The Emancipation Proclamation & the Gettysburg Address: A comparative analysis

Abraham Lincoln’s greatness as President lies in his extraordinary ability to take crucial decisions that would prove pivotal to the nation’s history.  The Emancipation Proclamation, which essentially promised blacks of their right to equality and liberty, is one of its kind – not just in American history but in political history as a whole.  The proclamation and the Gettysburg Address are two exemplary documents whose appeal is intellectual, emotional and moral.  This essay will argue that the moral force of the two documents derive from the founding doctrines of the country as well as from scriptures.

The Gettysburg Address was delivered amid very tumultuous events.  The Civil War has already brought loss of human lives and material wealth.  Even the very conception of the nation is being questioned by the two warring factions.  Lincoln was clearly a shaken man due to the tragedy unfolding under his command.  Yet he was duty bound to attend this event of consecrating the cemetery grounds for the martyrs.  Lincoln delivered his short speech after the two hour long oration by Edward Everett on the value and significance of the valiant men. Yet the speech was full of rich metaphors and historical perspectives. Lincoln’s address not only resonated with doctrines in the Holy Bible, but it also reiterated the founding principles of the nation as accepted in the Constitution. The words “new birth of freedom” is instructive, for they indicate the somewhat incomplete freedom that has perspired since the Declaration of Independence the previous century.

The final few words of the Gettysburg Address “government of the people, by the people and for the people” are canonized into the annals of American history.  These words capture the essence of liberty and equality that have come to symbolize Lincoln’s politics.  Through these immortal words Lincoln underscores his perception of democracy as the natural if not the providential political system. It is democracy, which Lincoln believed, the protector of civil liberties and civil rights. Enfranchisement of all members of society is fundamental to democracy and whence Lincoln’s push for the freedom and political equality of blacks.

More than the Gettysburg Address, it is the Emancipation Proclamation which is the cornerstone for the civil liberties movement in America.  Lincoln took a great political risk in decreeing freedom upon more than 3 million black slaves on January 1st 1863.  Although the actualization of freedom for many blacks happened as and when the Union forces quelled Confederate forces across the war theatre, this historic declaration is without doubt the most momentous event for blacks in America.  Since the Emancipation Proclamation was not a law passed by the Congress, its effectiveness in freeing slaves was gradual.  It was the finest examples of a President using his Executive power to its most potent application. Despite not immediately gaining recognition as a law, the proclamation had a profound effect upon the morale of the embittered slaves.  The condition of the slaves had even deteriorated due to the economic impact of the war and many were desperate for a better life.  It was at this most portent moment in the black experience in America that they received this much deserved sanction of equality and liberty. It was not until the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation that abolition of slavery became the central issue of the Civil War.  Previous to that, keeping the Union together had been Lincoln’s primary goal.

Lincoln sincerely believed that all men are created equal in the eyes of God.  To fulfill his biblical understanding of humanity, Lincoln brought it under his political agenda. In this respect, the Gettysburg Address was not an overtly political speech. It was delivered on the occasion of commemorating the martyrdom of soldiers, who lost their lives for the cause of liberty and equality.  Aptly then, Lincoln’s powerful oration noted “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…”.  The rhetoric fitting a gospel is evident in the speech, not least in the line “in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground”.

In conclusion, the power and appeal of the two documents derive in large part from their religious and historical allusions. The far reaching historical significance of them is testified by the inspirational role they played during the Civil Rights movement that followed nearly a century afterwards.

Works Cited:

Lincoln, Abraham, The Emancipation Proclamation, issued on 1st January 1863, America’s Historical Documents, National Archives, retrieved from <> on 8th December 2013.

Lincoln, Abraham, The Gettysburg Address, delivered at Pennsylvannia on 19th November 1863. Retrieved from <> on 8th December 2013