The most obvious problem in approaching Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is that we know it so well. If you've received a good education, you might even be able to recite it from memory. Everyone knows the irony of that line where Lincoln says "the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here" — ironic because his brief dedicatory remarks have become the most famous American speech.
In fact, the Gettysburg Address must rank high among the greatest speeches anywhere. It is right up there with the Apology of Socrates and the Funeral Oration of Pericles, with the added benefit that Lincoln's was actually written and delivered by him, whereas the speeches by Socrates and Pericles come to us secondhand, so to speak, from Plato and Thucydides. Those ancient Greek speeches may or (more likely) may not have actually been delivered in the literary form in which they have become immortal. By contrast, Lincoln's speech arrived at its fame without editorial assistance. Phrases from the Gettysburg Address crop up all over. Article 2 of the French Constitution, for instance, states that "The principle of the Republic shall be: government of the people, by the people and for the people." American presidents, and none more than President Obama, pay homage to Lincoln's formulations by borrowing shamelessly from him, sometimes with attribution, sometimes not.
In one sense, though, Lincoln was correct about the world not remembering what was said that day. The main event on November 19, 1863, was not Lincoln's two-minute closing address but Edward Everett's two-hour oration. Very few Americans since have bothered to read it. It's not a bad speech. Lincoln, in a note to Everett the next day, praised in particular "[t]he point made against the theory of the general government being only an agency, whose principals are the States," calling it "new to me" and "one of the best arguments for the national supremacy." Everett, after all, was a Harvard-educated former president of Harvard, reputed to be the finest orator of his day, the successor to Daniel Webster. Nonetheless, his performance is remembered today only because his intense and lengthy effort was so thoroughly outshone by Lincoln's little squib.
To understand the significance of the Gettysburg Address, we need to go beyond the noting and remembering that Lincoln modestly said would not happen. We want to understand what he accomplished and how he did it, and maybe especially how he did what he did in such brief compass. The Gettysburg Address contains three paragraphs, ten sentences, and 272 words (word counts vary slightly depending on which version of the text is used, and whether certain words like "four score," "can not," and "battle-field" are formatted as one or two words). Astonishingly, since many words are used more than once, the speech is comprised of only 130 distinct words. Lincoln would have excelled at writing sonnets or maybe even sound bites and tweets.
To truly understand how a statement so brief could run so deep and last so long, we must carefully consider its substance and structure. To do so is to appreciate all the more Lincoln's extraordinary accomplishment...