Documentary Digs into ‘The Address’


American filmmaker Ken Burns returns to a favorite subject, the Civil War, with a fresh look at Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. (National Geographic News)

Use our resources to catch a glimpse of Lincoln in Gettysburg.

Discussion Ideas

  • The Gettysburg Address, one of the most important speeches in American history, is a primary source. A primary source is a material that has not been directly altered in any way. One of our favorite ways to approach and incorporate primary sources uses the acronym APPARTS. (Check out our analysis of another famous presidential speech using this method.) Use the APPARTS strategy to better understand the Gettysburg Address. (These are just ideas for discussion, not a complete analysis of the speech!)
    • Author: Who created this resource? What is their point of view?
    • Place and Time: When was this resource produced? How might that influence its meaning?
      • The speech was written in November 1863, about a year after the Emancipation Proclamation (September 1862-January 1863). Although slavery is not directly mentioned in the Gettysburg Address, it lends the language Lincoln uses—liberty, freedom—much greater meaning. To really put the speech in context, compare and contrast Lincoln’s great pre-Civil War speeches (such as the “House Divided” speech of 1858) with speeches from the height of the Civil War (the Gettysburg Address) and the gorgeous second inaugural address, written at the end of the war and just a month before his death in 1865.
    • Prior Knowledge: What social, cultural, or historical information would help students understand the context of this resource?
    • Audience: Who was the intended audience for this resource? Who is its audience today?
    • Reason: Why was this resource produced?
      • Lincoln sought to comfort the families of the Union dead, and ensure them their sacrifices were not in vain; reassure Republicans and other supporters that the war was a just, vital, and—crucially—winnable; and extend sympathy not only to opposition Democrats but to Confederates. (Think about that.) That’s a lot to take on in a two-minute speech. (Well-played, Mr. President.)
    • The Main Idea: What message was this resource trying to convey? How has it succeeded or failed?
      • Lincoln was reminding Americans of the American experiment itself—”government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Historically, the speech has succeeded, of course, but at the time, Lincoln called it a “flat failure.” He wasn’t the only one—one local newspaper dismissed the president’s “silly remarks” as deserving a “veil of oblivion.” (200 years later, the paper issued the best retraction ever.)
    • Significance: What message does this resource offer today?
      • First of all, it’s a spectacularly written speech. Lincoln makes perfect use of repetitive, unifying phrases—a classic speechwriting technique that remained effective 100 years later. Lincoln’s turns of phrase are incredibly powerful—”a new birth of freedom”, “these honored dead,” and that breathtaking, breathtaking conclusion.
      • Second, by making the speech very general—there is no mention Gettysburg or the Confederacy, much less the upcoming 1864 presidential elections—it becomes timeless. When people invoke the Gettysburg Address today, it’s almost always in exactly the context in which it was written—an analysis of the unfinished American experiment in democracy and freedom.


  • Read the Gettysburg Address, focusing on the last two sentences. What was the “unfinished work” Lincoln encouraged his audience to embrace?
    • Ending the Civil War, certainly, with the United States intact, whole, pledged with dignity and respect to its citizens, and embracing that “new birth of freedom.”


  • Ken Burns and the people in the above video think the Gettysburg Address is still relevant. What “unfinished work” do you think Americans need to address today?

Thanks to Nina for the heads-up on this current-event connection!

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