The day was beautiful and the crowd was solemn. Abraham Lincoln took his place at the podium and said what he had come to say. He didn’t speak in the florid style so popular at the time, but in tones as measured as the words he’d written. …
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The speech was so brief that those present were confused when it was over (Einhorn 98). The audience wasn’t impressed that day, but Lincoln’s deliberate use of Biblical phrasing, his repetition of words and ideas, and his use of literary parallelism all conveyed his belief that he—and the country he lead—had been given a divine mandate to preserve both the Union and the concept of the equality of all people. Leaders have pronounced orations over fallen heroes ever since Pericles praised the bravery of the men who died in the Peloponnesian War. Pericles spoke of the nobility of the State for which they died, and his exhortations convinced the living to emulate the dead “as a model” (Thucydides 112). Lincoln’s task was no less difficult than that of Pericles. The nation was only half-way through the bloody war, and stunned by the sheer scale of the death. Lincoln was determined to define the stakes of the war and emphasize the need to continue the fight. If Pericles used epideictic rhetoric to spur the Athenians onward, Lincoln combined ritualized rhetoric with a literary style designed to signify the grave importance of the challenge that was faced by the nation. What better way to add importance than by using words and phrases that ring with Biblical overtones? Lincoln didn’t quote from the Bible that day, but he used Biblical-sounding language deliberately and purposely to challenge Americans to continue to fight. (Einhorn, 96) “Four score and seven years ago,” he began, instead of using a more common formulation like ‘eighty-seven years ago’. Lincoln was telling his audience that the founding of our nation was a holy business, one worked by “our fathers”. He meant, of course, the founding fathers of the United States; but the phrase linked the nation’s founders with the ‘forefathers’ of the Jewish nation. ‘Our fathers’ were holy leaders who guided a holy people. Lincoln went on to say that the nation founded by our fathers was dedicated—just as the Biblical prophet Samuel was dedicated to God’s service by a grateful mother who had difficulty conceiving him. This is particularly interesting in the speech’s first sentence, when Lincoln speaks of the nation as being first conceived, and then dedicated (Einhorn 98). Lincoln is saying that the United States, conceived by an act of God, had then been dedicated to the divine mission of pursuing equality for all. Lincoln reaffirmed his belief that the United States was ‘brought forth’ for this purpose alone and therefore could not fail. Lincoln often used repetition to make a point, and the Gettysburg Address was no exception. In addition to using Biblical language, Lincoln repeated words, ideas, and sounds. Some of the sentences in the speech are highly alliterative, for instance (Bassler 44). The repetition of sounds gave the Gettysburg Address the feel of a great literary work, lending both cadence and gravity to the actual meaning of the words. He repeated words, too. He stressed the word ‘dedication’—again, a phrase with Biblical overtones—repeating it three separate times. Lincoln pointed out that the nation had long ago been dedicated to the idea of equality, and now the very ground was dedicated by the blood of those who fought for equality. The only possible response, he continued, was for the living to dedicate themselves to the unfinished work of equality. The constant repetition of the word drives home the idea that the war was not a casual undertaking, but one which required total commitment—and sacrifice (Bellah). Lincoln also repeated specific concepts in his brief address, combining them to create larger themes. Lincoln was speaking to an audience of mourners who were there to honor dead
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