The Gettysburg Address

by Abraham Lincoln

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What is the thesis statement of the speech The Gettysburg Address?

The thesis can be stated or implied.

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The overarching and enduring message of Lincoln's address is a statement about nationhood. The United States is a nation that the founding fathers gave birth to through the revolutionary struggle. It is an idea that springs from the mind rather than from geological or historical borders. Significantly, the idea that gave birth to the nation and continues its justified existence is the idea of liberty and equality.

The test of that idea is the Civil War, with the North defending these earlier aspirations. The people gathered in Gettysburg are being called to give rebirth to that same animating idea and to engage in "the great task" of freedom.

The structure of the speech is brilliant. Lincoln goes from an original birth to a future birth, from original freedom and equality to future freedoms and equality. In the middle of the speech, as well as in the middle of the motif, lies the dead of Gettysburg—those who gave their life on behalf of the idea of the United States, rather than any personal interest or tribal benefit.

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A good thesis statement on The Gettysburg Address is a change in focus of the North's conduct during the Civil War. Initially, the war was fought to preserve the Union in the wake of the South's secession. But by the time Lincoln came to make his famous Address, it became clear that there was so much more at stake than just the restoration of the way things were before. The heroic sacrifice of the Union dead and all the immense bloodshed, death, and suffering of the previous four years would've been in vain if "a new birth of freedom"—to use Lincoln's words—did not come into being after the war. This meant that not only would the Union be re-established, but that it would be re-established on the basis of freedom for all, including and especially the slaves.

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Lincoln's speech at Gettysburg, PA, in November, 1863--widely considered to be the address that help to heal divisions within the country--has two main and interconnected thesis statements in this very persuasive speech.

His first thesis centers on his and his listener's inability to dedicate, in any way other than technical, the cemetery:

. . . we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate--we cannot hallow--this ground.  The brave men, living and dead . . . have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.

Lincoln's "argument" here is that no one except the combatants can effectively "hallow" this ground because it is only they who have given of themselves to insure the continued existence of the United States.  Lincoln is arguing here that although we can honor the soldiers for their sacrifice we have no right to "consecrate" the land over which they fought and died because the cost was theirs not ours.

And the second, but very closely aligned argument, is that although we--the onlookers--can not consecrate the land already consecrated by our soldier's blood and devotion we can, and must, 

. . . resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain--that this nation, under God, shall a new birth of freedom. . . .

In essence, Lincoln's theses are that, one, we do not have the power (actually, the right) to consecrate this hallowed ground, but, two, we do have the obligation to insure that our soldiers, who fought to keep us one country, succeed in the goal for which "they here gave the last full measure of devotion."


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