Presidential Speeches: Gettysburg Address

Whether required to memorize it in junior high or seeing parodies of it over the years, we are all familiar with the “Gettysburg Address.”  While most students study its importance in a history class, this speech is a great resource for teaching rhetoric and style.  The key is asking students to examine it from a literary perspective and evaluate the form, function, and decisions Lincoln made.  Below are a series of suggested approaches that challenge student’s thinking about this seminal text.

  • For higher-level students consider providing them with an excerpted copy of Thucydides’ The Funeral Oration of Pericles.  While they might find parallels in regards to style, ask them to consider the similarities in argument and views of war.  The students can write a compare/contrast paper or merely debate the commonalities that exist and speculate the degree to which Lincoln mimicked this speech.
  • The Library of Congress has done an amazing job preserving historical documents.  Fortunately, they have preserved two early drafts Lincoln wrote of the “Gettysburg Address.”  To help aid students in navigating the text and understanding the main idea of the piece, two drafts of the gettysburgand ask them identify the changes made and make some assumptions about why these changes were made.  This will help them get a deeper understanding of the text without study guide or comprehension questions.
  • After a close study of the tone and speaker, ask students to narrow down and provide a clear identification of Lincoln’s persona throughout the speech.  Is he calm?  Reserved?  Powerful?  Forceful?  Demanding?  Then, provide students with a variety of monuments and statues, like the above statue located in Cincinnati, Ohio or the statue to the right from Chicago, IL.  Ask students to determine which statue they feel best captures the essence of the “Gettysburg Address” and justify their response.
  • For students who struggle with rhetorical analysis, this is a nice piece to give them practice with.  While they might struggle to come to a solid interpretation about the speech, they will be able to identify patterns within the piece.  They can spot repetitive words and similar structures.  Identifying these elements will at least help them move into some level of analysis when considering why he repeated the aspects that he did. 

There are so many outstanding features to this speech; the above are just techniques that illicit a variety of interpretations and appeal to a variety of abilities.  Encourage your students to celebrate President’s Day by celebrating the beauty of the “Gettysburg Address.”

One comment

  1. [...] speaker himself.  While there are hundreds of amazing speeches (some of which were detailed in our posts a few weeks ago), I think the “Gettysburg Address” works best to introduce this project.  It is short enough [...]

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