Civil War Blog

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Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address

Posted By on January 20, 2013


When the Civil War was finally over, nearly 3,000,000 from the Union and nearly 1,400,000 from the Confederacy had taken up arms against each other.  Counted among the dead were about 360,000 from the North and 258,000 from the South.  The war had taken a toll on the nation.  How many of these were fighting primarily to “preserve the Union” or “permit secession,” is not known – and how many were fighting to end the scourge of slavery, or preserve it as an “institution,” is also not known.  What is known is that Lincoln’s views on slavery evolved during the war, and while his stated aim at the beginning of the war was to keep the Union together, gradually, through such instruments as the Emancipation Proclamation, and the debate over the Thirteenth Amendment, he moved the nation in the direction of accepting that slavery was an offense to God – and had to be removed.  And, that’s what he stated when he stood on the steps of the Capitol to take the oath of office for the second time, 4 March 1865.

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 bondman’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.

As the war was drawing to a close, Lincoln reflected on the impending end of slavery, the end of the war, and the reconstruction ahead.  The closing sentence of the address is said to be Lincoln’s reconciliation – binding up the wounds, caring for those who bore the battle, and achieving a just and lasting peace among ourselves.  But, these aims were not immediately realized.  Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre on 14 April 1865, just one month and 10 days after he delivered the Second Inaugural Address.

In the days, months and years that followed the nation struggled with reconstruction – then there was a reaction against the freedmen that resulted in the rise of hate organizations, discrimination, segregation, terror and lynchings, denial of the right to vote, and a return of the doctrine of states’ rights.  The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s slowly but surely called the attention of the nation to the unfinished business of the Civil War.

Ninety-eight years after Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, 28 August 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial – with the words of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address behind him.  In his speech given that day in the Civil Rights March on Washington, Dr. King stated that the nation had still not lived out “the true meaning of its creed… that all men are created equal.”  It was his hope that very soon “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood….” and that his “four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Today, 20 January 2013, is the official inauguration day in the United States, so-changed by the Twentieth Amendment which reduced the amount of time between the presidential election and the inauguration.  Because today is a Sunday, the ceremonial swearing in will take place in private at 12 noon – to meet the Constitutional requirement.  Tomorrow, the public will celebrate the inauguration at the Capitol and President Barack Obama will deliver his Second Inaugural Address.  It is most fitting that the address will also be delivered on the national holiday for the American who reminded us all back in 1963 that much work still had to be done to expand freedom for all.

President Barack Obama’s Second Inaugural is the only such address that will occur during this Sesquicentennial of the Civil War and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural was the only inaugural address that was delivered during the Civil War.

But on the eve of the 2013 address, the nation is bitterly divided, and many of the issues which supposedly were fought over and resolved during the Civil War and in the Civil Rights Movement, have resurfaced again.

The President has an opportunity to stand in this continuum of history and move the nation in a positive direction toward fulfillment of the American Dream – toward what King later called “the promised land.”

There is still much work to be done – to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for those who have borne the battle, and to achieve that just and lasting peace among ourselves.  Time will tell if what results is one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.


2 Responses to “Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address”

  1. Lynn Campbell says:

    Thanks Norm for reminding us of where we’ve been as a nation and inspiring us to keep working toward one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

  2. The saying goes that those you do not learn from history is doomed to repeat it. I like the way you bring history and the present together in one article. It is ironic though, that one was trying to bring a nation together, while the other might be needle that breaks the camel’s back and seperates the country again.

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