I just learned it’s Abraham Lincoln’s birthday today (or would have been if he’d still been alive; is there a word for the anniversary of someone’s date of birth, even after they’re dead? If there is, I don’t know it), so thought I’d do an analysis of the Gettysburg Address, possibly THE most famous speech in American history (with ‘I have a dream!‘ coming second). That despite it being only 2 minutes 270 words and 10 sentences long.
It’s proof that you don’t have to be verbose or a hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophile (someone who uses 10-dollar words when a 10-cent one will do fine) to be a great communicator. If he’d been alive today, Abe would have been a great Tweeter!
I love the opening scene in the movie ‘Lincoln’ where two ordinary, uneducated soldiers not only know the speech, but can recite it by heart.
I know you’ve all seen it in print 100 times, but I’ve included it below and highlighted the rhetorical devices he used in bold, with the name of the device in brackets and (CAPITALS). I count 20 used in 2 minutes, yet it’s not ‘forced’ or ‘hammy’ and is stirring rather than theatrical. If you’re unsure what any of the names mean, visit my article on Rhetorical devices for a full explanation with other examples.
“Four score and seven (ANASTROPHE) years ago our fathers brought forth (ALLITERATION) 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 (ANAPHORA & PARALLELISM), can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We (TRICOLON & ANAPHORA) have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives (ANASTROPHE) that that nation might live (ANTITHESIS). It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow (TRICOLON, PARALLELISM, ANAPHORA) — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power (ALLITERATION) 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 (ANTITHESIS & EPISTROPHE)). 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 (ANAPHORA) to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we may take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion (EPISTROPHE) — 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 (TRICOLON, ANTISTROPHE & ASYNDETON), shall not perish from the earth (ANASTROPHE).”
If you like this, have a look at the dozens of articles on public speaking and making presentations on my website.