Over at the Liberty Law Blog, Daniel Dreisbach looks at Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and how it “reverberates with biblical rhythms, phrases, and themes.” He writes that Lincoln was “well acquainted with the English Bible – specifically the King James Bible. Those who knew him best reported that Lincoln had an intimate and thorough knowledge of the sacred text and was known to commit lengthy passages to memory.” Excerpt from Dreisbach’s essay:
No political figure in American history was more fluent in biblical language or adept in appropriating the distinct cadences and vernacular of the King James Bible than Abraham Lincoln. He routinely incorporated into his political prose direct quotations from and allusions to the Bible, as well as a diction resembling the distinctive language of the Jacobean Bible. He often appropriated the Bible and bible-like rhetoric to give authority, moral gravity, and solemnity to his political statements. The Gettysburg Address, perhaps better than any other example of political rhetoric, illustrates how a gifted communicator borrowed language merely resembling the King James Bible to great rhetorical effect. The address contains no direct biblical quotations; however, there are few clauses that do not echo the cadences, phrases, and themes of the King James Bible.
The address begins: “Four score and seven years ago.” Although not an actual biblical quotation, this formulation resembles the psalmist’s familiar calculation, as rendered in the King James Bible, for a man’s “threescore and ten” years of life on earth (Psalm 90:10). From the opening phrase, Lincoln put his audience in a biblical frame of mind.
Read “The Sacred Sounds of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address” by Daniel Dreisbach on the Liberty Law Blog.
November 19, 1863
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.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Source: The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, ed. Roy P. Basler, volume 7 (Rutgers University Press: New Brunswick, NJ, 1953), 22-23.