Hyperbole, the deliberate use of exaggeration for effect, is not the literary device you associate with 16th President Abraham Lincoln, whose style of address, both in formal speeches and in conversation, was so often understated. On this occasion, however, Lincoln was dedicating the National Cemetery at Gettysburg, a site of carnage that turned the tide in the Civil War. His Gettysburg Address, delivered November 19, 1863, uses hyperbole not only to heighten the emotion of the occasion but also to move his audience toward further dedication to the war effort.
Biblical Hyperbole and Allusion
Lincoln's "Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth ... a new nation" echoes the poetic grandeur of the King James Bible, while "brought forth," from Psalm 90:2 implies a birth. This allusion leads him to the first hyperbole, that, like the Hebraic warriors who helped Israel to flourish, these veterans "gave their lives that this nation might live." The hyperbolic concept that the honored dead gave national lifeblood was entirely fitting, since the address was about, among other things, rebirth after death.
War as Growth
The Gettysburg address is rife with the theme of war as growth; Lincoln was making clear to his listeners that the carnage was necessary for the maintenance of the nation's freedom. To this end, he uses hyperbole to describe dead men who went beyond mere soldiering when they "gave their lives that that nation might live." He further adds that their sacrifice went beyond the limits of the living: "the brave men ... have consecrated it far beyond our poor power to add or detract," making the soldiers' deaths not only necessary to freedom, but a fitting tribute to it.
Call for Dedication
Lincoln's speech was designed to impress on listeners the enormity of the Gettysburg conflict and the remaining effort needed to bring the war to a successful conclusion. His hyperbole "that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion" is a superb exaggeration. It asks the listeners to extend their dedication to the nation's cause, going beyond mere devotion to the "last full measure." He reinforces this with another prophetic hyperbole, "these dead shall not have died in vain."
Freedom for All
Although Lincoln does not specifically mention slavery in his speech -- still a great controversy at this point in the nation's history -- he does use the statement that "all men are created equal." This restatement of the Declaration of Independence's central truth allows Lincoln to move to a grand closing hyperbole: "that government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth." He magnifies the belief that democratic freedom is for all time, and that the nation, despite its turmoil, will thrive in perpetuity.
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