What do wedding toasts and Abraham Lincoln have in common?
On Tuesday, Nov. 19, Illinois State University history professor and Lincoln scholar Stewart Winger compared the organizational structure of The Gettysburg Address to the perfect format for a wedding toast.
Winger said Lincoln used a form of persuasive rhetoric called antithesis to emphasize his main points and contrast the speech’s cultural context with the bigger picture.
“Antithesis is limited in length. You can do it for a while, but it is the ideal form for a wedding toast. If you’re the maid of honor, and you have to toast the bride, you’re going to say, ‘so and so is really great and people like her for this, but what’s really great about her is this,” Winger said.
“That’s the perfect wedding toast, and he [Lincoln] knows that. He’s a 19th century guy, and that’s how they learn rhetoric,” Winger continued.
The speech itself took Lincoln just a few minutes to deliver, but Winger said each word was strategically chosen.
Winger described Lincoln as a “self-conscious poetic stylist” and said his writing contrasted Latin and Anglo-Saxon vocabulary, much like Romantic writers who valued emotion and sensibility.
The phrase “Four score and seven years ago” appealed to religious Americans, according to Winger.
“That’s the language of the King James Bible. The age of man is four score and ten, from the Psalms,” Winger said. “He’s framing American history in terms of the Bible and religion.”
At the beginning of the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln references the Declaration of Independence.
Winger said Lincoln referenced the document because he wanted to center American nationality around the idea that all men, including black men, were created equal.
“One thing you probably don’t know from your high school is that there is huge opposition to the Civil War in the North. The white south is unified. In the north, that doesn’t happen,” Winger said.
“The copperheads, which are intensely racist democrats, do not want to be involved in a war on behalf of black freedom. So the desertion rate in the army is one third,” Winger continued.
According to Winger, Lincoln’s wording in the Gettysburg Address encouraged Northern men to fight in the war.
By using religious terms and phrases, Winger said Lincoln persuaded people to sacrifice themselves for those who fought and died in the Civil War.
“This is an intense religious moment, and he’s already articulated what makes it holy: ‘those who here gave their lives that that nation might live,’” Winger said.
Winger’s careful analysis of The Gettysburg Address digs deeper than the flowery language on the surface.
“We tend to sentimentalize Lincoln and not realize that there’s a political knife here that he’s wielding in the rhetorical battle,” Winger said. “He’s articulating that the war is for human freedom, including black freedom, and if you’re not on board for that, then you have betrayed the dead.”