Contrary to popular belief, “The Gettysburg Address” was not initially well-received. It was even labeled by critics as “ludicrous and silly.” 150 years later, it is one of the best-remembered American speeches, as Abraham Lincoln was speaking through the ages about American perseverance. Nearly 150 years ago, General Lee of the confederacy led his troops to Gettysburg. He had hoped that a confederate victory as north as Pennsylvania would strike fear into an already disillusioned union, and ultimately bring them to negotiations. This decisive battle was costly on both sides, but the union ultimately prevailed. In order to restore confidence into an already disillusioned population, Lincoln’s Address focused on dedication and that in increased dedication they can prevail. In his best-remembered speech, “The Gettysburg Address,” Abraham Lincoln uses loaded language, repetition, and multiple comparisons, while focusing on themes such as dedication, tests, and death, to illustrate his belief that conviction and perseverance can overcome nearly everything.
Having been prompted to speak at a dedication that would mark off a portion of Gettysburg to honor the ones who died there, Lincoln first and foremost talks about dedication. After giving historical context about the nation “conceived in liberty,” Lincoln arrives at a portion of his speech where he must acknowledge the dead. He contrasts the nation and the dead whom “gave their lives that that nation might live." This use of paradoxical writing both adds to the importance of the sacrifice the honored dead had made, and the cause to which they made their sacrifice. The personification of the nation adds emotional depth to the speech. The subject matter of Lincoln’s Address changes at this point in the speech, from the honored dead to the nation, and to the living. Later in his speech, Lincoln notes that “it is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increase devotion." In fact, the word “dedicate” is repeated more than any other non-function word in his speech. This sentence is the apex of the Address because Lincoln indirectly compares his audience to the honored dead. Lincoln uses the word “dedicate” to make this comparison. This is important because it serves as a call-to-arms for Lincoln’s speech, and therefore, the purpose of the speech. The comparing and contrasting of the honored dead to the audience throughout the speech further Lincoln’s belief that the nation can overcome its trial through increased dedication, as the honored dead had overcome theirs. By illustrating that the honored dead were the pinnacle of dedication, Lincoln shows the audience that in increased dedication, they, too, can overcome what they might have thought impossible.
The civil war is popularly believed to be the test of whether the United States would long endure. Having endured terrible losses on both fronts, nationalism started to wane at the time Lincoln gave his Address; he explains the legitimacy of the war by comparing it to a test. Lincoln puts his speech in historical context explaining that “now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure” and wishfully states at the end of his speech that “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom … [and] shall not perish from the earth." Lincoln compares the civil war to a test. To convince his audience of the legitimacy of the war, Lincoln uses words with emotionally charged connotations such as: conceive, birth, consecrate, hallow, and perish. Lincoln uses positive words like conceive, birth, consecrate, and hallow to articulate what he wants as a result of the war. He also uses those words to further honor the dead he came to respect. He uses negatively charged words akin to “perish” to illustrate what the nation is trying to avoid. The use of the word “perish” personifies the nation in order to restore a positive national attitude in his audience. By comparing the civil war to a test, Lincoln recommends that the best solution to the test is an increased devotion, which is not only applicable to the nation’s life, but to anyone’s.
Lincoln’s true fear is the death of not only more soldiers, but of the whole United States, which he believes would come to fruition if the south were to win. While Gettysburg was a Union victory, they still retained heavy losses; Lincoln uses the dedication to restore national confidence, and creatively does this by drawing a connection between the fallen soldiers and his audience. In order to honor the dead, Lincoln does not credit them with words alone; he instead tells his audience that the dead had already honored themselves. When Lincoln arrives at the part of his speech where he should honor the dead, instead of honoring them, he instead explains that “the brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it far above our power to add or detract." Lincoln uses many words to bring emotion into his speech for example, “consecrate,” “hallow,” and “dedicate.” Out of context, one would assume these words would be used for an occasion of joy. Instead, his use of those words is grim, which brings a somber mood to the speech. This somber, yet joyous mood has a twofold purpose – to acknowledge the gloom the war has created, and to let his audience take away a new devotion to themselves and to their country. Lincoln also uses this sentence to effectively shelf talking about the dead to focus on increasing the devotion of his audience. Moreover, by speaking so highly of the honored dead, he forces his audience to compare themselves to the honored dead in order to increase commitment and make sure that the honored dead “shall not have died in vain." By speaking highly of the dead soldiers, and illustrating that they persevered through even death itself, Lincoln increases the resolve of his audience by showing that they might overcome hardships through perseverance, too.
The purpose of “The Gettysburg Address” was to restore confidence in a disillusioned American people by Lincoln’s strong choice of diction and writing style, but his words are not confined to the civil war, rather, he was speaking through the ages that through increased dedication, one can overcome many of life’s trials. It is both fitting and proper that at a dedication Lincoln speaks about just that – dedication. He talks about overarching themes of humanity such as tests, death, and perseverance to honor the dead, as well as to increase the resolve of his audience. This audience is not confined to the people that listened to Lincoln the day he gave his speech at Gettysburg, or even the nineteenth century. Rather, the audience is everyone who has trials and tribulation in their lives. This personable appeal makes “The Gettysburg Address” unique, and has the ability to inspire increased resolve in many, no matter the time or place. Lincoln truly is speaking through the ages.