What is the genius in the Gettysburg Address?

President Abraham Lincoln was not the featured speaker at the November 19, 1863, dedication ceremony for the Soldiers National Cemetery at Gettysburg, Pa., following one of the most decisive battles of the Civil War. That honor went to renowned orator Edward Everett. Everett spoke (from memory) for about two hours, and was followed by Lincoln, who spoke for roughly three minutes—a mere 272 words.

In 1992 the author, journalist and historian Garry Wills examined the Gettysburg Address in its historical moment and cultural context. His Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction and the 1992 National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism. Wills described Lincoln’s speech, delivered 150 years ago, as an “intellectual revolution” because it creates a national commitment to equality that cannot be found in the Constitution. Wills, emeritus professor of history at Northwestern University, has written numerous books, including studies of George Washington, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

What makes the Gettysburg Address such a magical, profoundly important American speech?

Three things worked for the speech. Brevity. Occasion. Surprise. Brevity because—unlike the Second Inaugural, which is arguably the deeper speech—it is short enough to memorize, to quote easily in full, to recite on public occasions. Occasion because it was given at a grimly dramatic battle site, in a ceremony drawing great public attention. Surprise because it paradoxically turned a mourning event into an anticipated victory—for government “of the people, by the people, for the people.”

You’ve written that the Address has become as authoritative as the Declaration of Independence, and perhaps more influential. Why?

It gave new importance and meaning to the Declaration, as the key to reading the Constitution. By giving a new (in fact a different) sense to “all men are created equal,” the Address delivered what came to be the accepted interpretation of both documents. It set an effective new goal for the nation.

How did Lincoln’s commitment to equality, derived from the Declaration of Independence, help change our founding identity?

By “all men” in the Declaration, Jefferson meant all homines politici, all citizens in the 18th-century republican sense. But Lincoln, in the Romantic era, meant “all men” of whatever caste or race, a great leap forward in the political meaning of “humankind.”

There’s a myth that Lincoln didn’t fret too much about his Gettysburg remarks.

Some in the modern world mistake spontaneity for sincerity, and there was a temptation to contrast Lincoln’s short statement with the long and carefully wrought speech by Edward Everett that preceded it. Lincoln was always precise in his statements, which made him loath to speak “off the cuff ” when what he said had the presidency behind it. Unlike other holders of the office,  who have used ghostwriters for their statements, he ghostwrote documents for the State Department and other agencies. He appreciated the lasting power of words, and he realized that the Gettysburg ceremony would be well covered and widely remembered. He always wrote carefully, and he took special care to make this statement forceful.

Did the Transcendentalist principle of “preparing the public mind” and the ideas of Unitarian minister Theodore Parker influence Lincoln?

Theodore Parker—whose work Lincoln had been introduced to by his law partner, William Herndon—was a Transcendentalist who saw historical events as working toward a higher future. For Transcendentalists, words and acts could “mean more than they mean to mean.” Lincoln took that attitude toward the founding documents of the nation. There were potential depths in those words that had to be spelled out and lived up to. It was appropriate that Lincoln was speaking at a cemetery designed by William Saunders, who was part of the innovative rural-cemetery movement promoted by Transcendentalists. The movement took funerals from cramped and enclosed churchyards, cluttered with tombs, into beautiful landscapes where death was transcended by being subsumed into the larger rhythms of nature. Lincoln had conferred with Saunders on the rationale of the cemetery before he left Washington for Gettysburg.

You relate Lincoln’s dedicatory remarks to Greek funeral oration. What are the ancient antecedents— the similarities?

The annual Athenian funeral oration paid tribute to all the men who had fallen in battle during the preceding year, using their deaths to ensure the future glory of their city. In the 19th century, Greek democracy replaced Roman republicanism as the ideal of historians and rhetoricians. By connecting the death of heroes with the life of the republic, and placing both in the cyclical life of the rural cemetery, Lincoln made our national funeral oration echo the essentials of the recurrent funeral orations of Athens.

What rhetorical techniques did Lincoln employ to pack so much emotional punch into 272 words?

The risk of being brief is to sound superficial or curt. Lincoln  avoids that by stately periphrasis (“fourscore and seven years”), legal pleonasm (“that nation, or any nation so conceived,” “altogether fitting  and proper”), parallel clauses rising to a climax (“we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow”), liquid alliteration (“little note nor long remember”), antithesis (“what we say here…what they did here”) and other rhetorical devices learned by rote in the 19th century and used mechanically by those who lacked Lincoln’s genius.

Lincoln did not mention slavery. Was he trying to avoid divisiveness and promote the Union—the notion of the nation preceding the states?

Lincoln could not control the fact that only the Union dead were buried in the Gettysburg cemetery. But he did not consider that the South had seceded, or that it could secede, from the Union. By treating the war as, in effect, a debate (over whether this form of government can endure), he makes all Americans participants in the debate. He argues for the Union by ignoring the South’s attempt to break it, and not recognizing as valid the aim of that attempt (slavery).

Did Lincoln, with the Gettysburg Address, change political prose?

Lincoln did not, by himself, change a whole nation’s way of speaking. A deflation of Victorian orotundity  was being carried out by vernacular speech at many levels, of which Mark Twain is merely one example. But Lincoln demonstrated that a leaner, more “punchy” style could be used on a formal occasion and with serious purpose. That was not always imitated in later political speeches, but it set a standard by which they can be judged.

The Gettysburg Address was enthusiastically received. Was Lincoln proud of it and its effect?

Lincoln knew that his speech was more subversive of accepted views—on equality, on the Declaration, on Union (and therefore on slavery)—than would appear on a first hearing,  or a first reading. That is why  he encouraged the continuing attention given the speech, making autographed copies for publication and for auction at charity events. He meant it to live—to be pondered, and to work its way out into our lives, by a wider recognition of all human rights. Therefore he did what he could to ensure its memory. He not only believed in the power of words. He demonstrated it.


Originally published in the December 2013 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.