Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Sets time and place to establish the scene and directly references the Declaration of Independence, considered a sacred document to both the Unionists of the North and Secessionists of the South. Confederates referred to the Civil War as the second war of independence.
“Four score and seven” was not a simple way to say 87. Lincoln was asking his audience to calculate backward to discover that the nation’s starting point was not the Constitution in 1787 nor the election of Gen. George Washington in 1789 as the first president, but the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, and its sine qua non declaration of equality:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
The main overt reference is the “all men are created equal” line in both.
Scores, i.e., 20 years, are also a shorthand way of measuring generations. While stating 87 years would have been felt an a long time to people whose life expectancy was an average of around 60 years, Lincoln’s reference shows that only a short time in human terms had passed; assuming that most people in the 1860s became parents in their late teens or early 20s, a 40-year-old listener or reader could have a grandparent who lived at the time of the county’s birth, a relatively short time, in which to create a new nation based on a social experiment in liberty and equality. The shortness of time also pointed to the fragility of the nation.
Poetically, the cadence began with two rhyming words: “four score.” The line also contains a rhythm of alliteration, “fathers … forth” and “new nation.”
The Hebrew cadence, rendered in Elizabethan English, would have been stated slowly: “Four . . . score.” The biblical ring of his opening words was rooted in Psalm 90: "The days of our years are threescore years and ten; And if by reason of strength they be fourscore years."
Lincoln never named verse or quoted directly from the Bible in his speeches, although he did do so in his Second Inaugural Address, when his speech included allusions to Matthew 18:7, Luke 17:1 and Psalm 19:9. Lincoln’s whole address was suffused with both biblical content and cadence.
Lincoln built the Gettysburg Address upon a structure of past, present, and future. The three parts of the speech, broken into their composite parts, relate a brief summation of history, a reflection on the current struggle and how the choices of the present dictate the future course.
Thematically, Lincoln started in the past by placing the battlefield at Gettysburg and the “insignificance” of the dedication in the context of American history. His opening words highlighted historical continuity. His biblical allusion accented permanence — keep in mind that the Bible was a not merely seen as an unassailable document, but the wisdom of God and God’s chosen people passed on to believers, a concept most Americans accepted without question — while noting that the continuity of the United States had surpassed the biblical time frame of life and death, in turn making the United States and its constitution a sacred document ordained by God as part of a divine plan for both Americans specifically and humanity in general.
In speaking of “our fathers,” Lincoln invoked the common heritage of the Founding Fathers for both Northerners and Southerners. At the same time identified himself, not with the “leaders of the American people,” but with his audience as children of their great experiment.
The trajectory of the crucial, first sentence underscored the timeless American truth that “all men are created equal,” which, although had been controversial among the landed leaders of the republic in 1776, had been accepted as common fact by the 1860s.
Whether a man — women and blacks still had no voting rights in most electorates — owned thousands of acres or merely worked a farm as a hired hand, in the American social landscape, they were equal both before the law as they were before God. All white men had been given the right to vote regardless of property ownership beginning in 1820 and by 1850, this right was almost universal. Free blacks in the North also had sufferage. When Lincoln reaffirmed this truth he asserted that the war was about both liberty and union.
Lincoln began by invoking the Declaration of Independence, but his use of the word “proposition” — theory — spoke to a different certainty than Thomas Jefferson’s “truths,” which were “self-evident.” Through the address, Lincoln emphasized at Gettysburg that the United States was not a completed entity at the time of the Declaration, but still an experiment still in process. He implied through “proposition” that Jefferson’s language had to be proved as fact through the country’s minor and major struggles. The Civil War and Gettysburg specifically were tests of that proposition, tests which had to be overcome to prove them as true as Jefferson had “theorized” with the Declaration. Because of the war, Lincoln had understood the fragility of the Union and sought to expose them through the architecture of his speech.
“Proposition” was the turning point of the speech wherein Lincoln shifted his from past ideas to present realities.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.The first line of the second paragraph establishes the moment of the speech in its precise political context. At the beginning of the body of his address he used two perfect parallels: “that nation so conceived” and “any nation so dedicated.”
Lincoln directly references the aforementioned “proposition” as being tested by “a great civil war.” Its success or failure, i.e., reunification or division after the war, will prove or disprove Jefferson's proposal.
As Lincoln spoke about the dimensions of the past, he constructed the content of his political purposes by repeating key words: “great civil war,” “great battlefield,” “so dedicated,” and “come to dedicate.” Lincoln’s use of repetition allowed him to underscore his rhetorical purpose.
