President Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address encapsulates a major historical irony -- although Lincoln in his brief dedicatory speech claimed that "the world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here," it is not hard to argue in 2013 that the Gettysburg Address has nevertheless become Lincoln's most noteworthy and memorable work. Indeed the Hollywood film "Lincoln" begins with the somewhat implausible scene of Union soldiers reciting the Gettysburg Address back to Lincoln a year and a half after he delivered it. But what makes the Gettysburg Address great? It is my contention that there are three separate elements to this brief piece of oratory which may be understood as constituting the basic foundation of the greatness of the Gettysburg Address. The first element is Lincoln's mastery of the basic techniques of English prose and oratory, which can be seen in even a cursory examination of the text. The second element of the Address's greatness is its brevity and concision: the speech has fewer than 300 words and took Lincoln only two minutes to recite in 1863. The third element, however, is perhaps the most important -- and this is the Gettysburg Address's sense of irony. I do not mean the irony whereby Lincoln claimed it would not be remembered but it is still so memorable one hundred and fifty years later -- I mean the structural irony around which the long final paragraph of the Address turns. I hope to demonstrate that these three elements all combine to make the Gettysburg Address the great and enduring work that it is.
Although Abraham Lincoln received little formal schooling, the Gettysburg Address demonstrates a mastery of the various formal techniques of English prose. As someone who educated himself in how to write and speak, Lincoln presumably learned in the best possible way, by exposing himself to great texts of the past. But we may see in just the first sentence a number of salient literary techniques that Lincoln employs so well. Lincoln begins:
Four score 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.
Because the speech and its opening are so familiar to us, it is worth viewing with fresh eyes the various devices used here. "Four score and seven years" is obviously not how we speak on a daily basis, but it serves the function here not only of formality (by using archaic language) but also allusion to the Old Testament (which is where Lincoln's audience would know this archaic language from, in particular Psalms 90:10). But it also sets up the chance for Lincoln's running pattern of alliteration throughout the sentence: the "four" in "four score" links alliteratively with "fathers" and "forth" later in the sentence, just as "new nation" and "continent" / "conceived" / "created" all chime alliteratively. In addition we can see in Lincoln's opening the mastery of a key technique of English-language oratory, the triadic construction -- Lincoln's opening description of America gets three separate ways of being described, where it is "new," "conceived in liberty," and "dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." Perhaps the most skillful thing about Lincoln's triadic construction here is the way in which it begs the listener to connect the three separate elements of the sentence -- America is new, America is defined by liberty, and America is defined by equality. This has the effect of making America's modernity seem interrelated with its ideas of freedom and equality, and it makes the ideas of freedom and equality seem as though they reinforce each other even though this is by no means a foregone conclusion. Lincoln uses devices like this throughout the speech though -- indeed the closing line is perhaps his most famous example of triadic construction, even though we can see him using it in a less obvious way in the opening sentence.
Lincoln's literary skill, however, is well served by his utter brevity here. The Gettysburg Address is extremely short -- it can be memorized by a schoolchild. But why should this brevity be a central element of its greatness? The second paragraph of the Gettysburg Address offers a good example of how the concision makes it…