DYCHE | Lincoln's Second Inaugural Still Relevant After 150 Years
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By John David Dyche WDRB Contributor
If you do not already own the Library of America edition of Lincoln: Selected Speeches and Writings, purchase a copy immediately. Do not be deterred by the fact that the book has an introduction by Gore Vidal.
It is a great, yet concise, collection of Abraham Lincoln's literary compositions. Every entry is worth reading, of course.
Lincoln was an extraordinary thinker and writer. His genius is apparent in almost every product of his pen, be it an important speech or an otherwise insignificant note.
Sometimes it simply pours forth in simple, yet overpowering, fashion. The speech republished on Page 449 of this fine volume is an example of that.
It is Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, given March 4, 1865, a century and a half ago this week. Perhaps you have seen the photographs of John Wilkes Booth in the audience on the U. S. Capitol's east front as the soon-to-be-assassinated president delivered the 703-word speech.
Biographer David Herbert Donald described it as "a remarkably impersonal address," in which Lincoln used the word "I" only once and in the first paragraph. "Nor did he refer to anything he had said or done during the previous four years."
Lincoln began by recalling the different conditions that prevailed at his First Inaugural Address. Then it was appropriate to state "a course to be pursued," but four years later everything depended on "the progress of our arms," which were "well known to the public" and, he trusted, "reasonably satisfactory."
So a look back was in order. Lincoln described the war's origins this way: "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."
Another indispensable Lincoln resource, The Abraham Lincoln Encyclopedia edited by Mark Neely, Jr., refers to the Second Inaugural as a "philosophical rumination on the meaning of the Civil War." Neely adds that "friend and foe alike commented on its religious – even 'theological' – nature."
The speech contains multiple Biblical allusions. Lincoln noted that, "Both sides read the same Bible, and pray to the same God" and that "each invokes His aid against the other."
It seems strange, Lincoln observes, that "any men should dare ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces," yet he hastens to add, "judge not that we be not judged."
He continued, "The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes." God gave "to both North and South, this terrible war," said the president who had presided over it, but drawing on the Gospel of Matthew he added that it was the "woe due to those by whom the offense [of American slavery] came."
The "scourge of war" was a "true and righteous" judgment of the Lord, Lincoln ventured, even if it continued "until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequired toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword." This powerful penultimate paragraph built an even more epic, and hopeful, conclusion.
"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."
Lincoln himself, in a letter to Thurlow Weed, said he expected it "to wear as well as – perhaps better than anything I have produced; but it is not immediately popular." Why not? According to Lincoln, "Men are not flattered by being shown that there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them."
As Donald notes, "Lincoln had consistently held Northerners as well as Southerners responsible for introducing slavery and for protecting it under the Constitution."
Does the Second Inaugural still have meaning for us today? It most definitely does.
We each play a part in, and bear some responsibility for, even the political and social conditions that we deplore and policies we despise. Few of them are as awful as slavery, and our societal punishment is rarely as horrible as war, and especially the Civil War, but we can never fully foist responsibility for America's shortcomings off on others.
Again, as then, we need less malice, more charity, and firmness in the right, as God gives us to see it. Read the speech.
John David Dyche is a Louisville attorney and a political commentator for WDRB.com. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jddyche.