A speech writer's take on important speeches, and the craft of writing for an audience.
Monday, April 19, 2010
Speech By: Abraham Lincoln Date: November 19, 1863 Location: Gettysburg, Pennsylvania Occasion: Dedication of National Cemetery
The Bully Pulpit has already covered the Gettysburg Address. But, since it deservedly resides on Time’s list of Top Ten speeches, it is worth another review. Besides, there is always more to say about this magnificent speech - little appreciated, by those who first heard it.
It is important to consider the context of this speech. Obviously, it was part of the dedication ceremony for the new national cemetery, on the site of the largest battle ever fought on the North American continent. But so much more was at stake than that.
President Lincoln was facing re-election in less than a year. No nation in history had ever been able to host a free election amidst a civil war. His prospects for success in that re-election effort seemed dim. He would prevail in that election, but no one listening knew that.
The battle had occurred on Union soil, because the Army of Northern Virginia had the ability to invade, putting Washington itself at risk. With the lense of historical perspective, we know the South would never again be able to invade North. But those in the crowd did not know that.
After the war, it became obvious that Gettysburg was the battle from which the South could never recover. Its losses over those three days of battle had been too severe. But no one on either side yet knew that.
All those uncertainties which plagued those who heard the Gettysburg address, are no longer apparent to us, in the clear light of historical knowledge.
Lincoln not only sought to address these uncertainties, as well as to honor the dead whose final resting place was being dedicated that day, he had the higher object of inspiring his people on to final victory.
For the first two years of the war, Lincoln had steadfastly maintained the issue was over secession - not slavery. In late 1862 Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which took effect January 1, 1863. By November of that year, Lincoln, speaking at Gettysburg, no longer cast the bitter conflict between the states as a question of union versus secession, but as "a new birth of freedom." In his first sentence he pointed out the nation’s founding had been “dedicated to the proposition that all men are create equal.”
He proceeds with spare, yet masterfully descriptive language. He also uses classic speech techniques such as repetition, particularly in groups of three. “we can not dedicate...we can not consecrate...we can not hallow this ground.”
The phrase “we can not” serves the same purpose as bullets on a sheet of paper do for a reader - it warns of each important point that is about to be made. Notice also he uses “can not” as separate words rather than the more common cannot. The purpose is to make each syllable distinct as part of the emphasis.
As a final trick to capture the audience, Lincoln reverses the repetition technique in the final sentence, placing the repeated word at the end of each thought rather than at the beginning: “- and that government, of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
A veteran writer, researcher and lecturer, with more than 25 years experience in politics, political communications, and public relations. I’ve studied speech writing at NYU, and authored a number of published articles on the practice of lobbying as well as topics in American history.
My lecture on the War of 1812: 1812 – Uncle Sam’s First War, is now a lecture in the New York Speakers in the Humanities bicentennial commemoration series.