We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.The funerary oration has longstanding tradition. Funerary orations date back to ancient Greece, one of the best known is Pericles’ Funeral Oration spoken in 410 B.C.E. during the Peloponnesian War and recorded in Thucydides’ (460-395 B.C.E.) “History of the Peloponnesian War.
Pericles's speech acknowledges Athens’ predecessors: "I shall begin with our ancestors: it is both just and proper that they should have the honor of the first mention on an occasion like the present"; then praises Athens’ commitment to democracy: "If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences"; honors the dead and their sacrifices, "Thus choosing to die resisting, rather than to live submitting, they fled only from dishonor, but met danger face to face"; and turns to the living to continue the struggle: "You, their survivors, must determine to have as unfaltering a resolution in the field, though you may pray that it may have a happier issue."
Later accounts of Lincoln’s life strongly suggest that he had not read that part of Thucydides’ history. Battlefield dedications have been visited by leaders throughout history. Lincoln's statement that he, as the nation’s leader, should perform this duty was more of an accepted fact among the political leaders of the time. The unusual nature of this specific dedication was that it was happening during active wartime and the battle had happened so recently.
Another point was that Everett, as a classicist, not Lincoln, would have been more likely to impart Pericles’ sentiments. Lincoln’s references lean toward Biblical ones, as his speeches often drew on scripture for allusions.
It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
The line establishes the justification for the audience to be at the event, while the following sentence immediately contradicts the importance by shifting the emphasis on the dead.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground.His words, “But in a larger sense,” were his clue to the audience that he was about to expand the parameters of his intentions. He was announcing his purpose to speak to a “larger” subject.
Stating the negative “but” served to first prepare the audience to agree with his evocation of what each person in the audience could do, both following the speech, in the larger scope of the war, and in the larger sense of America’s history years and decades after the war became just a memory. These three parallel clauses focused on the present space: “this ground.”
The importance of “hallow”
"... We can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow ..."
What is most notable in a poetic sense is the use of two Latinate root words, — “consecrate” and “dedicate” — contained in parallel with a distinctly English root, “hallow.”
Most native English speakers invariably attribute more weight to words with inherent “Englishness” to them, be they original words, imported word with an “English sound” or more recent portmanteaus. The structure of the English language was slowly re-ordered and restructured after the Norman invasion of 1066 by using a Latinate languages, specifically French, but the lexicon of English remained based with the roots of Old English.
As a linguistic aside, for instance, veal, beef, venison and poultry are the common names for prepared dishes, names imported from the Norman French, whose French-speaking lords dined on meat from animals tended to by Old English-speaking farmers who used the words calves, cows, deer, ducks, chickens and turkeys. Playwrights and poets, such William Shakespeare and his contemporaries, often used this fact to make characters seem “lower” on the social strata by having them speak more “English” words while kings and nobles spoke with more Latinate-root words.
Lincoln used this linguistic abnormality as a parallel. While “consecrate” and “dedicate” are synonyms, “hallow” carries more weight because it is more “English” and more “emotionally sincere” for the mood. The structure of the sentence itself subtly suggests that Lincoln is perhaps searching for the “right” word for the moment. “Consecrate” and “dedicate” are not sufficient, but as he hits on the third word, it seems as though he has found the exact word for the moment, one that “consecrate” and “dedicate” are too formal, too lofty, too unemotional to properly express the emotional mood. It also seems as though Lincoln is actively thinking of synonyms to properly express his emotional connection to his duty, a scratching out “consecrate” and “dedicate” before committing to “hallow.”
The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.Note that the audience of the speech is at the event to consecrate the battlefield, but trivialized by the actions of those who died on the field. Coincidentally, this is also the theme of Pericles’ funeral oration, which draws the comparison.
At this point, Lincoln employed a dramatic antithesis. He contrasted “the brave men” with “our poor power.” He simultaneously framed “living and dead” at the beginning of the sentence, and “add or detract” at the end of the sentence, in another parallelism.
The Final Paragraph
In the last three sentences of the address, Lincoln shifted the focus a final time. In the architecture of his address, Lincoln had recalled the past and what the nation did at its beginning, recited what the soldiers did in the near present, and now prepared to open out the future and speak to the responsibility of the listeners.
The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.The line trivializes his own importance while again adding to the emphasis of the dead.
Lincoln pointed away from words to deeds. He contrasts “what we say here” with “what they did here” in another antithesis. Lincoln also speaks in the plural, which places his identity among the audience, not as the leaders of the nation or speakers at the event.
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