What are some rhetorical devices used in The Gettysburg Address by Abraham Lincoln?

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Lincoln had the ability, shown especially in the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address, to imbue his words with a gravity unique in American political speechmaking. Much of his phraseology is influenced by the King James version of the Bible, which he often quotes directly. But even in the...

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Lincoln had the ability, shown especially in the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address, to imbue his words with a gravity unique in American political speechmaking. Much of his phraseology is influenced by the King James version of the Bible, which he often quotes directly. But even in the simplest statements, his wording is striking and unique, and this is a major reason his words are rhetorically so alive and vibrant. We can start with:

Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent . . .

He uses the elevated expression "four score and seven" instead of simply saying "Eighty-seven" or "In 1776 . . ." Then he says "our fathers" rather than "our forefathers" or (as we do today) "the founding fathers." The unilateral, metaphorical use of the word "father" conveys an intimacy and weight to the idea, to our conception of the founders, which would otherwise be absent. In saying "brought forth" rather than "founded," and in adding "on this continent," we get an impression of grandiosity. All of this sets up the main message to follow by appealing to the emotions of Americans and their sense of the greatness of their history, brief though it was at the time.

The other significant thing about the first sentence, though it might escape us at first, is that he refers to America as "a nation." In its original (and still most precise) sense, a "nation" is really an ethnicity, a people unified by ancestry rather than simply by living in the same geographic area, country, or political entity. In other words, Lincoln sees all Americans, whatever their background or ethnic origin, as having formed a new nation or nationality. And this, he says, is one "conceived in liberty." Again, there is a weightiness in the choice of those words. The cumulative effect of each of these elements in the single, opening sentence is to make the auditor immediately willing to be persuaded by whatever should follow.

We can find similar techniques line by line through the address, which is so eloquent that one almost wishes Lincoln could have extended it further; it seems almost too brief. But brevity—the concise way he puts forth his basic idea—is another element of his rhetorical technique. We do not need to analyze sentence by sentence, but we can move forward to the famous closing and see that there is paradoxically both brevity and the effectiveness of repetition in the phrases "of the people, by the people, for people" and that even the simple choice to omit the word "and" before the final phrase adds gravity to the whole statement. In the final clause, Lincoln states that these things "shall not perish from the earth." The conception is, of course, of America as a living thing, "conceived" as he stated in the opening and not permitted to "perish." It is a being tied to the "earth." The word choice suggests the atmosphere of legend, perhaps even of the personification of Earth as Mother in Greco-Roman mythology.

Some would say I am pointing out elements of style that were typical of the nineteenth century as a whole, in which all writing, not only Lincoln's, tends to sound nobler and more elevated than our present-day, plainer, and more scaled-down language. This is partly true. But if we compare the Gettysburg Address with even other writings of Lincoln or other statesmen of his time, we can see that there is something special, an extra gravity, in this address. It is a movingly emotional and convincing edifice of words which Lincoln would equal one more time, a year and a half later, in his Second Inaugural—delivered just over a month before he was to be assassinated.

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One of the rhetorical devices used in Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is the repetition of important words in order to get a deeper message across to the listeners. Some words that are repeated throughout the address are: dedicate, consecrate, and conceived. The word dedicate can be used to separate a place or idea of significance to become something sacred and more than just ordinary. "Dedicate" can also mean that a person recommits himself/herself to an idea. By using this word repetitively, Lincoln can impress upon the minds of his listeners the importance of both meanings of the word. Consider the dual meanings of the other words that are repeated in the speech, and analyze how they are used in each sentence structure, and a clearer meaning of any implied ideas can be understood in greater depth. It is rhetorically sound to make the audience work a little for meaning in order for the message to embed more deeply into their minds. Another device that should be looked into is the use of negatives like "cannot."

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