No American president ever employed the power of words as well as Abraham Lincoln. In his skillful hands, they were as mighty as any weapon in the Union Army’s arsenal and he used them to consistently and clearly state the nation’s goals, its purposes and war aims, and his own vision for the country’s future path. Moreover, he was able to demonstrate this ability, this precious gift, in both the written and spoken word, and historians have long paid especially close attention to the latter. From his 1858 debates with Stephen Douglas to his speech at Cooper Union, the first inaugural address, the Gettysburg Address, and his second inaugural address, they have studied his texts with great care, seeking all they reveal about his mind and his positions on the issues of the time, as well as their often powerful beauty.
Some historians consider the speech he delivered on the occasion of his second inauguration as President to not only be his finest, but to be one of the greatest speeches in America’s history. When it was made on March 4, 1865 on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, the war was in its final bloody weeks. Lee’s army was trapped in the trenches around Petersburg, Virginia and his nemesis, Ulysses Grant was devising his plan for the push that would drive Lee back into the final retreat to Appomattox. At the same time, William T. Sherman was driving northward through South Carolina, as the only other major Confederate army in the field, led by Joseph Johnston, retreated before him. Almost anyone could see that the war’s outcome was inevitable—it was simply a matter of time before this shared national nightmare was ended at last.
Therefore, it seems apparent that Lincoln sought to set the stage for that end, to clearly speak his mind and, just as much, his heart. He had carried the nation’s pain on his shoulders for four long years and that is evident in this address. More than anything, however, he may have wanted all to hear his vision for the spirit in which he wanted the war to end, one of true peace and magnanimity. The result is a speech that, once again and just as at Gettysburg, is a tribute to the power of a skillful economy of words—there is much said here in only 702 words. Further, it is a speech that seems to move from darkness into light, just as the nation itself was doing at the time Lincoln spoke.
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.
Here, one might have expected Lincoln to offer a detailed review of war’s course and offer some perspective on its near-term path to conclusion. However, he only does so in the broadest of terms, offering no detail. It is as though he is acknowledging the nation’s grief, its numbness over the scale and scope of the tragedy that befell them by simply stating, in essence, all that could be said has already been said, that so dear a cost has been paid, and we have all lived this calamity together. Therefore, he seems to be saying there is no need to review the history of the last four years. Rather, he says, all that remains is only the hope for a swift conclusion.
Then, Lincoln remembers the time of his first inaugural address, reminding everyone that his focus then was on the potential for compromise, on the need to remain a whole nation, and to avoid war, if possible:
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, urgent 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.
As can be seen, however, he reminds the audience that, at that time, some parties on both sides sought to destroy the Union via negotiation, seeking to avoid war, even if the death of the Union was the price. But, in the end, it came down to the simple fact that one side would choose to divide the nation, to end the Union so preciously created by the Founders, and do so even if it meant bloodshed, while the other would refuse to submit to the threat of violence and end humanity’s last, best hope for liberty and freedom without a fight. Therefore, the war came, no matter how hard some would try to avoid it. Here, it is as though Lincoln now saw the war as inevitable and, as we will see later, perhaps ordained by God.
Next, Lincoln reviews what the respective positions of both sides as the conflict ignited in 1861. Here, he states simply and unambiguously for posterity that the cause of the war was human slavery, in the perceived right to own property in the form of a human being:
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.
Reading this passage, it is amazing to me that, even now, some continue to claim that no one in the leadership of either side at the time of the Civil War saw slavery as the cause of the war, alleging that to do so now is nothing more than “politically correct” revisionism. Yet, look at what Lincoln says: “These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war.” Furthermore, he goes on to make an equally clear statement of each position’s side of the issue: One wished to continue and even extend the practice, while the other merely sought to limit its extension to new territories. Here, Lincoln reminds everyone that, during the process of secession and the intractable march to war, he continually made it clear that he had no intension to unilaterally abolish slavery, that he sought compromise, and only wished to limit slavery from moving west.
Then Lincoln moves on to the most intriguing and even dark passages of the speech. Here, he also reveals much of his own tortured soul, of the pain he had been carrying, and what may have well been his own feelings regarding a divine role in the bloodshed the nation had suffered. Many had thought the war would be quick and the bloodshed minimal—they were so wrong:
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."
The quote from Matthew, chapter 18, verse 7 is especially telling, "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." Some Lincoln scholars believe that Lincoln had come to believe the length and cost of the war was God’s punishment on the American people, and this section of the speech seems to clearly convey that. Like many, the president seems to have been groping for a reason behind the sheer magnitude of suffering the nation had endured, and he found it in divine punishment for the sin of slavery. Now, he seems to say, that price has been paid and all we can hope for is that, with the sin excised, God will allow the bloodshed to end.
However, as I alluded to earlier, Lincoln then moves beautifully from darkness into light, into a hope for a better tomorrow and a bright future for his nation. The final paragraph is remarkable and it is both the most remembered and powerful part of the address:
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.
Here Lincoln expresses his hope and his vision for post-war America: forgiveness, recovery, and a peaceful land embracing the new birth of freedom he spoke of at Gettysburg. This passage also expresses the same sentiment he clearly communicated a few weeks later when he met Sherman and Grant at City Point, Virginia. Lincoln wanted the war ended as magnanimously as possible, without revenge and punishment for the conquered Southern foe.
His final words in the speech are truly beautiful and, in some ways, tragic, because both radical reconstruction and the Jim Crow laws would undo much of the spirit of his vision and delay true national reconciliation for more than a century. Still, after his assassination, Grant and Sherman would follow Lincoln’s wishes, ending the war on benevolent and generous terms. In doing so, both they and their Southern military counterparts would defy politicians on both sides, including those Radical Republicans who sought to punish the South, as well as those in the South like Jefferson Davis who sought to continue the war via a bloody, protracted guerilla conflict. Luckily for all of us, Abraham Lincoln had already laid the groundwork that would save the nation via the words of his Second Inaugural Address.