Learning from Great Speeches: Analysis of the Gettysburg Address

Can a speech change history?  Check out this Google-curated cultural exhibit for a little context, and join in the 150th anniversary celebration this week. In the case of Lincoln’s 270 word address delivered in 1863, the answer is a resounding “yes”:

But the long story is that no single American utterance has had the staying power, or commanded the respect and reverence, accorded the Gettysburg Address. It has been engraved (on the south wall of the Lincoln Memorial), translated (in a book devoted to nothing but translations of the address), and analyzed in at least nine book-length critical studies over the last century.

via Lincoln’s Sound Bite: Have Faith in Democracy – NYTimes.com.

The rhetoric of the speech–in addition to the use of language–is powerful. You can see the basic argument thread here.  But the power of the words were not immediately clear to everyone.  Even so, they have withstood a time-lapse test.  In review of Gary Willss 1992 book, Lincoln at Gettysburg, Herbert Mitang writes:

The Gettysburg Address is loaded with delayed-action ideas about the need to create a new nation and a new birth of freedom and, finally — in words that have been cited by revolutionaries and lawmakers in countries all over the world — “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Mr. Wills observes what the Address did not include: No single individual is named, no distinction is made between officers and enlisted men, no difference between the men who wore blue or gray. The carefully chosen words (written at the White House, needless to say, not casually, on the back of an envelope) remain a guidon for liberty and equality. In the midst of war, Lincoln spoke for the ages.

You can  watch a variety of Americans, from former presidents (George W. Bush, Bill Clinton) to public figures (Wolf Blitzer, Stephen Colbert, Louis C.K.) reading the address in a PBS/Ken Burns collaboration.

Many professionals make a living helping professionals who wish to replicate Lincoln’s success.  (Here, and here, for example.) Think on these things as you craft your own speeches.

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16 thoughts on “Learning from Great Speeches: Analysis of the Gettysburg Address

  1. It is truly remarkable the depth of such short an address, and the longevity of its influence not only in American history, but in the minds and hearts of the American people. I don’t think I’ve ever written so short a statement in any college level assignment. Come to think of it, most testimonies that are born in Church, which, by nature, are meant to be brief, are ever this short in length either. I think the Gettysburg address is a good illustration of the old adage that it is not so much about quantity as it is about quality. And adding to the ideology of that adage, sometimes it is not so much the words that are used (as the words Lincoln employed in his speech were also short and simple, foregoing all elaborate embellishments) as it is the feelings that they can evoke within, given the context and the setting. Maybe the mood at the time of this speech was such that only plain words and plain phrases carried within them the sincerity that the hearts of the people, subdued after such great loss, needed to hear. Perhaps it was Lincoln’s moral character and uprightness, reflected in his address, that impressed in their minds the high price they had to pay to defend such worthy a cause. I think that part of what gives this address the emotion that has been attached to it all these years is the remembrance that it evokes in its readers that the worth of every soul is great, and that the choices that we make can reflect how deeply we believe that.

  2. I think one of the most remarkable things about the Gettysburg address is how it shifted the basis of what it meant to be an American from the Constitution to the Declaration of Independence. We find this particularly in the language devoted to the idea that “all men are created equal”, an idea which did not have particularly strong Constitutional support at the time. Yet, this idea persists to this day. For most of us, thinking about what America stands for doesn’t conjure up ideas of federalism or the democratic republican form of government, but the idea of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. This is in large part due to Lincoln’s speech and the emphasis he placed upon equality and the philosophy of the Founding, rather than the pragmatic blueprint embodied in the Constitution.

  3. josephdecker says:

    As mentioned above, the brevity of the speech is profound. At the time the Gettysburg Address was given, reporters were expecting a long extravagant speech that so many politicians are prone to give. They had barely gotten out their notepads and pens by the time Lincoln’s speech was done. I can think of no speech in all of American history that has left such an impact on America’s ideology of freedom, liberty, and equality. When I was fifteen years old, I read the book “The Killer Angels” by Michael Shaara.. I was fascinated with the Civil War. My father took me to Gettysburg and we visited all of the battlegrounds I had read about. He then offered me $20 dollars if I would memorize the entire Gettysburg Address. I took that challenge! Doing so instilled in me a special sense of pride for being an American, as well as a deep respect for the soldiers who died to defend our liberty. I am grateful for Lincoln’s courage and amazing leadership at such a crucial time in American history. The Gettysburg Address will always have a special place in my heart.

  4. It’s interesting how the important the early presidents were in leading the country as it was still forming. So many people look back and wonder what they would think of us now. We don’t remember very many speeches that modern presidents have made, and if they are good we can’t even really give them credit. Lincoln wrote his own speeches and it goes to show how innovative and brave he was. He faced many challenges and did it with such dignity. I love the way everyone can relate to the Gettysburg Address because it values everyone.

