Lesson Plans for Secondary Educators

Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address 19 November 1863

High School Lesson Plan created for Voices of Democracy by Lauren Claybaugh Hunter, Doctoral Student of Rhetoric & Political Culture, University of Maryland.

Click here for the VOD unit corresponding to this lesson plan.

Value to History Teachers

Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” is one of the most important speeches in American history. Although Lincoln was not the featured speaker of the occasion, his brief yet eloquent words still resonate today. In dedicating a national cemetery in a war-time context, Lincoln successfully honored the fallen soldiers and provided a vision of a unified America. Additionally, the speech:

  • Provides a place for discussion about American identity and the rhetorical process of constituting a nation
  • Reveals the motivations and justifications for war
  • Demonstrates the influence of the Greek revival on 19th century culture
  • Opens classroom discussion about the role of death in public culture and the eulogy as a genre
  • Allows students to consider public speaking as an art form, and develop criteria for what makes a speech “great”

Relevant Common Core State Standards for English/Language Arts

  • ELA-LITERACY.RL.11-12.5Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact.
    • The brevity of Lincoln’s speech allows for a deeper reading of his syntactical structure. Students should take the time to appreciate the parallelism, use of metaphor, and transcendental style common within the genre of eulogy. Reading aloud will highlight the rhythm of Lincoln’s style. Students should also reflect on why Lincoln’s speech was more powerful and better received in context of Everett’s longer speech.
  • ELA-LITERACY.RL.11-12.2Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text.
    • Students should compare how Everett and Lincoln commemorated the fallen soldiers, keeping in mind that the speeches were delivered during wartime. Everett acknowledges the sacrifice of the soldiers, but detracts from his message by focusing on the evil of the South. Lincoln, on the other hand, underscores sacrifice as a unifying bond for both sides of the war.
    • Students should explore how Everett and Lincoln approach the theme of reconciliation differently. Lincoln provided a unified vision of Americans as one people. Everett placed blame squarely on the South and saw the only path to unification as the total capitulation of the South with Northern demands.
  • ELA-LITERACY.RI.11-12.4Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative, connotative, and technical meanings; analyze how an author uses and refines the meaning of a key term or terms over the course of a text.
    • Lincoln used “men” and “people” as unifying terms. He did not distinguish between Northerners and Southerners, which helped constitute his vision for one nation. Students should also pay attention to the ambiguity of the “unfinished work,” the “cause,” or “the great task” to which Lincoln commits his audience.
  • ELA-LITERACY.RI.11-12.9Analyze seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century foundational U.S. documents of historical and literary significance for their themes, purposes, and rhetorical features.
    • As one of the most prominent speeches in American history, students can hear Lincoln’s words and themes echo in important speeches throughout history.

Ideas for Pre-Reading

  • Begin with a discussion of the Civil War to contextualize the speech. How is the Civil War talked about in America today? How did your secondary school teachers talk about the war? If there are those in the class that were educated in different parts of the country, are there differences in their interpretations?
  • Facilitate a discussion about students’ favorite speeches. Whether it was a political leader, a famous actress, or a friend, what about the speech did the student appreciate? How did the speech make them feel? Did it motivate them in any way? If so, why and how?
  • Introduce “transcendence” as a rhetorical strategy of making meaning of events for an audience. Show students videos of award acceptance speeches in which the winner was able to make their winning about more than themselves. See these acceptance speeches: Tom Hanks, Joanne Froggatt, Gina Rodriguez, Taylor Swift.
  • Have students perform their own online research about the Gettysburg Address without reading the text. In particular, the History channel provides a quality synopsis of the context and a short video to help them think about the power of the speech.
  • Everett was the featured speaker at Gettysburg, not Lincoln. Have the students perform some research to learn about who Everett was and why he might have received top billing. Afterwards, use newspaper archives to investigate how the media received Lincoln and Everett’s speeches. Were both speakers praised? How were their ideas circulated and reconstituted in the press?
  • Nineteenth century oratory was characterized by the sentimental style; a verbose style of oratory that serves to elicit “affective experiences, but also defines and delimits them.”[1] Sentimental speakers regulate the emotional responses of the audience rather than allowing for audience participation in interpretation and meaning making. Familiarize students with the sentimental style by reading speeches by Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun. Then, have students compare Lincoln’s speech to these exemplars and consider how the audience expectations would have been met and violated by Lincoln’s speech.


