150 years ago today, Abraham Lincoln made his way to the US Capitol to be sworn in for his second term of office. No American election had ever been held under wartime conditions and it was testament to the will of the country and president that it happened. Lincoln’s platform was under the newly completed dome-a project he had urged be finished despite the fighting. It was the symbol of the nation he sought so hard to re-unite. March 4, 1865 was a cold rainy and windy day, but by noon, the sun broke through, flooding the stand with brilliant light. Before taking the oath, as custom, Lincoln rose and gave his address. He had 40 days left in his life.
Of all the speeches he gave during his lifetime none was so meaningful for him to utter. The war was coming to an end and Lincoln knew that his speech could lay the groundwork for the “unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.” That “unfinished work” was the elimination of slavery from the nation. That work, Lincoln knew, would occupy his second term as he would begin the job of healing the nation, getting the country back together after four long years of war and forging a new future.
As Bruce Catton wrote, “Here was the greatest and most moving chapter in American history, a blending of meanness and greatness, an ending and a beginning. It came out of what men were, but it did not go as men had planned….Of all men, Abraham Lincoln came the closest to understanding what had happened. Yet even he, in his final backward glance, had to confess that something that went beyond words had been at work in the land. The Almighty had His own purposes.”
Lincoln’s rhetorical skills reached their culmination in the Second Inaugural and stands as the continuation of the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln had come a long way in his formal addresses. He had surprised audiences with his House Divided speech and his Cooper Institute speech. The pressure of the wartime presidency sharpened his ability to think and write clearly. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, a speech with simple but resonant words placed in complex structures and sentences, achieves its purposes by its internal form as well as its more explicit content.
Author Gary Wills believes that a combined study of the Gettysburg and the Second Inaugural speeches gives a true picture of Lincoln’s beliefs about his country and slavery. In the Second Inaugural, slavery becomes a sin. God requires the entire country to pay for the sin of slavery by shedding blood during the Civil War.
Wills states in his book “Lincoln at Gettysburg-The Words That Remade America,” the Second Inaugural complements and completes the Gettysburg address and is the only one that stands with it. It is interesting to note that at the famous memorial in Washington, the seated Lincoln is flanked by those two speeches. I urge a reading of Wills’ book and his wonderful description and analysis of the speech that goes hand-in-hand with the Gettysburg Address.
Lincoln’s address on that cold March day consisted of 703 words and was the second shortest inaugural address. Five hundred and five words are one syllable. Lincoln mentions God fourteen times, quotes Scripture four times, and invokes prayer four times.
Lincoln used the word “war” or its pronoun nine times. The centrality of war is magnified because the word is prominent. Previously war had been used as the direct object, both historically and grammatically, of the principal actors. In his speech, however, war became the subject rather than the object. The second paragraph concludes, “And the war came.” In this brief, understated phrase, Lincoln acknowledged that the war came in spite of the best intentions of the political leaders of the land.
When Lincoln introduced the Bible, early in the third paragraph, he entered new territory in presidential inaugural addresses. Before Lincoln there were eighteen inaugural addresses delivered by fourteen presidents. Each referred to God or the deity. The Bible, however, had been quoted only once.
The insertion of the Bible signaled Lincoln’s determination to think theologically as well as politically about the war. The words “Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other” are filled with multiple meanings. First, Lincoln affirmed the use of the Bible by both South and North. In a second meaning he questioned the use or misuse of the Bible or prayer for partisan purposes. Many claimed to be instruments in the hand of God when waging war. Robert E. Lee had stated, “It’s all in God’s hands” and then sent the cream of his army to slaughter at Gettysburg
With the words “The Almighty has His own purposes” Lincoln brought God to the rhetorical center of the address. In quick strokes he described God’s actions: “He now wills to remove”; “He gives to both North and South this terrible war”; “Yet, if God wills that it continue. …”
Later in the address Lincoln uttered a blistering biblical quotation: “Woe unto the world because of offences” (Matthew 18:7). When he defines American slavery as one of those offenses, he widened the historical and emotional range of his address. Lincoln did not say “Southern slavery” but asserted that North and South must together own the offense-that both were responsible for the original sin, that being the sin of 250 years of slavery. Having to repay that debt as Lincoln puts it, the “toil shall be sunk”-an accounting term.
Lincoln carried the scales of justice to his speech. He did so knowing that Americans had always been uncomfortable facing up to their own malevolence. Lincoln suggested that the war was a means of purging the nation of its sin of slavery. The images reach their pinnacle in “until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.” His words sound more like the romantic language of Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic” (“As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free”) than the legal language of the lawyer who delivered the first inaugural address.
The first eight words of Lincoln’s last paragraph proclaim an enduring promise of reconciliation: “With malice toward none, with charity for all.” These words immediately became the most memorable ones of the second inaugural address. After his assassination they came to represent Lincoln’s legacy to the nation. Lincoln ended the address with a coda of healing: “to bind up … to care for … to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace. …” In this concluding paragraph he offered the final surprise. Instead of rallying his followers, in the name of God, to support the war, he asked his listeners, quietly, to emulate the ways of God.
Here is the complete text of the Second Inaugural:
My Fellow Countrymen,
At this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement somewhat in detail of a course to be pursued seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.
On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war–seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.
One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Let us remember his great words.
Basler, Roy S., et al., eds. The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. 8 vols. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1953. Also index vol., 1955, and supplements, 1974 and 1990.
Donald, David Herbert. Lincoln. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.
White, Ronald C., Jr. Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2002.
Wills, Gary. Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America: New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992.
“Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.” Dictionary of American History. 2003. Encyclopedia.com. 3 Mar. 2015