• Paul Barbagallo

Lincoln’s Iceberg

Updated: Jul 30, 2020

“It wasn’t by accident that the Gettysburg address was so short. The laws of prose writing are as immutable as those of flight, of mathematics, of physics.”

—Ernest Hemingway, in a letter to Maxwell Perkins, 1945


Photo by Library of Congress on Unsplash


Ernest Hemingway once said that everything he needed to know about writing he learned from the Kansas City Star style sheet. “Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English.


Hemingway did all of these things—and he did them well. One of Hemingway’s greatest contributions to American letters was his short style—lean and hard; eloquent and evocative; vigorous but never verbose. Seven years after he expressed admiration for Lincoln’s speech in a letter to his editor Maxwell Perkins, Hemingway published what some scholars regard as the best American short novel ever written, The Old Man and the Sea. The book, at only 27,000 words and less than 150 typed pages, earned Hemingway the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Writing for The New York Times in 1952, Orville Prescott said The Old Man and the Sea showed Hemingway as a “master technician … doing superbly what he can do better than anyone else.” As Hemingway himself said about Old Man: “I hope it reads simply and straight and all the things that are in it do not show but only are with you after you have read it.”

Reading Hemingway’s correspondence with Max Perkins, I couldn’t help but wonder what Papa had discovered in the Gettysburg Address to apply to his own writing. Why this speech? What had he found in it that I might have overlooked? In search of answers to these questions, I decided to dissect the speech at the sentence level.


The Best Short Piece of Writing of Them All

On November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln made perhaps the most important speech in American history in about two minutes, using less than 275 words:

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 cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot 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.

In ten sentences, Lincoln redefined the Civil War as a struggle for the principles of human equality and liberty for all; argued that the Declaration of Independence—and not the Constitution—determined the freedom of the people; and beseeched a weary nation to keep fighting for their Union created in 1776 and its ideal of self-government. In ten sentences. Less than 275 words.

For Lincoln to achieve such a rhetorical feat, he had to know what to leave out. He never mentioned the words “North” or “South” or “slavery,” or even “Declaration of Independence” or “Constitution.” He never gave a casualty count of the bloodiest battle in the war up until that point—roughly 23,000 on the Union side and 28,000 on Confederate, nor did he attempt to cast the Battle of Gettysburg in a positive light, even as Robert E. Lee offered his resignation to Jefferson Davis following the South’s defeat—a sure sign of victory other orators would choose to highlight.

Lincoln never uttered the words “America” or “United States,” opting instead for “we,” “us,” and “our.” In his roughly 270 words, he also never once mentioned the word “Gettysburg," but he used the word “here” eight times.

Lincoln left all these details out because he knew his audience and his subject matter. And that gave him the freedom and confidence to say only what was vitally important and nothing else.


He also knew and understood something else: context.

Lincoln was not the featured speaker at the dedication ceremony of the National Cemetery of Gettysburg that day. Edward Everett was. Everett was the former president of Harvard College, former U.S. senator and former secretary of state, and one of the country’s leading orators. Lincoln was asked only to “set apart these grounds to their sacred use by a few appropriate remarks.”

Before Lincoln took the podium, Everett spoke for two hours and, according to accounts from that day, the audience was rapt. The opening lines show a master speechmaker at work:

Standing beneath this serene sky, overlooking these broad fields now reposing from the labors of the waning year, the mighty Alleghenies dimly towering before us, the graves of our brethren beneath our feet, it is with hesitation that I raise my poor voice to break the eloquent silence of God and Nature. But the duty to which you have called me must be performed; grant me, I pray you, your indulgence and your sympathy.

If anyone could have gotten away with a second two-hour speech on that particular day, it was Lincoln. And he might still have delivered a memorable, albeit long, Gettysburg Address. As one reporter covering a speech he gave in Dover, New Hampshire, on March 2, 1860, put it, “Mr. Lincoln spoke nearly two hours and we believe he would have held his audience had he spoken all night.”

But on November 19, 1863, Lincoln chose to be brief.