[1] Edwin Black, “The Sentimental Style as Escapism, or the Devil with Dan’l Webster,” in Form and Genre: Shaping Rhetorical Action, ed. Karlyn Kohrs Campbell and Kathleen Hall Jamieson (Falls Church, VA: Speech Communication Association, 1978). Available online at: http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED151893.pdf.

Important Vocabulary/Key Figures

  • Fourscore and seven years ago: A score is a set of twenty, so “fourscore and seven” means eighty-seven. Lincoln is referring back to the year our nation was founded, 1776.
  • Consecrate: to make or declare something sacred, though Lincoln’s speech would serve many purposes in our nation’s history, the original purpose of the speech was to dedicate a cemetery in Gettysburg, PA
  • The great task/that cause: Lincoln tasks his audience with unifying the country, not deepening divisions by placing blame, as Everett did in his speech.


  • Day 1 – Students should read Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” and listen to Sam Waterston’s performance of the speech. Then, have students begin reading Edward Everett’s “Gettysburg Address” (paragraph 1-15).
    • Students should research and discuss the Greek revival in 19th century American culture.
    • Students should discuss the impact of reading the Gettysburg Address in comparison to listening to it.
  • Day 2 – Read Edward Everett’s “Gettysburg Address” (paragraph 16-31).
    • Students will discuss the stylistic differences of Lincoln and Everett.
  • Day 3 – Read Edward Everett’s “Gettysburg Address” (paragraph 32 – 46).
    • Students will summarize Everett’s narrative of the battle of Gettysburg and discuss the significance of this perspective.
  • Day 4 – Read Edward Everett’s “Gettysburg Address” (paragraph 46 – 58).
    • Students will debate the motives of the South and North in the war and whether or not these motives were justified.
  • Day 5 – Read Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.”
    • Students should assess Lincoln’s account of the relationship of government and the people it governs.
    • Students will discuss what makes a speech “great.”

Key During Reading Passages and Discussion Questions

  • After learning about the Greek revival, have students identify and examine elements of the Greek revival in architecture, clothing, style, etc. Investigate why Ancient Greece would be so influential at this moment in history. Have students identify elements of the Greek revival in paragraphs 1-4 in Everett’s speech.
  • Edward Everett constructs a narrative of the battle of Gettysburg, particularly in paragraph 33. To whom does Everett attribute the Union victory? What is the significance of this attribution?
  • In Edward Everett’s speech, have students focus on paragraph 39. Who does Everett say “is responsible for all this suffering, for this dreadful sacrifice of life”?
  • Have students compare and contrast the language, syntax, use of metaphor, and tone of the Lincoln and Everett speeches. What were some similarities between the speeches? Why was Lincoln’s speech so memorable? Why do you think Everett’s speech was so quickly forgotten?
  • Place students into two groups and have them develop arguments that support both sides of the war. Moving beyond the obvious racist motives of white Southerners, why would the South feel justified in going to war? Why would the North want to maintain a unified nation? Prompt students to think about the economic motives involved in the war.

Post-Reading and Assessment

  • Students should read Pericles’ Funeral Oration. Compare and contrast this speech with Lincoln and Everett’s speech. What elements of Pericles’ speech did Lincoln and Everett draw upon? How did all three speeches use transcendence to make meaning of the events for their audience? (RL 8-9)(RL 9-10.9) (RL 11-12.2)

Have students read Lincoln’s “Second Inaugural.” How has Lincoln’s vision for America been sustained or modified in this speech? Consider how his context and audience have influenced the differences of his vision for America. (RL 11-12.9)