Do you understand what Mr. Lincoln was driving at in his second inaugural address? I’ll bet you don’t. Or, let’s put it this way, I learned something from this little talk, which afterward seemed obvious but hadn’t seemed so beforehand.
[Thursday March 29, 2006 (4:32 a.m.)]
I awoke thinking about Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address as an act of war against the vindictive policies of the Radical Republicans, sensing that Mr. Lincoln wanted to come in. So I found it at http://showcase.netins.net/web/creative/lincoln/speeches/inaug2.htm. This is the speech in its entirety, saying more in four paragraphs – four paragraphs! – than any political speech I have heard in my lifetime with the possible exception of John F. Kennedy’s currently underrated elegant inaugural address, which shared many of this speech’s qualities.
I leave the introductory material because it seems to me important.
This theologically intense speech has been widely acknowledged as one of the most remarkable documents in American history. The London Spectator said of it, “We cannot read it without a renewed conviction that it is the noblest political document known to history, and should have for the nation and the statesmen he left behind him something of a sacred and almost prophetic character.”
Journalist Noah Brooks, an eyewitness to the speech, said that as Lincoln advanced from his seat, “a roar of applause shook the air, and, again and again repeated, finally died away on the outer fringe of the throng, like a sweeping wave upon the shore. Just at that moment the sun, which had been obscured all day, burst forth in its unclouded meridian splendor, and flooded the spectacle with glory and with light.” Brooks said Lincoln later told him, “Did you notice that sunburst? It made my heart jump.”
According to Brooks, the audience received the speech in “profound silence,” although some passages provoked cheers and applause. “Looking down into the faces of the people, illuminated by the bright rays of the sun, one could see moist eyes and even tearful faces.”
Brooks also observed, “But chiefly memorable in the mind of those who saw that second inauguration must still remain the tall, pathetic, melancholy figure of the man who, then inducted into office in the midst of the glad acclaim of thousands of people, and illumined by the deceptive brilliance of a March sunburst, was already standing in the shadow of death.”
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 offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!” If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences 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 offence 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 bond-man’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.
Rekindling old ideals
Mr. Lincoln, would you care to talk a bit about your speech? Its reason, its content? For what reason do you and others awaken me this Thursday morning?
As you have been inferring, this concatenation of people appearing one by one over your past few weeks does have a purpose beyond your own education, although that is as useful as any other thing. Mr. Bowers opened your eyes to at least one aspect of the radical Republicans’ scheme for reconstruction. Joseph Smallwood, before and after that, showed you the soul of a Union man. In general you were given a view of the Civil War as the result of certain causes that are not widely taught in your time, although I should have thought them obvious enough. In all this, the aim has been for you in your time to take renewed aim at our goals; to re-inspire yourselves with old ideals, never yet attained; to find the common ground upon which you can build anew, if you are able to summon the will.
A common vision
“Where there is no vision, the people perish.” But a common vision can be founded only upon a vision shared, not a vision imposed. And it is this elementary fact that my political adversaries overlooked, or chose to ignore, with disastrous consequences. As you have asked for me to run through the speech, I shall do so briefly, with the sole intent to highlight our reason for waking you up – all of you of good will.
Note, then, the following points:
… “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.”
This was a plain statement of fact. This was the context out of which the war originated. I felt it was important to remind the people that the South had not wanted a war either; that the southern politicians were determined to destroy the union, but had not intended nor desired the war that developed. At the same time, I was not about to imply that it was the fault of Unionists that the war came. The war came because of fate, let us say, rather than because of the determined ill-will of southern politicians. If you will re-phrase this as I did not say it, you will see the difference in intent and effect. I might have said, instead, something like this:
“On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago, all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All Union men dreaded it–all Union men 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, not caring if the result would be a terrible war that would kill and maim so many, etc. They would make war rather than let the nation survive.”
You see the difference. Many would have agreed with the emotional tone of this second version. Stevens, Chandler, Butler, Sumner – they all would have agreed and said that even this was too weak. For that is how they saw me, as consistently too weak to do what was needed.
To continue. My long summary of the cause of the war was as precise and succinct a statement of cause and effect and the underlying logic of events as I could prepare. I pointed out the physical situation. “One eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the Southern part of it.”
I pointed out that slavery was “somehow, the cause of the war.”
I pointed out that the federal government had not committed itself to emancipation, but to the containment of slavery. And I moved on to lead the people to a new vision of the meaning of the war, a meaning beyond politics and one leading away from hatred of individuals or even whole classes or divisions of people. This was the point of saying that neither party expected a result so fundamental and astounding.
In saying that divine providence was working out a plan below, I said nothing but what I fully believed. But at the same time I said it in hope of furthering that plan. It was one thing to say, as I did, that all shared in the guilt of American Slavery. It was another very different thing to say as my congressional opponents did, in defiance of the plain facts of history, that the guilt of slavery rested on Southerners alone. I knew that this would be the great battlefield, and I was preparing the ground as best I could. But I did not think that my time would be so short, or that the fact of my death could be used against my purposes.
If you read my final words in this light, you will see plainly enough that I was staking out the ground upon which I determined to stand in the difficult process of reconstruction that I saw looming.
“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.”
Your time sees those as noble sentiments, perhaps. My time saw them for what they were: fighting words.
Thank you, Mr. Lincoln. Did you want to speak more definitely, more particularly, about how all this applies to our own political struggles today?
Not at this time. It is for you, the living, to ponder the application of the principles you believe in. We can at best remind you when you lose sight of them.
Thank you again.