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By Harold Paddock

We all know the words.

It starts with "Four score and seven..." and ends with "…shall not perish from the earth." Most of us can quote portions of it. A lucky few have memorized all of it. But do we know some of the background of and the emotional power behind the Gettysburg Address?

Contrary to myth or folklore, the Address was not written on the back of an envelope. Early drafts exist on White House stationery. Lincoln was something of a late addition to the cemetery dedication speakers list. But he did have the time and desire to start working on the Address while still in Washington after the November mid-term elections but before November 19, 1863.

Lincoln had been pressed by supporters to make some public pronouncement about the war's aims and purpose, in an effort to justify the great human cost expended at Gettysburg and elsewhere. Rather than use a newspaper article or a speech to Congress, he chose the invitation to deliver "a few appropriate remarks" at the National Cemetery dedication, knowing that newspapers would cover the event.

As a veteran trial attorney, he knew the necessity of preparation, and he spent considerable time writing, revising, and rewriting his remarks. It is a testament to his writing and editing skills that the Address is only ten sentences long, yet those 272 words ring through the ages.

"Rhetoric" has developed a negative connotation recently, as in "empty rhetoric" or "political rhetoric." Back in Lincoln's day, it still had its original meaning as "effective or persuasive communication." Let's look at how Lincoln used rhetoric to communicate with great effect.

Lincoln used a rhetorical device called anaphora –the careful repetition of key words—to make a point. He does this in triads where he repeats certain verbal elements three times. The famous examples are "we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground…" and "… government of the people, by the people, for the people… ."

In addition to the verbal triples, the entire Address has three logical parts: the past (birth of the nation in liberty and equality), present (gathering on the battlefield to honor the fallen), and future (rededicating the nation to a new birth of freedom in a government of, by, and for the people).

Lincoln also repeats certain key words such as "dedicate", and "nation." The most repeated word in the Address is "we", used ten times in 272 words. He also uses "us", without mentioning "you" or "I." Unlike many modern politicians focusing on "I" as in "I promise…" or "I will fight for…", Lincoln uses "we" and "us" to involve his audience and stress the shared burdens and objectives of the Civil War. He uses "we" as referring to all citizens of a unified nation, not citizens of separate sovereign states.

Another rhetorical mechanism Lincoln uses is antithesis—the comparison of opposites. He contrasts the living and the dead, birth and death, and "what we say here" with "what they [the brave soldiers] did here".

Perhaps the most significant rhetorical device is to entirely avoid any reference to the United States Constitution (which after all, condoned slavery). Instead, Lincoln relates the basic purpose of the nation not in the formation of a government, but in the recognition of the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal", without monarchy, nobility, or servitude. Remember, 87 years (notice how that doesn't sound as noble as four score and seven?) from 1863 is 1776, not the date of the adoption of the Constitution.

Let us take time on Tuesday, November 19 and reread the Gettysburg Address. Let us appreciate once more the enormous power and gentle elegance of Lincoln's words. Let us remember every day that providing equal justice under law is a fundamental part of any worthy legal system conceived in liberty. Let us recognize that our justice system is a vital part of a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

Old Abe would be proud of us, just as we should be proud of him for what he said 150 years ago this month.