Stirring words: Abraham Lincoln addresses the crowd at Gettysburg.

One hundred and fifty years have passed since Abraham Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address, one of the most famous speeches of all time. What has become of the art of public speaking?

  • What is this Gettysburg Address everyone’s talking about?

    The Gettysburg Address is a speech made by President Abraham Lincoln after the Battle of Gettysburg in the American Civil War. The USA had been torn apart by the question of slavery. The ‘Union’ states to the north wanted to abolish slavery. The ‘Confederate’ states to the south wanted to keep their slaves. This bitter disagreement led to one of the bloodiest wars that had ever been fought.

  • What does this war have to do with public speaking?

    Lincoln was leading one half of a wounded country – a country in the middle of a terrible war with itself. He needed to give the Union the spirit to keep on fighting.

  • How did he do?

    At first, not many people noticed Lincoln’s speech. It was considered surprisingly short – just ten sentences long. And some initial reviews were very critical. A local newspaper dismissed the Gettysburg Address as a few ‘silly remarks’, while another paper called Lincoln’s words ‘flat’ and ‘dishwatery’.

  • But opinions changed?

    Indeed. Lincoln’s supporters called the speech ‘a gem’. And today, it is the most quoted speech of American history. Every schoolchild in the US knows the famous opening sentence: ‘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.’

  • So what made the speech so successful?

    The Gettysburg Address is a brilliant example of the art of oratory, or public speaking. It is full of rhetoric: clever linguistic tricks that help drive its message home. In that first line, for example, look at the way the words follow an underlying poetic rhythm. You can read the opening of the speech to the same rhythm as a line of Shakespeare – what poets call ‘iambic pentameter’. Look at the way the rhythm slows down for the important words: ‘a new nation’. Or the way the sentence finishes with the word that matters most: ‘equal’.

  • How did Lincoln learn his tricks?

    Lincoln was an expert in the art of rhetoric, and drew on a tradition that stretched back for thousands of years. In ancient Greece public speaking was considered an essential part of a person’s education. Demosthenes, a famous speaker, used to train his tongue by speaking with pebbles in his mouth, or shouting over the waves down by the sea. Lincoln had learnt some of the skills of the Ancient Greeks. In fact, he stole the main idea for the Gettysburg Address from a Greek: Pericles of Athens.

  • Why were the Greeks so obsessed with public speaking?

    In ancient Athens, all male citizens were members of the Assembly, where political decisions were put to the public vote. People who could persuade the crowd to take their side were hugely powerful. It was the same in ancient Rome too. The famous speaker Cicero was so deadly with his words that after he died, the wife of a political enemy pulled out his tongue and stabbed it with a hairpin. It was the only revenge she could get.

  • Things have changed a lot since then!

    Yes, thankfully. But the art of rhetoric is still with us. Winston Churchill, during the second world war, was famous for his speeches on the radio. He used simple language and punchy rhythmic delivery to get his message across to the whole British nation and the allied troops. Here’s a sample line: ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.’ More recently, people have been impressed by the speeches of Barack Obama, who yesterday posted his own handwritten tribute to the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln’s words, wrote Obama, ‘helped define our American experiment.’ They ‘give us confidence that whatever trials await us, this nation and the freedom we cherish can, and shall, prevail.’

Word Watch

Battle of Gettysburg
The Battle of Gettysburg took place in July 1863 and was a turning point in the American Civil War. An army of 70,000 Confederate troops under Robert E. Lee had reached deep into Union territory and was confronted by George Meade’s Army of the Potomac. The fighting lasted for three days, with more casualties suffered than in any other battle of the war. Lee’s Confederate army was defeated, and never threatened the Union again.
Four score and seven
This method of counting, using the word ‘score’ to mean twenty, and counting the tens first with the units second, was old fashioned even in Lincoln’s day. The number Lincoln means is 87.
Iambic pentameter
Iambic pentameter is the most common metre in English verse. It consists of five rhythmic ‘feet’ (a pentameter is a five footed metre, in the same way that a five sided shape is a pentagon). Each foot consists of a short syllable followed by a long syllable. This pattern is called an ‘iamb’. The resulting sound is something like di-dum, di-dum, di-dum, di-dum, di-dum.
Pericles of Athens
Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address took inspiration from the famous speech of the Athenian war leader Pericles, who delivered a great funeral oration at a ceremony honouring the soldiers who had died in the city’s long war against Sparta. Lincoln was speaking at a similar ceremony – the opening of a cemetery for those who died at Gettysburg.

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