Lincoln begins his speech by recalling the founding of the United States and the principles on which it was based. He draws a connection between that founding and the Civil war, which was taking place at the time of the speech.

He says that even though the purpose of the gathering and of his speech is to dedicate a cemetery for soldiers who died in the battle of Gettysburg, the willingness of those soldiers to die for their country has already done far more to dedicate the battlefield than he can do with a speech. He concludes by saying that the living must follow the example of those dead soldiers and continue their struggle.