A Word Fitly Spoken”: Abraham Lincoln on the American Union
Lesson Plan #3: The Gettysburg Address (1863)—Defining the American Union
“It is the desire that, after the Oration, you, as Chief Executive of the Nation, formally set apart these grounds to their Sacred use by a few appropriate remarks.” So read the invitation to Abraham Lincoln to speak at the dedication of a national cemetery on the site of a pivotal Union victory at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. But contrary to popular belief, Lincoln did not give the keynote address. 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. The president’s remarks took only 272 words, which most American newspapers took little notice of. 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.”
This lesson will examine the most famous speech in American history to understand 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.
II. Guiding Question
How did Lincoln see the Civil War as an opportunity for the nation to bring forth a “new birth of freedom” (or freedom and equality for all), and why was this necessary for the survival of American self-government?
III. Learning Objectives
After completing this lesson, students should be able to:
Explain why some Northern Democrats criticized President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
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.
IV. Background Information for the Teacher
On November 19, 1863, at the dedication of the Soldiers National Cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Lincoln delivered what would become the most famous speech in American history. His dedicatory remarks began by going back in time, not to the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1863, or even back to the formation of the U.S. Constitution, which was now under attack from rebellious forces. He took his audience back to what he considered the true birth of the nation, July 4, 1776. Even though the President fought the war to defend the Union and Constitution, the fact that it was a civil war indicated that Americans needed to be reminded about the meaning of their Union and Constitution. For Lincoln, its meaning centered on the birth of an idea, expressed most clearly in the Declaration of Independence, that “all men are created equal.” The union of the American states was thus born of a united belief in human equality as the basis of legitimate self-government.
Although Lincoln believed America was “conceived in liberty,” this conception was not completely successful; the Civil War was testimony to that. What began as a “self-evident” truth in 1776, had become by 1860 a “proposition” to be demonstrated. As Lincoln put it in an 1855 letter, “On the question of liberty, as a principle, we are not what we have been.” At the Founding, most white Americans tolerated slavery as a necessary evil while they tried to establish the institutions and practices of self-government for most, if not all, of America’s inhabitants. But once cotton became “king” as the South’s chief export, Americans there began defending the black slavery that produced it as “a positive good.” This eventually led some Americans in the North, helped by Stephen Douglas’s “popular sovereignty” policy, to be indifferent towards black slavery and hence its spread into federal territories. This shift in public opinion about the evil of slavery, Lincoln thought, undermined the future of freedom for whites as well as blacks, for if race could be used as a reason for some to enslave others, what would prevent a future majority from enslaving a minority on the basis of some other arbitrary characteristic or interest?
So in the midst of a war that could very well destroy the Union and spell the end of self-government (if secession were to succeed), Lincoln presents “the great task remaining before us”: a fight to secure “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” The three-day battle at Gettysburg doubled the losses of any of the major conflicts of the war up to that point: Union army casualties totaled 23,000—over a quarter of Meade’s men—while Confederate losses totaled 28,000 dead, wounded, or missing—over a third of Robert E. Lee’s army. Thus, Lincoln saw the Civil War as a severe test of whether or not self-government “so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.”
At the outset, Lincoln prosecuted the war to preserve the Union, but abolitionists hoped the war would free the slaves. As commander-in-chief, Lincoln waited until emancipation became a military necessity before issuing the liberating decree on January 1, 1863. This made 1863 the Year of Jubilee, with freedom proclaimed to slaves throughout the rebellious sections of the country. Emancipation thus became the backdrop for Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address later that year.
With Emancipation declared for the vast majority of American slaves, Lincoln asked Americans to see that the fight to defend the Constitution and Union had become, as well, a fight to defend the freedom of the former slaves of the rebel states. Given the controversy about the Emancipation Proclamation, even in the North, Lincoln did not spell out in detail that a successful war for union had to be a war for emancipation; his Gettysburg Address, therefore, never mentions the Emancipation Proclamation or slavery. Nevertheless, he also never uses the word “union,” choosing instead to speak of a “nation” dedicated to liberty at its birth, a “nation” tested for that belief, and hence a “nation” he hopes will experience a “new birth of freedom.” No longer will the war be fought simply to preserve “the Constitution as it is, the Union as it was” —a popular slogan of Northern “peace Democrats.” As Lincoln put it in his December 1, 1862 State of the Union address, “In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free—honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best, hope of earth.”
In his Address to Congress in Special Session (July 4, 1861), Lincoln said the attempt of certain states to secede raised profound questions for America: “Is there, in all republics, this inherent, and fatal weakness?” “Must a government, of necessity, be too strong for the liberties of its own people, or too weak to maintain its own existence?” He argued that “this issue embraces more than the fate of these United States. It presents to the whole family of man, the question, whether a constitutional republic, or a democracy—a government of the people, by the same people—can, or cannot, maintain its territorial integrity, against its own domestic foes.” His use of the phrase, “a government of the people, by the same people,” which he repeats later in the Gettysburg Address, indicates his abiding concern for the viability of self-government.
