If there is one thing characteristic of speeches made by President Lincoln, it is certainly their brevity. Despite their length these speeches are still very effective because Lincoln packed them with rhetorical devices to help convey his purpose. Several examples can be found in his second inaugural address where he uses periodic sentences and subordination, generalized subjects, Biblical allusion and a tone shift to de-emphasize the present conflict and instead focus on hope of future reunification and freedom for all.
Lincoln begins his speech, discounting the first two sentences, with several sentences of consistent, but non-standard structure: each is highly periodic, ending with either a verb or indirect object, and prefixed with one or more subordinate clauses. Generally, these clauses address the present or immediate past, and the final clause is something of a dismissal. Thanks to the many speakings of others, “little new would be presented.” The war is known and trusted to be “reasonably satisfactory” to all. Thus, these events and the predictions of their future are set forth as not the subject at hand.
From here, Lincoln begins a consideration of the events leading up to the war. Notably, in this section nearly all subjects are replaced with general phrases lacking antecedents. In doing this, Lincoln hopes to establish the similarity of the sides, that they are still truly one people. He avoids placing blame, saying “All dreaded [war], all sought to avert it.” Even when he recounts the beginnings of the war, “one of them would make war,” the antecedent of “one,” assumed to be known, is deliberately not stated. Only when addressing slavery does he specifically indict the south, firmly establishing the problem of the past.
Returning again to ambiguity and likeness, Lincoln introduces shared religion as a point linking the sides. Subtly, however, he does call against the values of the south, if not the people, by questioning how a man could expect a just God to help them profit by the toil of others: he then quickly hides this statement behind a denial of judgment. Nevertheless, having now established this point of anti-slavery sentiment, there is a significant tonal shift. In this denial of judgment, Lincoln shifts the question of the war at large to the words and almost the very perspective of God. In the continuing discussion, the Americans are once again grouped. God has seen fit to cleanse the land by fire and “to both North and South gives this terrible war.” Their differences paling in the eyes of the Almighty, they are now all victims of their countrymen's transgressions and, in this, are combined even as they battle. Lincoln continues, “fondly we hope and fervently we pray” to end this terrible scourge. Through this shared conflict “one” and “all” have again become “we.” In this shift of subject, Lincoln makes clear the need for their reunification because of their inherent sameness. It is the therefore, imperative that they “strive on to finish the work we are in,” put the war behind them and care for one another once again.
All told, Lincoln uses the authority of God to drive home the point of the whole speech: all American states, whether Confederate or United, trust in the same God, and in this they have unity. Further, in God's eyes their conflict is simply a means to scourge a mistake of man, it pales in significance to the values at hand. Truly, the issue becomes simply that of human unification. America was founded on ideas that all men are created equal, thus those people should see their equality and be united in it. Further while they are recognizing this equality, they should recognize the equality of the slaves over which the war arose.