Lincoln’s Best Speech: A Sesquicentennial

 
 

Lincoln’s second inaugural address, 150 years old today, is as pertinent as ever. It reminds us that we must resist the poisonous temptation to see those with whom we disagree as bitter enemies even as we vigorously defend the moral truths that ought to guide our public life.

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“With malice toward none; with charity for all…” It was a civic gesture as unexpected then as it is needed now.

One hundred and fifty years ago today, Abraham Lincoln stood on the eastern portico of the U.S. Capitol and delivered a few words—703, to be precise—at his Second Inaugural. The speech remains the most celebrated inaugural address in our history. Fredrick Douglass, not always an admirer of Lincoln, called it a “sacred effort.” Lincoln himself acknowledged it was filled with “lots of wisdom” and predicted it would “wear as well as—perhaps even better than—any thing I have produced.” From an otherwise self-deprecating man who had already authored the instantly classic Gettysburg Address, this is no small admission.

The morning Lincoln spoke, Washington, DC was awash in mud from several days of rain, and the skies remained grimly overcast. Yet, as Lincoln stepped forward to speak, a brilliant ray of sunshine burst through the clouds. Chief Justice Chase, among many others, saw it as “an auspicious omen of the dispersion of the clouds of war and the restoration of the clear sun light of prosperous peace.” There were good reasons for such an interpretation. With Robert E. Lee and his forces trapped near Richmond, Virginia, the downfall of the Confederacy’s capital city, largest army, and best general was imminent. The bloody, bitter ordeal of civil war finally appeared to be over, and everyone sensed it.

Despite these most confident circumstances, the war-weary Lincoln addressed his audience—many of whom were no doubt still grieving the loss of a son, a brother, a husband, or a friend—and gave no soothing prediction of the end of military action, no cathartic attack on Southern secessionists, no cheering vindication of his long-ridiculed leadership, and no promising plan for the future.

Instead, with breathtaking generosity, he concluded his speech:

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 a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.

Twenty-seven years before this singular moment, in one of his very first speeches as a young, aspiring politician, Lincoln had argued that the greatest threat to the survival of the American republic would never be foreign invasion. Rather, it would come from internal challenges connected to “the deep rooted principle of hate, and the powerful motive of revenge” that so often lurk in our human nature. If ever there was a moment in our history when the acids of hatred and revenge were at a rolling boil, it was 150 years ago today. Never before, or since, has the country come anywhere close to the massive destruction of life, limb, and brotherly love caused by the Civil War. Yet there Lincoln stood, speaking more like a prophet or priest than a political-military leader on a wartime footing, giving voice to a nation that would suppress the very natural response of hatred and revenge in favor of a profound and active love for “all.” Such words in such a situation were without precedent in history.

This raises two critical and interconnected questions. How did Lincoln arrive at what Timothy Jackson has called the “sublime excessiveness” of his position? And, how might Lincoln’s words help our nation today?

Charity for All

First, the record is clear: Lincoln was not always an angel. His sense of care and forbearance grew with time. Undoubtedly, it was a set of childhood tragedies that first drew out a certain human empathy in his character. To this, he later added a philosophy that human nature was fairly constant and universal. Differences between people, he came to believe early on, typically had less to do with the fact that some were superior in insight or moral temperament and more to do with the fact that inherited or unchosen conditions and customs could give otherwise similar human beings very different dispositions. He regularly reminded Northerners that they would probably be doing what Southerners were doing had they been born into Southern environments and regional interests.

By the time of his Second Inaugural, Lincoln’s belief in a great human sameness took on an even deeper and theological dimension. Over many years, Lincoln’s early Enlightenment-inspired skepticism and rationalism increasingly gave room to a biblical, if non-denominational, religiosity as intense as any occupant the White House has ever had. By his extensive reading of scripture and long reflection, Lincoln came to conclude that God was both in control of human affairs and ultimately inscrutable by mere mortals. The view that all human beings were plagued with self-interested partialities and limited cognitive horizons produced in Lincoln a generosity toward even his most implacable foes. This also explains why, in such a short speech, and in a context that so lent itself to a Manichean narrative of good versus evil and us versus them, Lincoln employed sixteen references (“all,” “both,” “neither”) that cast the North and the South in almost exactly the same light.

Furthermore, this view of God’s active yet not completely knowable role in human affairs helps explain the curious way in which Lincoln resisted what would seem the politically irresistible impulse to predict a quick end to hostilities given the facts of March 4, 1865. Lincoln could not promise the end of the war, because it was not his war. If the war was, in fact, a punishment to “both North and South” from God for two and half centuries of either practicing or abetting slavery—something the mere human Lincoln could only surmise but not emphatically declare—then it just might be the case that more divine justice was to be exacted and the war would continue. Certainly Lincoln had been surprised before when it appeared the North had victory in its hands.

Firmness in the Right

As we admire here Lincoln’s awe-inspiring magnanimity, we must be careful. There is a danger that Lincoln’s speech be reduced to a kind of crude postmodernism simply spruced up in religious garb: we should just love everyone because we are all basically the same and we have no perfectly reliable way to adjudicate moral controversy. But no such reading of the Second Inaugural is warranted.

In the very same breath that Lincoln calls forth a supreme spirit of charity for all, he presses the North to act “with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right,” striving “to finish the work we are in.” The work, of course, is the work of war—a war that began as an effort to save the Union, but which by Gettysburg had been transformed into an effort to give a “new birth” of liberty to “all men.” Between the day of his Second Inaugural and a few weeks later, when Lee would surrender to Grant, thousands of more soldiers would lose their lives.

By Lincoln’s reckoning, it may have been impossible to know God’s “own purposes” in full, but there was a discernibly right answer in the conflict over slavery. Thus, just as the practice of love was clearly the obligation of those who would follow the God of the Bible, so too was a vigilant defense of the notion that all individuals are, by nature, equals, entitled to rule over themselves and not be ruled by others but by their consent.

Perhaps this, finally, is the greatest thing Lincoln’s speech still has to offer us today, in an age when ideological, cultural, and religious forces pull at the fabric of our Union with increasing hostility and venom. Lincoln’s words do not ask anyone to surrender a commitment to moral truth. To the contrary, his speech, perhaps the finest ever offered by an American political figure, is a searing declaration that moral truths do exist and that even if they resist full and easy comprehension, we as a nation must do our best to understand them and order our public life together in light of them. If necessary, we are called to fight and even die for them. At the same time, Lincoln’s words remind us that, through it all, if we yield to the poisonous temptation to see those with whom we disagree as bitter enemies, we do so at our national peril. He argued this at the launch of his career, and it was both the opening and closing note of his unparalleled presidency. “We must not be enemies,” he declared at the close of his First Inaugural, “but friends.”

If Lincoln was right, then one of the chief tasks for today’s citizens and civic leaders is to see that, while our passionate disagreements over public principles may sometimes strain, they must not be allowed to “break the bonds of our affection.”

Matthew S. Holland is President of Utah Valley University and author of Bonds of Affection: Civic Charity and the Making of America.

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