The eternal appeal of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg address – by Tony Brignull, D&AD's most awarded copywriter
The 150th anniversary of one of the most famous – and enduring – speeches in history, president Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg address, is being celebrated in the US. Tony Brignull, D&AD's most awarded copywriter, examines why it has enjoyed such lasting appeal.
As a piece of writing Abraham Lincoln's address at Gettysburg is not particularly remarkable; as a piece of oratory it ranks amongst the greatest ever spoken, and possibly the most moving.
Lincoln's address is still remembered fondly today
What makes it so is not its brevity, as many suggest – we might wish it went on longer – it is the sentiments he expresses. Others more qualified than I am may expand upon their undeniable honesty, their universality, their nobility. I shall confine myself to how he expresses them, his mechanics.
As president and 'chief executive of the nation', it would be understandable if he spoke in the first person singular. The previous speaker had done so at length. But Lincoln doesn't use the word 'I' once. Instead he speaks in the plural, using 'we, us and our' throughout. The effect is inclusive, as if to say we are all in this together.
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The opening line is heavy with history and parturition: 'Our fathers brought forth...a new nation...they conceived...they created. Lincoln includes all present in a coeval, familial and fraternal conception: it was our fathers who planted this new nation with a single brave seed (proposition): equality. We, their sons and daughters, act as parents to its maturing.
He addresses both the living and the dead with euphony. The word dedicated, for example, which he uses six times in 271 words, has 'ded' as its first syllable. Thus in sound as well as actuality – the brave men living and dead who struggled here, are inextricably present. Instantly and forever memorialised.
Great oration in English borrows from our dramatic poetry and especially its rhythms. Note the iambs in Four score and seven years ago and in created equal and the world will little note. Shakespeare resounds. And the rhetoric of the New Testament is unmistakable: this nation under God shall have a new birth.
Again, the triple repetitions in the address imbue it with poetry: we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow. They predict the final memorable and most significant words, of the people, by the people, for the people, and lead to a fourth consecutive 'p' sound: perish. A government based on such principles, he says, is immortal.
Like a life cycle, an address which begins with birthing ends with the promise, indeed, the certainty, of eternal life, and contradicts Lincoln's earlier prediction that The world will little note nor remember what we say here.
In this alone he was wrong.
Tony Brignull is regarded as one of advertising's greatest copywriters, renowned for his work at Collett, Dickenson, Pearce, and DDB London. With three D&AD Black Pencils and 17 Yellow Pencils to his name, he is considered the most awarded copywriter of all time.
Here is the full text of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg address:
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.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.
The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- 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.
-- Abraham Lincoln
Nov. 19, 1863