To “save the union” was to save what Lincoln called “the last, best, hope of earth,” for the union’s survival entailed the survival of the Constitution and the rule of law from the anarchic principle of secession, what Lincoln called “rebellion thus sugar-coated.” In Lincoln’s mind, defending the American union from those who sought to divide it was the urgent business of every true lover of liberty, and thus the highest tribute the living could render the dead who were buried at Gettysburg. Thus Lincoln turned a cemetery dedication into a dedication of the living to a certain course of action: “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.” For the dead not to have died in vain, Lincoln exhorts his audience to pursue that “new birth of freedom” by defending the Union and securing the equal liberty for which it stands.
Moreover, Lincoln does so ironically by depreciating the value of words in the face of deeds: “The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.” Of course, the world can best remember the deeds of the dead precisely through the eloquence of words, something Everett conceded to Lincoln when he said that he “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.” Imagine if subsequent generations had to rely upon Everett’s oration to recall the feats of those who died at Gettysburg! Words do make a difference, and in a way that belies a superficial reading of Lincoln’s confession of an orator’s “poor power to add or detract.”
Not everyone was enthralled with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, even in the North. The Chicago Times, a Democratic newspaper and longtime critic of Lincoln, thought he exploited the cemetery dedication for political purposes. In an editorial written a few days after the Gettysburg ceremony, the Times argued that Union soldiers fought only to defend the Constitution and Union against rebellious citizens, and not, as Lincoln asserted, to inaugurate “a new birth of freedom” for blacks as well as whites.
V. Preparing to Teach this Lesson
This lesson makes use of written primary source documents and worksheets, available both online and in the Text Document that accompanies this lesson. Students can read and analyze source materials online, or do some of the work online and some in class from printed copies.
Read over the lesson. Bookmark the websites that you will use. If students will be working from printed copies in class, download the documents from the Text Document and duplicate as many copies as you will need. If students need practice in analyzing primary source documents, excellent resource materials are available at the EDSITEment-reviewed Learning Page of the Library of Congress: http://memory.loc.gov/learn/lessons/psources/analyze.html. Helpful Document Analysis Worksheets may be found at the site of the National Archives:
The goal of this lesson is for students to decide if Lincoln can answer the criticism of a Chicago Times editorial, which claimed that his Gettysburg Address misrepresented the purpose of the Civil War and the cause for which Union soldiers had died. Students will evaluate primary source documents, analyze the claims that are made in each, and then decide how well Lincoln can answer the charges made against him.
This lesson is built around the following sequence of tasks:
Students read the primary text of this lesson: Abraham Lincoln, “Gettysburg Address” (November 19, 1863)
Students analyze supplementary texts:
Chicago Times Editorial, “The President at Gettysburg” (November 23, 1863)
Abraham Lincoln, “Response to a Serenade” (July 7, 1863)
Abraham Lincoln, “Emancipation Proclamation” (January 1, 1863)
Students re-read and analyze the primary text: Abraham Lincoln, “Gettysburg Address” (November 19, 1863)
Students interrogate Lincoln with questions of their own making and then evaluate whether or not Lincoln’s answers stand up to the criticism of the editorial
The Gettysburg Address: An Initial Reading Have students read Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address to gain context for the criticism that follows. A link to the text of the Gettysburg Address can be found at the EDSITEment-reviewed site “The Gettysburg Address” of the Library of Congress:
http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/gadd/images/Gettysburg-2.jpg. The Gettysburg Address is also included in the Text Document on page 1, and can be printed out for student use. Near the end of the lesson students will answer questions about the address, available in worksheet form on pages 9-10 of the Text Document.
After students have read the Gettysburg Address, divide the class into groups of three or four for collaborative work on the following documents and accompanying questions.
Chicago Times Editorial, “The President at Gettysburg” (November 23, 1863)
The document analysis begins with a November 23rd editorial in the Chicago Times, a Democratic newspaper long critical of Abraham Lincoln. This editorial was published a few days after Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address and excoriated Lincoln for his interpretation of the war.
Have students read the Times editorial to gain perspective and ideas to interrogate Lincoln on his purposes for his Gettysburg eulogy. A link to the full text of the editorial can be found at the EDSITEment-reviewed site “Teaching American History”:
http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/index.asp?document=1721. The relevant excerpt is also included in the Text Document on pages 2-3, and can be printed out for student use. In their groups, have students work together on the answers to the following questions, which are also available in worksheet form on page 4 of the Text Document:
1. In the second paragraph of the editorial, list several things said by the author that show criticism of Lincoln’s address.
