The Gettysburg Address: four dedications

1.  This comment pertains to the words “dedicate” and “dedicated” used throughout the address: fathers dedicating a nation in paragraph one, the speaker and audience dedicating a battlefield in paragraph two, soldiers dedicating their lives in battle, and the speaker and audience dedicating themselves to the unfinished work.

2.  Lincoln uses the rhetorical occasion of a battlefield dedication to serve as a metaphor that gets across and unites his version of history and his view of the Union’s war aims.  The occasion of Lincoln’s address is the dedication of the Gettysburg Battlefield.  The concept of dedication comes up in three other contexts, though: the dedication of the nation, the dedication of soldiers, and the dedication of the audience.

3.  Lincoln’s audience is conditioned by the speech’s occasion to hear the word “dedication,” but Lincoln first uses it metaphorically and out of the speech’s immediate context.  In his first sentence, Lincoln alludes to the King James Version of Luke 1 and 2 when he uses the terms “conceived” and “brought forth” as well as the idea of dedicating children.  Our nation was dedicated to a proposition found in its inaugural document, the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln implies, just as Jesus was dedicated at the temple to God shortly after his birth.  This attributes to the nation and to the Declaration a kind of holiness – a kind of God-given purpose – beyond the form of dedication that the audience had come to participate in.

The second use of “dedication” is its use in dedicating the battlefield.  It is in the context of the “Now” introduced by the second paragraph.  It juxtaposes the present occasion with the dedication he and the audience are participating in.  The comparison of almost mystical past in which fathers gave birth and dedicated a nation with the mundane, after-the-fact present, tends to make us see the fathers’ actions as greater than the audience’s is.  “They dedicated a nation, after all, and we are only dedicating a battlefield,” the audience may be led to think.

But Lincoln both reassures the audience and points it in a new direction.  “It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this,” Lincoln assures his audience.  Now that the audience is assured in their relation with the past, Lincoln points it in a new direction – the future.  After closing the second paragraph with assurance, he begins the third with “But.”  The soldiers have already dedicated field with their lives, and we have but “poor power to add or detract” to that act or from it, respectively.  We cannot dedicate the field, as we had come to do.  We can only take the soldiers’ example and dedicate ourselves to the same purpose they dedicated themselves to the cause that this nation “shall have a new birth of freedom.”

Lincoln uses the occasion of the battlefield’s dedication effectively to move his audience from the mystical, grand past of our nation’s inception to the present occasion, and then to the audience’s future work.

4.  One of Lincoln’s rhetorical purposes is to increase his audience’s devotion to the Founding Fathers and what he believed they accomplished through the Declaration of Independence.  He does this by suggesting that they dedicated our nation to a proposition – an unproven and arguably axiomatic idea – that all men are created equal.  When the audience in paragraph two is made to feel how small the immediate dedication of a battlefield is compared to the dedication of a nation, the audience also feels how significant and exceptional the Declaration’s equality clause is.

Lincoln’s peroration involves the audience in the Founders’ work, however.  By dedicating themselves to the soldiers’ cause, the audience becomes co-laborers with the Founders.  While the Founders gave birth and dedicated the nation, the audience dedicates itself to preserving the nation so dedicated.