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Rhetorical Devices in Gettysburg Address

Brevity: Lincoln delivered his speech near the end of the consecration ceremony. Before his address, statesman Edward Everett delivered a 13,000-word, two-hour speech entitled “The Battles of Gettysburg,” intended to be the featured address of the day. In stark contrast, Lincoln’s speech, at only 250 words, was over in two minutes. The audience was astounded by Lincoln’s brevity. Yet the concision of the speech has contributed to its lasting power.

Repetition: One of the key rhetorical devices Lincoln employs in the Gettysburg Address is repetition. At several points through the speech, Lincoln constructs successions of phrases which follow the same structure and which build toward a unified effect. One such example is “that government of the people, by the people, for the people,” which has entered the American lexicon for its forcefulness and memorability.

Appeals to Nationalism and to American Values: Much of the rhetorical power of the Gettysburg Address comes from the way Lincoln appeals to his audience’s sense of national identity and pride. Lincoln’s intent is to underscore the worthiness of the American experiment and of the values set forth by the founding fathers: liberty, equality, and democracy. By focusing on the nobility of the nation’s ideals, Lincoln succeeded in framing the necessity of the war and the meaning of the lives lost.

Rhetorical 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.

"in vain..."   (Text of Lincoln's Speech)

To do something “in vain” is to do it uselessly, without effect or purpose. The word derives from the Latin vanus, which means “empty” or “void.” Lincoln’s aim is to ensure that the Union dead did not die without meaning, and therefore to call on the living to fulfill the purpose of the dead.

"we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion..."   (Text of Lincoln's Speech)

Lincoln carefully transforms the deaths of the soldiers at Gettysburg into a call to action for his fellow citizens of the Union. Rather than viewing the battle as a tragedy, Lincoln attends to the greater cause and purpose for which the soldiers fought. In such a light, the proper way to honor the dead is to further the cause they died for.

"nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here...."   (Text of Lincoln's Speech)

In this passage, Lincoln conveys the idea that actions speak louder than words. As he puts it, the words used to consecrate the battlefield will fade in time, but the efforts of the soldiers will not. In a twist of irony, Lincoln’s words in this speech—“what we say here”—have been canonized for their eloquence, and thus will be long remembered, despite his predictions to the contrary. The construction of this statement is an example of antithesis, a technique which contrasts opposing ideas to emphasize a larger point.

"far above our poor power to add or detract..."   (Text of Lincoln's Speech)

One of Lincoln’s primary themes in the Gettysburg Address is the weakness of words compared to actions. Lincoln claims that the battlefield cannot be consecrated by an exchange of words; rather, it has already been consecrated by the deeds of the soldiers who fought at the Battle of Gettysburg. One of the great ironies, both of this address and of Lincoln’s political career, is that Lincoln’s words are powerful, despite the claims he made otherwise throughout his life. The humility of his presentation is integral to his rhetorical power.

"hallow..."   (Text of Lincoln's Speech)

To “hallow” means to sanctify or purify a person, place, or object. The word derives from the Old Saxon “hêlagôn,” from which we also derive “holy.” Lincoln uses a series of related words—dedicate, consecrate, and hallow—in order to emphasize his point that the ground at Gettysburg has already been rendered sacred by the sacrifices of the fallen soldiers.

"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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