One surprising and important fact about the “Gettysburg Address” is that, in terms of scale, it constitutes a mere fragment of the Gettysburg consecration ceremony. The man who invited Lincoln to speak, the orator and former statesman Edward Everett, preceded Lincoln on the podium, delivering a two-hour speech of his own. Lincoln’s two-minute address was startlingly brief by comparison. Nonetheless, it impressed the audience and has been canonized as one of the most powerful pieces of rhetoric in American history. No doubt its brevity counts among its strengths.
Lincoln makes a remarkable rhetorical move by imaginatively uniting the fallen soldiers from both sides of the conflict. The “honored dead” are not singled out as the honored Union dead. As ever, Lincoln plays peacemaker, refraining from falling into the well-worn bipartisan game of us versus them. Not only does Lincoln refuse to demonize the Confederacy, he never names—or draws a distinction between—the two sides of the war. While the mission Lincoln proposes reflects the values of the Union cause, he considers all of the dead soldiers as American and, therefore, worth commemorating. This rhetoric of unity ultimately serves Lincoln’s larger aim, which is not so much the destruction of the Confederacy as the healing of the nation.
As an orator, Lincoln is often praised for his poetic control of language. Indeed, the “Gettysburg Address” finds Lincoln using the musical possibilities of language to produce great pathos—or emotion—in his audience. Most notable is Lincoln’s use of anaphora, the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of a series of clauses. Consider “we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground,” or “of the people, by the people, for the people.” The latter passage is so concise and memorable that it has become a kind of shorthand definition of American democracy. Notice, too, how Lincoln continually appeals to pathos by evoking shared history and shared values: freedom, democracy, and the survival of the nation.