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Literary Devices in Gettysburg Address

The (Re)Birth of a Nation: Lincoln employs an extended birth metaphor throughout this short speech; words and phrases such as “brought forth,” “conceived,” and “a new birth of freedom,” reflect this. The birth metaphor allows Lincoln to convey a hopeful, inspirational tone in the speech. Even though so many perished in the battle, from death comes new life, and so a rebirth of the nation is possible through sacrifice.

Allusion, Anaphora, Antithesis, and Imagery: Much of the power in Lincoln’s speech comes from his tight verbiage and powerful diction. Lincoln employs allusions to the founding of the country, repeated structures, evocative imagery, and nuanced syntax to add literary and persuasive force to his claims.

Literary Devices Examples in Gettysburg Address:

Text of Lincoln's Speech

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"We are met on a great battle-field of that war..."   (Text of Lincoln's Speech)

This short, declarative sentence contains evocative visual imagery that powerfully conveys the magnitude of the Battle of Gettysburg. Lincoln’s use of a passive verb construction here also emphasizes the power of the place—Lincoln conveys that something brought them all to Gettysburg. Years later, Lincoln would use this notion of a divine plan, or fate, in his second inaugural address to portray the Civil War as an inevitable confrontation.

"or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure..."   (Text of Lincoln's Speech)

The United States was founded in 1776 on principles of democracy and freedom that were revolutionary for the time. Lincoln states that the Civil War is the first true test of whether or not a country founded on liberty and democracy is capable of surviving. His use of the word “conceived” emphasizes the singularity of the country’s origin and employs a birth metaphor that returns at the end of the speech.

"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth..."   (Text of Lincoln's Speech)

Lincoln begins his speech by alluding to the founding of the United States and the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776—four score and seven, or eighty-seven, years ago. Lincoln draws on the nation’s history to use the ideas of the founders as a key element of his own speech. In doing so, Lincoln aligns the Northern cause with the ideals set forth in the Declaration of Independence.

"of the people, by the people, for the people,..."   (Text of Lincoln's Speech)

In this address, Lincoln coined the phrase “of the people, by the people, for the people,” which has since entered the national lexicon as an elegant and concise definition of American democracy. Just as Lincoln began the speech with a reference to the Declaration of Independence, this final statement nods to the same founding document. The spirit of the declaration, with its insistence that “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” can be heard echoing through the Gettysburg Address and, in particular, its stirring conclusion.

"and that government..."   (Text of Lincoln's Speech)

This passage reveals the threading together of two separate strands of repetition. The long final sentence of the speech is divided by em dashes, each of which proceeds a statement about “the great task remaining before us” beginning with the word “that.” In the final such statement, Lincoln embeds another piece of repetition—“of the people, by the people, for the people”—thus ending the speech on a rhythmically and rhetorically powerful note.

"a new birth of freedom..."   (Text of Lincoln's Speech)

In the conclusion of the address, Lincoln emphasizes “a new birth of freedom,” reiterating the birth metaphor he introduced at the start of the speech. The implication is that through conflict, sacrifice, and even death, there is the possibility for a rebirth and renewal of the nation’s values—democracy, equality, and freedom. Lincoln’s use of sustained metaphor brings the important themes and ideas to the forefront again and again, an effective rhetorical strategy.

"we can not dedicate..."   (Text of Lincoln's Speech)

Throughout the Gettysburg address, Lincoln uses the literary device of anaphora—the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of a series of statements. In this passage, Lincoln repeats “we can not” in order to drive home his point that Gettysburg has already been consecrated, by the dead rather than the living.

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