  5. rgettys says:

    My favorite part about the speech is how he follows the theme of dedication. He toys with the different meanings of the word, meaning in one part hard work and being devoted, another part of the speech having a religious connotation. I am writing a thesis right now and I do not know how he was able to write with so much meaning in so little time. I feel like even my explanation exceeds the brevity and succinct nature of his speech.

    Today I had a friend who had memorized the speech and spoke it today. Even out of context, the speech still had great meaning.

  6. clintkunz says:

    I admire how Lincoln spoke against some of the common beliefs of the day. It seems that as a politician he spoke genuinely and according to the fundamental beliefs that he held. I really like the movie “Lincoln”. If that is how he really was, then I respect him greatly.

  7. cassidyhansen says:

    I think that this address is a great model for our speeches that we are giving tonight. Lincoln has shown us that even the shortest speeches can be a catalyst for change. Another thing we need to take account is that Lincoln is known for his high-pitched voice, which may have bothered some listeners, which he had to take account of while presenting his speech. Like Lincoln, there are many things we must overcome while speaking, in order to effectively engage our audiences. All in all, I wish we had more speeches like The Gettysburg Address to aspire our own speeches after.

  8. alexkhirst says:

    Since we are learning about public speaking, this was a great example of the power of the pause and how a brief speech can be so impactful. In the address, I love the part about how “these dead shall not perish in vain.” From this, we can see why Lincoln was so popular. He put pride and virtue in a war that lacked just that. Thus, the power of a simple speech and the way it was spoken made more of an impact than a speech cluttered with content.

  9. araujophm says:

    Over the past few weeks I have been able to hear the Gettysburg address quite a few times. What Lincoln did very well is what is most important in speeches; he brought the people together through their emotions. It is important as a speaker to always awaken emotions in people. This powerful address talks about the rights and desires of the common American, and he focused on the important things that needed to change. This is a simple speech that is powerful because of its purpose and the emotions that Lincoln showed himself as he spoke.

  10. Joshua Dennis says:

    I love how in the speech itself, Lincoln states that people would soon forget the words spoken that day. While that might be true for the many speeches that preceded his, it is impressive that the short and simply stated speech that Lincoln gave that day has become perhaps the most famous and well known speeches in American history. And it is the blunt simplicity of the heartfelt words that makes it so powerful and endearing. Long, flowing, eloquent words may seem like they would be the make-up for a great speech, but it is important to remember that the simple ones are often the ones remembered by history.

    • ianhesterly says:

      I agree that it’s funny that Lincoln didn’t expect that speech to be remembered. It’s interesting that now, same as then, it sometimes is tough to know which events, moments, and speeches will make a lasting, historical impact. This is Lincoln’s most well-known speech, something that obviously would’ve surprised him.

  11. alexechu1 says:

    I am a sucker for good speeches. We all are. We are people, and people have emotions and feelings, hopes and dreams, and doubts and fears. We want to be persuaded to good causes, to be convinced of the truth, to be right, to be safe, to be together. Great leaders fulfill these desires of ours by teaching us vision and inspiring us to believe in it, to commit to it.

    I remember studying this speech in high school for its various rhetorical devices. They are masterfully used. By them, we (and Lincoln’s listeners, I’m sure) are reminded of the ideals that we live for and the principles that are at the core of our souls. And when the human mind has been stirred, there are few things that can stand in the path of its achievement.

  12. dbaker24 says:

    Nothing is more moving for a call to action through the great vocabulary and use of language in a speech. This is exactly what happened in the Gettysburg address. Lincoln used powerful ideas and speech to convey a message to strengthen and motivate. As we have seen its effect in history, it is obvious that it was quite effective.

  13. Speeches can most definitely change the course of history. Sometimes I still can’t believe how powerful three words became in 2008: Yes We Can. Suddenly, three words that were used by countless people across the world on a daily basis became imbued with an unprecedented amount of meaning and symbolism. And the simplicity of the statement only served to extend its reach and accentuate its profundity. Lincoln’s words came from the heart. They were accessible, and they rang true to those whose attention he was able to command. Undoubtedly the world’s best speeches will accomplish similar things, and I think that we should all strive to do the same.

  14. a truly powerful inspiration for any speaker should be “the King’s Speech.” It is such a good movie. Its story, based on history, is a very good example of how to turn weakness into strength. I recommend it.

  15. mckaycorbett says:

    I think the genius of Lincoln’s speech was that he gave it at the right place at the right time. Of course it makes it better that he was such a good speaker but I think what made it so great was the situation the country was in at the time and also the fact that Lincoln believed what he was preaching. I believe a speech is always made better when the person giving the speech lives what he preaches

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