Why does Lincoln say that "we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground"? Explain.

Expert Answers
andrewnightingale eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Lincoln delivered this speech during the American Civil War, on Thursday, November 19, 1863, during the afternoon, at the dedication of the Soldier's National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The address was made four and a half months after the defeat of the Confederate armies by those of the Union at the Battle of Gettysburg.

To consecrate means to declare something holy and hallow is its synonym. Lincoln is saying that the ground cannot be declared holy, because: 

The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.

Lincoln means that the extreme sacrifice the men who had fought and died on that battlefield have made was in itself a greater act than any other could now, or ever, perform in ordaining the soil on which they died. Their deed was more than enough for the ground to be consecrated. The blood that was spilt there blessed the soil. It would, he suggests, be presumptuous of him or any other to believe that they could do those who gave their lives greater honor by declaring the ground hallowed.

These words indicate the great respect Lincoln had for those who gave up their lives to fight for a noble cause. He wanted them to be honored through more than symbolic gestures such as this one—he felt they should be held in esteem in the hearts and minds of all Americans. That should be how a nation conveys its greatest gratitude.

mrkirschner eNotes educator| Certified Educator

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.

The Gettysburg Address remains one of the more poignant examples of written and oratory skill in the history of the Republic.  Lincoln is in Gettysburg to dedicate a cemetery at the site of a key battle during the Civil War.  Since the speech was delivered a mere four months after the actual showdown, the emotions of the battle are still fresh.

Abraham Lincoln states that the grounds of Gettysburg are sacred and no human can bless or consecrate this land.  He believes that the soldiers that have fought and died for the Union cause have already consecrated and dedicated these memorial grounds. In the next lines, Lincoln states, somewhat ironically, that history will not remember the words spoken on this day, but will forever remember the sacrifices that soldiers have made in dying for the Union.