With the anniversary of Gettysburg upon us, Alan Mason gives us a lesson on Lincoln’s famous address.


November 2013 is the 150 anniversary of the Gettysburg Address by American
President, Abraham Lincoln. This short essay is offered for British readers who may be unfamiliar with these details of American history. The battle of Gettysburg took place in July 1863. It lasted for three days and was the costliest battle of the entire Civil War, resulting in 40, 000 men killed or wounded.

It was the high-watermark of the Southern or Confederate cause. Before Gettysburg there was a chance that the South might have achieved permanent status as a separate nation; after Gettysburg it was downhill to the final defeat and capitulation, less than two years later, at Appomattox Court House on the 9 April 1865.


On 19 November there was a gathering at a field in Gettysburg to dedicate a military cemetery to the Northern or Union dead. After a two-hour address by a gifted orator, President Lincoln spoke for just two minutes. Modestly, he thought that though history would remember what was done at Gettysburg, it would not remember what was said at this field gathering. The two-hour speech was forgotten, but Lincoln’s two-minute address has passed into history, not just of the USA, but all nations who value true democracy.


Rather than giving the Address itself, (which is in an Appendix), I now quote from a commentary by a British academic, Lionel Elvin.

“The finest expression of Lincoln’s faith is in the famous Gettysburg Address, and perhaps nothing reveals the quality of the man so well as this short speech. It merits detailed attention. It is a simple speech, but not so simple as would at first appear. There are depths in it which make their appeal even before the reason for their appeal is understood.

This is a war aims speech; at the beginning of the Civil War the South had known what it was fighting for, the North had been somewhat less sure. Lincoln had endeavoured to make it sure: they were fighting to preserve the Union, for if that broke the one great modern attempt to found a democratic nation would have failed.

There is no kind of speech which so lends itself to high-minded half-sincerities as a war aims speech. Lincoln’s did not fail in this way. He did not give in to the rhetorical temptation. He really did understand why the’ war was being fought and he could state it so that everybody else might understand too.

Lincoln begins, not “eighty-seven years ago” but “four score and seven years ago”; he uses the rhetorical device of repetition (justified if there is weight enough of feeling)—”we cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground”; and in the beautifully measured last sentence he rises to a great height. But it is to be noted that hardly have the rhythms risen to oratory than they come back again to those of ordinary speech—”Now we are engaged in a great civil war”—”It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this”—as if feeling demanded high expression but honesty demanded that it be ever checked against the level tones of life. It is the rhythms of the speech that persuade one not only of its feeling but of its sincerity.

Most important of all, the source of power in this address is something that at first might escape notice, with such quiet integrity is it used. The speech has shape, is bound together, because of one metaphor that runs through it. This is a metaphor that goes straight to our deepest feelings, the metaphor of conception and birth and. death and re-birth.

The metaphor operates, as it were, in a double frame. First it is applied to the whole nation, that was conceived free and democratic and that came to birth in the pangs of the Revolutionary War, that was now in the midst of a life and death struggle, and that after this must go forward to a new birth of freedom if democracy was to, endure.

Secondly, it is applied to the individual: to the soldiers who had been born and who had died at Gettysburg, and to those who were assembled there that day and must, in the presence of the dead, rededicate themselves that “government of the people, by the people, for the people” should not perish from the earth. In this speech the life purposes of the individual and of the nation are fused perfectly through an appeal to the deepest and commonest human experience.

Lincoln could make such a speech because throughout his life he had been harmonizing his feeling for politics with his feeling for men and women, because with great inner effort he had learned how to harmonize true feeling with sound thinking. He could use language that went to the hearts of men because it came from deep in his own. It is this faculty that gives him his especial greatness: the quality of so maturing experience, even in his years of apparent failure, that when his great and grave moment came he could emerge greatly, with complete humility but with complete self-possession.”


He was well-qualified to write about America. Born in 1905, he was educated at state elementary schools, Southend High School and Cambridge University. He first visited America with a Cambridge Union debating team in 1927, spent two years as a Commonwealth Fellow at Yale University, after having taken his degree at Cambridge. He revisited America in 1935 with his wife, a Californian; and in the following summer lectured at the University of California.

On returning to Britain he taught English literature, and attempted, unsuccessfully, to enter politics as a Labour MP. During the Second World War he was a senior Civil Servant and he returned to academic life in the post-war period.

Elvin wrote his commentary in a book, “Men of America”, published in 1941, at the height of the Second World War. Twenty years later, I met Lionel Elvin when he was Director of the Institute of Education of the University of London. I was a graduate student at the time, and I found him to be a gentle, courteous and interesting man.


“Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

“Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot 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 world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us, the living, rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honoured dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”


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