150th Anniversary of the Gettysburg Address: A Few Well-Chosen Remarks

On November 5, 2013

Lincoln Gettysburg.jpgWhen Abraham Lincoln was invited in the fall of 1863 to speak at the dedication of a national cemetery on the site of a pivotal Union victory at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, it was not to give the main speech. That oration was delivered by Edward Everett, a Massachusetts statesman, vice-presidential candidate of the Constitutional Union Party in 1860, and the most famous orator of his day. Everett spoke to the crowd of 15,000 without notes for over two hours, giving an example of the kind of ornate, learned, and transcendentalist rhetoric that was expected at such ceremonies.

The president used only 272 words in his dedication of the cemetery grounds, with most American newspapers taking little notice of the now famous speech. But the day after the ceremony, Everett wrote Lincoln to say, “I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near the central idea of the occasion in two hours, as you did in two minutes.” Lincoln’s spare, poetic, and biblical speech buried the old rhetorical style of Everett and set the standard for a new kind of speech, which is still the model for such solemn commemorative occasions. If all American literature comes out of Huckleberry Finn, as Ernest Hemingway suggested, all modern American speeches come out of the Address.

How Lincoln turned a perfunctory eulogy at a cemetery dedication into a concise and profound meditation on the meaning of the Civil War and American union is the focus of the EDSITEment lesson The Gettysburg Address: Defining the American Union. The lesson, part of a  curriculum unit on the political thought of Lincoln, will deepen student understanding of the momentous themes of freedom, equality, and emancipation so central to any strong understanding of the Civil War experience.

Common Core

As we apblog-logo-banner-smler.jpgproach the 150th anniversary of the Address, teachers and students have an additional reason to dive into the work for its literary and historical importance. The CCSS lists the Address as one of its “exemplar texts” illustrating the kind of complexity, range, and quality Grade 9–10 students need to master.

By guiding students through an analysis of the key ideas and themes that animate the Gettysburg Address and the structure and craft with which Lincoln developed them over the course of three paragraphs, the learning activities will strengthen the higher-order thinking skills students need to meet the Common Core Standards.

What the lesson contains

The elements of the lesson plan includes the following:

The open-ended question guiding this lesson is “How did Lincoln see the Civil War as an opportunity for the nation to bring forth a “new birth of freedom” (or liberty for all), and why was this necessary for the survival of American self-government?”

Active student learning: understanding the implications of the Address

In order to answer this, students need to:

  • Explain why Lincoln thought July 4, 1776, was the birthday of the United States
  • Articulate the connection Lincoln made between emancipation and preserving the Union
  • Describe the “unfinished task” that Lincoln presented to the American people at Gettysburg

In the Background to the Teacher section of the lesson, teachers will find a brief account of Lincoln’s thought written by Lucas Morel, a distinguished student of his political thought.

The student activities begin with a first reading of the Address, along with an editorial in the Chicago Times, a Democratic newspaper long critical of Lincoln, published a few days after the Address.

The editorial raises this question: How can Lincoln say that our forefathers dedicated this nation to “the proposition that all men are created equal” when the Constitution assumes the inequality of men by permitting and safeguarding slavery?

By grappling with this question, students will be primed for the next stage of the activity, in which they read impromptu remarks Lincoln made a few days after the Battle of Gettysburg. In those remarks Lincoln is already thinking of the “great theme” that will constitute the Address:

How long ago is it?—eighty odd years—since on the Fourth of July for the first time in the history of the world a nation by its representatives, assembled and declared as a self-evident truth that “all men are created equal.” [Cheers.] That was the birthday of the United States of America.

Now the students return to the Address for a second reading, followed by a series of text-dependent questions. These questions allow students to see for themselves Lincoln’s argument that American constitutional democracy rests on the equality of human beings; that the “great rebellion” against this principle must be put down; and that the “unfinished task” before the American people is to finally make good on the promise of the Declaration by extending “the new birth of freedom” to black people. Students are then expected to weigh the merits of Lincoln’s argument and whether the criticism in Chicago editorial is legitimate and justified.

With this lesson, teachers can challenge their students to understand and appreciate at a very high level one of the greatest “informational” texts in the English language.

Additional Resources


“Lincoln’s address at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery, November 19, 1863,” Library of Congress.


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