2. What subject is being addressed in the passages from the Constitution included by the author?
3. What does the author want to show when he quotes passages from the Constitution and then derides Lincoln for talking about equality of all human beings in his Gettysburg remarks?
4. Inferred from the editorial, what disagreement does the author have with Lincoln over “the cause for which they died”? What cause does the author think brought about the deaths of the soldiers who died at Gettysburg? For what cause does Lincoln think the soldiers died?
5. What words would you use to describe the tone of the author in the editorial?
After answering the questions, instruct the students in each group to collaborate in writing a paragraph summarizing the criticisms leveled against Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address by the writer of the editorial. They should refer to the worksheet questions and their answers in writing the paragraph.
Then have the group synthesize the criticisms into two or three questions which they will use to interrogate Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address. If students need help with this exercise, guide them through the process of turning a criticism into a question. For example, the Chicago Times editorial interprets the Constitution not as presuming the equality of men but rather the preservation of slavery, so the following question for Lincoln could be constructed: 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?
After they have framed two or three questions, tell students to put the questions aside for use later in the lesson.
Abraham Lincoln, “Response to a Serenade” (July 7, 1863): A Trial Run for Lincoln’s Official Dedicatory Remarks A few days after the Battle of Gettysburg, the president was serenaded at the White House. Lincoln preferred not to give extemporaneous remarks, but the recent victory at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, which led to Robert E. Lee’s retreat on July 4th, put the President in a good mood. Lincoln indulged the gathered crowd with a brief reflection on the significance of July 4th, what he called “a glorious theme, and the occasion for a speech.” But he hastened to add that he was “not prepared to make one worthy of the occasion.” He did, however, mention a few ideas that eventually found their way into his remarks at Gettysburg four months later.
Have students read Lincoln’s “Response to a Serenade” (July 7, 1863), and then answer the questions below, which are also available in worksheet form on page 6 of the Text Document. A link to the text of the “Response to a Serenade” can be found at the EDSITEment-reviewed site “Teaching American History”:
http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/index.asp?document=1720. Lincoln’s “Response to a Serenade” is also included in the Text Document on page 5, and can be printed out for student use.
Why does Lincoln call July 4, 1776 “the birthday of the United States of America”? Given that the War for Independence would not be over until the Treaty of Paris in 1783, what was born on July 4th that Lincoln views as the start of a new nation?
Lincoln calls the Southern attempt at secession “a gigantic Rebellion.” What did Lincoln say was its fundamental aim?
What does Lincoln say was the fundamental aim of the federal military throughout the Civil War?
Abraham Lincoln, “Final Emancipation Proclamation” (January 1, 1863): “Forever Free” When the Union army stopped Lee’s invasion of Maryland at the Battle of Antietam (September 17, 1862), Lincoln thought he could hasten the war to a close by attacking the support that slavery was giving the rebel cause. On September 22, he issued a Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that on January 1, 1863, the slaves in any state or part thereof where the people “shall then be in rebellion against the United States” shall be “then, thenceforward, and forever free.”
Have students read Abraham Lincoln’s “Final Emancipation Proclamation” and answer the questions that follow below, which are available in worksheet form on page 8 of the Text Document. A link to the full text of the Emancipation Proclamation can be found at the EDSITEment-reviewed site “The Gettysburg Address” of the National Archives:
http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/featured_documents/emancipation_proclamation/transcript.html. The relevant excerpts from the Emancipation Proclamation are also included in the Text Document on page 7, and can be printed out for student use.
The Constitution required that fugitive (or escaped) slaves be returned to their masters, a mandate that was enforced by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. What effect does Lincoln’s Proclamation have on “persons held as slaves” in rebellious areas of the United States?
Besides protecting their efforts to “labor faithfully for reasonable wages,” what additional opportunity does the Emancipation Proclamation offer the freed slaves?
What reasons does Lincoln give to justify the Emancipation Proclamation? (Recall that at his presidential inauguration, Lincoln declared no intention “to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists.”)
The Gettysburg Address: Analysis of Lincoln’s “Few Appropriate Remarks” Have students re-read Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and answer the questions that follow below, which are available in worksheet form on pages 9-10 of the Text Document. A link to the text of the Gettysburg Address can be found at the EDSITEment-reviewed site “The Gettysburg Address” of the Library of Congress:
http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/gadd/images/Gettysburg-2.jpg. The Gettysburg Address is also included in the Text Document on page 1, and can be printed out for student use.
Why does Lincoln begin his eulogy to the soldiers buried at Gettysburg with a reference to “Four score and seven years ago”? What significant event happened in America eighty-seven years before 1863?
The Declaration of Independence says “all men are created equal” is a “self-evident” truth, whereas Lincoln at Gettysburg calls it a “proposition.” What happened in the American mindset, especially regarding the nation’s policies towards slavery, to turn what was once considered a self-evident truth into a proposition that had to be demonstrated? How does the Civil War support this claim of Lincoln’s and how would this proposition be demonstrated?
