Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: Eight Teaching Tips on History, the Power of Words, and Character

Eight Teaching Tips on History, the Power of Words, and Character

November marks the anniversary of the Gettysburg Address (November 19, 1863). The document is an extraordinary primary resource to teach about the origin, purpose, and vision of the American experiment. The speech, only 272 words, takes about 2 ½ minutes to read. Thus most students studying the address can literally “see” it from start to finish. This provides a unique opportunity for teachers to share Lincoln’s Gettysburg story, and the values he spoke of, that endure among the community of democratic nations. The following Eight Teaching Tips, intended primarily for middle and high school students, can be modified for upper elementary grades:

  1. Describe the Historical Moment. The Gettysburg Battle was fought from July 1-3, 1863. It was a crushing defeat for General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, and stopped southern penetration in northern free states. When the war ended in April of 1865 both sides recognized that Gettysburg was the turning point. Between 150,000-200,000 soldiers fought in the battle, casualties approached 50,000. With thousands dead the Pennsylvania governor called for a Soldiers’ National Cemetery soon after the battle. Lincoln arrived in Gettysburg at 5:00 PM on November 18th to be part of the cemetery dedication the following day.
  2. Analyze How Lincoln Told the National Story. Lincoln was asked to offer “a few appropriate remarks” at Gettysburg. Ironically, his presence, honoring the dead, was all the organizers expected of the president—he didn’t go to Gettysburg to give a “major” address. With extraordinary skill, Lincoln’s remarks moved from the past to the present and future to honor the fallen by linking their sacrifice to the nation’s purpose. Teachers can review this aspect of the speech, directly or through inquiry, by examining Lincoln’s three-part story: a) The past, “Four score and seven years ago…” b) The present, “Now we are engaged in a great civil war…” and, c) The future, “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work….” Interestingly, the phrase, “Four score and seven years ago” demonstrates that, for Lincoln, the nation’s origin story begins with the Declaration of Independence (“all men are created equal”), not the Constitution.
  3. Explore Lincoln’s Definition of Democracy and the American Experiment. The final section of the speech defines the American democracy, “…government of the people, by the people, for the people….” However, at Gettysburg, Lincoln worries and wonders about the American experiment: Will democracy survive? He uses the words “proposition” and “testing,” and phrases such as “unfinished work,” and “the great task remaining before us” to alarm the nation that democracy is imperil. Not only does the South want to defeat the north, many European monarchies wanted to see democracy fail. In class, students can debate Lincoln’s definition of democracy and whether he would be satisfied with the current state of the American experiment. Ask students: What “unfinished work” does the nation face today?
  4. Discuss Lincoln’s “New Birth of Freedom.” Why didn’t Lincoln use the word “slavery” in the speech? That omission has always puzzled historians. Did Lincoln fear jeopardizing the unity message of his speech by affirming that slavery must end? Historians who support the omission emphasize that the Emancipation Proclamation, a major step toward the abolition of slavery, had been issued the previous January. These historians argue that Lincoln’s phrase “a new birth of freedom” loudly heralded a post-slavery America. Ask students to imagine they are listening to Lincoln at Gettysburg. Discuss: Was it wise for Lincoln to omit the word “slavery” in the speech? Do you think the meaning of, “a new birth of freedom” would have been apparent to his 1863 audience?
  5. Examine Literary Devices Used in the Speech. Lincoln used repetition as a device to emphasize four essential themes. He repeated the words “we” ten times, “here” eight times, “dedicated” six times, and “nation” five times. (Before reviewing the points with students, consider asking them to examine the speech in pairs or small groups to see what literacy devices or patterns they notice.) Lincoln uses “we” to stress our community responsibility to carry out the work of the fallen. Lincoln emphasized “here” to express the importance of being present on the hallowed ground of Gettysburg. “Dedicated” links the nation’s origin story and values (“all men are created equal”) to the future obligation of citizens to hold democratic values precisely because of the Gettysburg sacrifice. The word “nation” is particularly significant. Lincoln omitted the word “Union” at Gettysburg. As historian Eric Foner notes, Union is about individual states working together, while nation is about a “national self-consciousness that arose from the Civil War.” On another note, Lincoln used “birth” as a prominent metaphorical theme in the speech: consider “a new nation conceived in liberty” and “a new birth of freedom.” Of course, the brevity of the speech delivers an enduring message: A succinct and cogent argument is a very powerful literary formula. Words matter.
  6. Discuss How the Speech Reveals Lincoln’s Character. Consider the iconic Gettysburg sentence, “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.” It never occurred to Lincoln, weighing the magnitude of the soldiers’ sacrifice, that his words would become as famous as the battle. Also, Lincoln never used the word “I” in the speech. What does this reveal about his character? Readers can certainly surmise that humility and empathy are prominent aspects of Lincoln’s character. Using evidence from the document, ask students to draw conclusions about Lincoln’s character, his personal qualities. Discuss, what is humility, what is empathy?
  7. Explore Mysteries and Myth Related to the Address. For students who want to pursue some of the mysteries and myths about Lincoln and the speech consider the following questions:
  • Did Lincoln write the address on an envelope while on the train from Washington to Gettysburg? (Definitely a myth!)
  • Was Lincoln’s address in form and content a failure because he spoke for less than three minutes, while the orator Edward Everett spoke for two hours? (Actually they both carried out their requested tasks. Everett, the greatest orator of the day, was asked to tell the story of the battle.) Students can explore how witnesses and contemporary newspapers viewed both speeches.
  • How did Lincoln, an individual with only one year of formal schooling, have the talent to write the Gettysburg Address? (The key: Lincoln was very ambitious and a lifelong learner.)
  1. Embrace the Teachable Moment. The responsibilities of citizenship, and teaching about the qualities of democratic institutions, are front burner issues today. If government is of, by, and for the people, students must learn to discern the difference between real and fake news, and actively participate in and advocate for a diverse and tolerant civil society. Ask students: Why does the Gettysburg Address still matter today?

Gettysburg Address Resources: Learning from Lincoln: Leadership Practices for School Success (Alvy & Robbins, ASCD, 2010); The Fiery Trial (Foner, 2010); Writing the Gettysburg Address (Johnson, 2013); Lincoln at Gettysburg (Wills, 1992); Abraham Lincoln Research Site; Lincoln@Gettysburg (PBS, DVD, 2013 ); Jeff Daniels Reciting the Gettysburg Address (YouTube, 2008).

Harvey Alvy a former history teacher and National Distinguished Principal, is a founding member of the Principals’ Training Center for International Schools. His most recent book is Fighting for Change in Your School: How to Avoid Fads and Focus on Substance (ASCD, 2017). Harvey held the William Shreeve Endowed Professorship in Educational Leadership at Eastern Washington University where he now serves as a Professor Emeritus.

Listen below to What School Leaders and Your Students Can Learn From the Gettysburg Address featuring Harvey Alvy and Pam Robbins.