‘I never knew a man who wished himself a slave. Consider if you know any good thing that no man desires it for himself.” A. Lincoln (March 24, 1864)
In April of 1864, Abraham Lincoln penned a letter to Albert Hodges, editor of a Frankfort, Kentucky newspaper regarding a conversation they recently had about enlistment of slaves as soldiers. Earlier, Hodges had warned Lincoln that there was “much dissatisfaction” in the state over the idea.
Hodges was so impressed with Lincoln’s remarks, he asked him to put it in writing so he could share it with “prominent men” back home.
“I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel. And yet I have never understood that the Presidency conferred on me an unrestricted right to act officially upon this judgment and feeling. It was the oath I took that I would, do my best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of United States… I did understand, however, that my oath to preserve the Constitution to the best of my ability, imposed upon me the duty of preserving by every indispensible means, that government — that nation — of which that Constitution was organic law… I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events controlled me. Now at the end of three years struggle, the nation’s condition is not what either party, or any man devised or expected. Whither it is tending seems plain. If God now wills the removal of a great wrong, and will also that we of the North as well as you of the South, shall pay fairly for our complicity in that wrong, impartial history will find therein new cause to attest and revere the justice and goodness of God. “
In the third paragraph of Lincoln’s speech, he writes:
“Neither party expected the war, the magnitude, or duration, which it already attained…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? “
I found Lincoln’s letter to Hodges in Lincoln on Democracy edited by Mario Cuomo and Harold Holzer. For an hour or so, I was impressed with my own sagacity on finding the curious parallel until I discovered that the idea was covered in depth by historian Ronald C. White, Jr.
White adds the observation that Lincoln had thought long and hard about historical causation — that all parties were surprised by the turn of events. The question Lincoln was wrestling with was: who is responsible for this war?
“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 not be judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully.”
By introducing the Bible into the Second Inaugural, Lincoln was going against precedent. Before Lincoln there were eighteen inaugural addresses and the Bible was quoted only once in those addresses.
Ronald White writes about a conversation Lincoln had with his close friend Joshua Speed. “In the Summer of 1864, Lincoln invited Speed to spend an evening with him at the Soldier’s Home…when Speed arrived, he found Lincoln sitting near a window in the stone cottage, reading the Bible. Speed said, ‘I am glad to see that you are profitably engaged.’ ‘Yes, said Lincoln, ‘I am profitably engaged.’ ‘Well, Speed continued, ‘if you have recovered from your skepticism, I am sorry to say that I have not..’ With those words, Lincoln rose, placed is hand on Speed’s shoulder, and said, ‘You are wrong, Speed, take all of this book upon reason that you can and the balance on faith, and you will live and die a happier and better man.’“
Lincoln was an intensely private man and did not reveal his religious convictions. “I have often wished that I was a more devout man than I am,” he said in a talk to group of clerics in 1863. However, “I place my whole reliance on God.”
There has been much scholarly debate over Lincoln’s religious beliefs. Mark Noll, professor of history at Wheaton College offers up perhaps the most prescient of observations:
“It is one of the great ironies of the history of Christianity in America that the most profoundly religious analysis of the nation’s deepest trauma came not from a clergyman or a theologian but from a politician who was self-taught in the ways of both God and humanity. The source of Lincoln’s Christian perception will probably always remain a mystery, but the unusual depth of that perception none can doubt.”
It is impossibly difficult for contemporary Americans to fully understand the context and the ambiguities of Lincoln’s time.
Just fifty years ago, the battle for Civil Rights was waged with a ferocity only those who witnessed it first hand can explain. Lincoln’s idealism was tempered by his pragmatism. He understood that the war’s end did not mean the war for equality would begin.
“The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We, even we here, hold the power and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave we assure freedom to the free–honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve. We shall nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of earth.”
“With malice towards none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive 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 widows and his orphan — to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peach, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
When Lincoln began this final paragraph, he had been speaking for barely five minutes. Ronald White writes, “Well aware of their (the audience) feelings of both hope and despair, he was about to ask his listeners for act of incredible compassion. He would summon them to overcome the barrier of race and the boundary of sectionalism and come together again in reconciliation.”
“In this final paragraph, Lincoln offered the ultimate surprise, Instead of rallying his supporters, in the name of God to support the war, he asked his listeners, quietly, to imitate the ways of God.”
Lincoln wrote to Thurlow Weed, a New York politician eleven days after the election, “I expect the latter (Second Inaugural Address) to wear well — perhaps better than anything I have produced…but I believe that it is not immediately popular…men are not flattered by being shown that there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them. “ Lincoln added, “It is a truth that I thought needed to be told.”
The Chicago Times denounced the speech as “so slip shod, so loose-joined, so puerile: that by the “by the side of it, mediocrity is superb.” Most newspapers gave the speech a respectful but subdued reception. The Washington National Intelligencer felt the Presidents final words equally distinguished for patriotism, statesmanship, and benevolence,” deserved “to be printed in gold.”
Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address does live in the shadow of both the Gettysburg Address and his rise to national prominence in his Cooper Union Speech in 1860.
What makes the Second Inaugural so enduring and prescient is that it isn’t the speech the public expected or desired. It would have been easier to talk about the inevitable march of victory — and ending to the bloodiest war in the nation’s history.
At Gettysburg, the esteemed Edward Everett gave the main oratory — a two-hour speech that by all accounts was lauded and well received. But Everett was quick to acknowledge the greatness of Lincoln’s brief speech.
The day after the ceremony, he wrote to the president praising the “eloquent simplicity & appropriateness” of his remarks. “I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.” Lincoln sent an immediate and gracious response: “In our respective parts yesterday, you could not have been excused to make a short address, nor I a long one. I am pleased to know that, in your judgment, the little that I did say was not entirely a failure.”
In his Second Inaugural, Lincoln’s eloquence was manifested in its message. It is not a speech of victory or invective. It is not a speech of self-congratulation, it’s a speech of reconciliation.
In many ways, it is a sermon. A plea to a divided nation to begin healing without malice. It is Lincoln’s wish that America “achieve and cherish a lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
What Lincoln accomplished is what he wished on the steps of the Capital four years earlier in his First Inaugural.
“The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
If the measure of a great speech is to help transform history and the hearts of men, the Second Inaugural is Lincoln’s greatest speech. He appealed to the better angels of our nature.
Again my thanks to Ronald White, Jr., Gary Wills, Eric Foner and Charles Bracelen Flood for allowing me to quote liberally from their scholarship.
Images courtesy of the Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress, Manuscript Division (Washington, D.C.: American Memory Project, [2000-02]), http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/alhtml/alhome.html,