in the address. In its simplest form, we call this Problem-Solution. A text begins with difficulty, with conflict, instability, a problem. What structure does this trigger? What do we expect will follow? Just as you expect the past and the present to lead to the future; just as you expect birth and death to lead to rebirth; so do you expect conflicts to lead to resolutions and instabilities to lead to stabilities. If, at the beginning of the address, Lincoln can elicit a sense of problem, then the speech will feel well organized as it moves to a solution. This is the coherence we feel. What is the problem in the Gettysburg Address? Actually, there are three. First, Lincoln says: “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation … can long endure.” The nation is being tested, its survival is at risk. Obviously, this is a problem, and when we hear it articulated at the beginning of a speech, we know how to organize what follows: we look for a solution. We find it in the final sentence—the point of the speech. That marvelous sentence feels absolutely right and logical in part because it is the solution to the national problem. Lincoln’s point is that we need to be dedicated to winning the war, because if we are so dedicated, the nation will solve its problem, the nation will survive, “the nation … will have a new birth of freedom.” There is a second, larger problem. Lincoln says that the war is a problem not just for a single nation, a single people, but for all people. The war tests not merely a particular government but a philosophy of government. He says that the war is a test of whether a democracy based on liberty and equality is possible: “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether … any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” If the Union should fail, freedom and equality would perish. What is the solution to this second problem? Exactly the same as the first. Again, Lincoln has positioned his main point as the solution to a problem. If we are dedicated to winning the war, not only will one nation survive, but democracy itself will survive: “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” But there is also a third problem in the Gettysburg Address. And, to my mind, therein lies the greatness of the speech. Lincoln does not make the error of so many writers: he does not focus solely on the world he is writing about. He focuses on the readers he is writing to. In the Schoolhouse, we argue that, if you want to write effectively, you must make your problem your readers’ problem. Lincoln does just this. Think again of the setting. Picture yourself as one of the thousands who have come on a clear November day to the small Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg. Why are you here? Because it is your brother, your husband, your son, who lies dead in this ground. You have come here to mourn. You have come here to grieve, to honor, and to love. And Lincoln speaks to you: “We have come here to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that the nation might live.” You then hear a sentence which will puzzle later readers, as it seems to them banal and even cold. Given what Lincoln is about to say, however, it is almost unbearably moving that he pauses to affirm your mourning. From his own terrible grieving he reaches out to you and reassures you that is a good thing you are doing, coming here to bring your sorrow out of yourself and cast it onto this ground and onto these stones. “It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do so. Then he uses the single most common signal of a problem: a word that means tension, instability, conflict. He says, “But.” And suddenly, you have a problem: “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 beyond our poor powers to add or detract. You who have come to Gettsyburg this day have a problem. You cannot grieve by dedicating this ground. You cannot honor by consecrating this ground. You cannot love by hallowing this ground. Gently, Lincoln calls you to your problem: You cannot do what you have come here to do. What is your solution? Of course, it is again to be found in his main point, his final sentence. Your solution is not to dedicate ground, but rather to dedicate yourself: “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated … It is rather for us to be here dedicated … that from these honored dead we take increased devotion … that we here highly resolve …” In a larger sense, Lincoln is telling his listeners, the ground cannot bear the weight of your grief. The only thing strong enough is yourself. The great visible triumph of the Gettysburg Address—its ending—is made possible by the invisible structures that have held the text together. Time, space, rhythm, nature: All of these have made it coherent. Yet it may be that it is the move from problem to solution that most creates the sense that the ending is exactly right, that the speech could not end in any other way. For me, the most powerful structure in the speech is Lincoln’s articulation of the problem facing those who mourn. And at his ending, with infinite grace and kindness, Lincoln fulfills the structure and completes the address by holding out to his listeners—to his readers, to you—a solution. Larry Mcenerney, AM’80, is director of University Writing Programs and a teacher in the University's “Little Red Schoolhouse,” a ten-week course in academic and professional writing. This article is adapted from a talk McEnerney gave in October 1993 for the University's annual Humanities Open House.