What does human equality have to do with the Civil War? How is the war a test of self-government’s ability to maintain itself?
What does Lincoln say is the best way for the living to honor the dead at Gettysburg? (Hint: How does Lincoln use the idea of dedication to shift his audience from the ceremony at the battlefield cemetery to the audience’s responsibility once the ceremony is over?)
What is “the unfinished work” or “great task remaining before” his audience, the American people?
What is “the cause” for which the soldiers buried at Gettysburg “gave the last full measure of devotion”?
What is “the new birth of freedom” Lincoln calls for, and how does it differ from the nation’s original birth? (Hint: What decree did Lincoln issue on January 1, 1863?)
Put Lincoln in the Hot Seat: Interrogate Him! Direct each group to retrieve the questions they framed after their reading of the Chicago Times editorial and use them to take aim at Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. They are to pose their questions to Lincoln's Address as a prosecutor would do, and then they are to switch positions by taking the stand and answering each of their questions as they think Lincoln would answer, based upon the knowledge they gained from their analysis of his speech.
Students Decide: Did Lincoln’s Answers Pass the Test?
Each student will now make a decision, independent of the other members of his or her group: Do Lincoln’s answers stand up to the criticism of the editorial? Ask students to rate Lincoln’s response to the editorial on a spectrum of 1 to 5, with 1 representing a least favorable opinion of his ability to answer the criticism, and 5 representing a most favorable opinion. Then have students write a paragraph justifying why they chose the number they did.
Instruct students to write a one- or two-paragraph response to any or all of the following questions:
For what causes did Lincoln believe the soldiers were fighting in the Civil War?
Why date the nation’s birth or origin to the Declaration of Independence and not the ratification of the Constitution?
How does a nation ensure that free government “shall not perish from the earth”? What is “the great task remaining before” any free people?
In your judgment, who had the better viewpoint on the purpose of the Civil War, the editorialist from the Chicago Times or President Lincoln? Why?
For further thought and reflection:
(a) Count how often Lincoln uses the word “nation” in his Gettysburg Address. Why do you think he uses “nation” repeatedly, and not the word “union” at all? What might “nation” suggest or make clear that “union” does not?
(b) Lincoln never mentions slavery in his Gettysburg Address. Why not? How is it implied in his dedicatory remarks?
VIII. Extending the Lesson
Abraham Lincoln, “Final Emancipation Proclamation” (January 1, 1863): A Further Examination of the “Central Act” of Lincoln’s Presidency
Lincoln once said of the Emancipation Proclamation that “as affairs have turned, it is the central act of my administration and the great event of the nineteenth century.” This remark came after the House of Representatives finally approved the Thirteenth Amendment in January 1865 (the Senate had passed it in April 1864), an amendment Lincoln worked hard to get passed. Although Lincoln has been referred to as the Great Emancipator, some question if the Emancipation Proclamation was even a legitimate exercise of presidential authority. Moreover, given that the Proclamation came a year and a half after the war had begun, and after Lincoln had revoked two emancipation declarations by his generals, others wonder if Lincoln’s decision to liberate American slaves was more a reluctant decision than a sincere strike against the peculiar institution. Students can begin to answer these questions by reading the complete text of Lincoln’s “Final Emancipation Proclamation” and answering additional questions unrelated to the impact the Proclamation had on Lincoln’s writing of the Gettysburg Address.
Have students read the full text of Abraham Lincoln’s “Final Emancipation Proclamation” and answer the questions that follow below, which are available in worksheet form on pages 13-14 of the Text Document. A link to the text of the Emancipation Proclamation can be found at the EDSITEment-reviewed site “The Gettysburg Address” of the National Archives:
http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/featured_documents/emancipation_proclamation/transcript.html. The full text of the Emancipation Proclamation is also included in the Text Document on pages 11-12, and can be printed out for student use.
Which slaveholding states did the Emancipation Proclamation apply to, and which slaveholding states were not included in this proclamation? (Hint: Ten slaveholding states were covered by the Emancipation Proclamation and five slaveholding states were not covered.)
Why did the Emancipation Proclamation not apply to all the slaveholding states? What did a slaveholding state have to do (by January 1, 1863) to avoid having their slaves freed under the Emancipation Proclamation?
Which of the eleven seceded states is not covered by the Emancipation Proclamation? Why do you think it was not included?
According to the Emancipation Proclamation, what authority did Lincoln have to free certain slaves and for what constitutional purpose?
Contrasting the Emancipation Proclamation with the Gettysburg Address, which sounds more eloquent? What explains this difference? (Hint: think about the different aims of the documents and different occasions that moved Lincoln to write them.)