In Lincoln’s case, however, brief did not mean hastily written. Even for a master orator and speechwriter like Lincoln, the process of crafting a short speech was almost certainly more difficult and time-consuming than writing a long one. As the French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal famously quipped in his Lettres Provinciales, “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.”


... Because writing short (and writing short well) is hard.


When you commit yourself to brevity, you must be accurate, clear, and concise; you must cut out all the excess and distill your message to its core. With fewer words, you must make every word, every comma, every phrase and clause count. This can seem like an impossible task, even for Lincoln. So, how did he do it?

From Statesman to Craftsman

To help ensure his ultimate success, Lincoln called upon some trusty literary devices. For starters, he put his best words and ideas at the end of each sentence, the most emphatic position. He also employed consonance—the method of repeating an identical or similar consonant in neighboring words whose vowel sounds are different:

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.

He used a tricolon—the rhetorical device of three parallel clauses, phrases, or words in quick succession without interruption:

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicatewe cannot consecratewe cannot hallow—this ground.

Note the parallelism he achieves with two back-to-back three-syllable words—dedicate and consecrate—before he intentionally breaks the parallelism for rhythmic and dramatic effect with a two-syllable predicate hallow.

Then, in the next sentence, he gives us memorable and original alliteration:

The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.

Finally, in his last sentence, he displays his real mastery as a writer and speechmaker. Consider that in a 275-word speech, Lincoln’s concluding sentence is 82 words, replete with multiple complex clauses, parallelism, and what may be the most memorable and important tricolon in American history (of the people, by the people, and for the people):

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.

After constructing a simple main clause—It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—Lincoln then builds three dependent complex clauses all beginning with that, the last of which deliberately breaks the that/we pattern to become that/this nation:

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 that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

In this final, resonant, 82-word passage, Lincoln’s main clause merely works as the topic sentence and the key message: We must be “dedicated to the great task remaining before us.” That is the key idea.


But as the sentence continues, note how he subtly refers back to something he said at the beginning of the speech: we cannot dedicate … this ground.Now here he is saying that they can and they must. In some ways, Lincoln is incorporating elements of playwriting here; his characters are like audience members who have just undergone a character arc without them even knowing it. In the first act they couldn’t, in the second act they can, and in the third and final act—which will take place after the speech—they will.

His last stroke of writing genius comes at very end: Perish from the earth. Remember that Lincoln was delivering his speech standing on the the same ground where Union and Confederate soldiers had just perished from the earth, and where at that moment they were buried. The earth. And remember how he used here instead of Gettysburg or Pennsylvania? Here, on the earth. Now, this last line reverberates with a secondary meaning: Let us not let America perish from the earth.

Lincoln’s brilliance surely was not lost on Everett, who wrote in a letter to Lincoln the next day that “I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

In response, Lincoln wrote: “you [Everett] could not have been excused to make a short address, nor I a long one. I am pleased to know that, in your judgment, the little I did say was not entirely a failure.”

What Lincoln Knew

In the main, Gettsburg Address was a success because of what Lincoln knew.

  • He knew his audience (widows and soldiers and war-weary citizens);

  • He knew his point and his big idea (his point was to pay tribute to the Union soldiers who sacrificed their lives for union and equality and his idea was to implore his people to keep fighting for those ideals); and

  • He knew the context of his remarks (following a long keynote speech).

If Lincoln did not know all these things, the speech would have been a failure and these writing techniques would have been squandered. It would’ve been a poetry without a purpose. But he did know, and because of that the writing (the tricolon, the alliteration, the parallelism) assumes greater power. Because these techniques are now in service of a higher, focused purpose.


In Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway wrote that “if a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.”


The Gettysburg Address and The Old Man and the Sea contained multitudes that were not on the page. They were delivered “simply and straight,” omitting things that Lincoln and Hemingway knew and that readers and audience members felt as strongly as though the writers had written them. The icebergs.


Because Lincoln and Hemingway knew and understood the miles of iceberg beneath their rough seas, they could focus only on the small part peaking out above the water. They could write short and do it well.

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