President Abraham Lincoln (bottom circle) delivers his second inaugural address
while the man who would assassinate him six weeks later listens (top circle).
"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."
March 4, 1865
One hundred and fifty years ago today, Abraham Lincoln gave his second inaugural address.
As I have mentioned here before, I have been studying the presidents and the presidency most of my life — and that is not a joke. I really have. And in the course of my life, I have read the texts of many presidential inaugural addresses. I have watched all or part of most of the inaugural addresses that have been delivered in my lifetime.
And the one Lincoln delivered 150 years ago today may be the best ever given. Its words adorn the walls of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.
Lincoln's first inaugural address is considered one of the great speeches in American history — and rightfully so — with its oft–quoted passage about "the better angels of our nature."
But imagine, if you will, Lincoln's state of mind when he prepared to give his second inaugural address. On the occasion of his first inauguration, Lincoln and just about everyone else knew that war was a foregone conclusion so that was Lincoln's focus. It was obviously going to be the priority of the new administration, and the status of the war was going to be critical to his re–election bid four years later.
For a time in his re–election campaign, Lincoln was convinced that he would be defeated. The war news in the first half of 1864 had not been good for the administration, and Lincoln had resolved that, if he did lose, he would see to it that the North won the war before he left office — because he knew the Democrat who defeated him would be committed to ending the war, not winning it or preserving the Union — but things were looking up in the second half of the year. General William T. Sherman captured Atlanta in his famed march to the sea, and David "Damn the torpedoes" Farragut captured Mobile Bay, Alabama. After that, it was all good news, and Lincoln was re–elected in a landslide. By the time he took the oath of office for the second time, the war was almost won.
I don't know if the weather in Washington was as severe 150 years ago as it has been recently, but historical accounts do tell us that it had been raining quite a bit in Washington in the days leading up to Lincoln's inauguration. On the day of the inaugural, though, the skies cleared, and the sun came out, bringing tens of thousands of people out to witness the historic event. After all, Lincoln was only the sixth president to give a second inaugural address.
"Abraham Lincoln, rising tall, gaunt and outstanding, stepped forward to read his inaugural address," Carl Sandburg wrote in his biography of the 16th president. "Applause roared, again and again was repeated, and finally died far away on the outer edge of the throng. In a silence almost profound the audience now listened. Seldom had a president been so short–spoken about the issues of so grave an hour."
The reconstruction of the Union was on Lincoln's mind, and that called for a brief speech, Lincoln told his listeners, and he reminded them of the circumstances four years earlier when he took office. "Both parties deprecated war," he said, "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."
And it had gone on far longer than either side had expected.
"Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God," Lincoln observed, "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."
"Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray," Lincoln said, "that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away."
Sandburg wrote that "[a] subdued handclapping and occasional cheers punctuated the address. Reporters noticed at the final paragraph many moist eyes and here and there tears coursing down faces unashamed."
Frederick Douglass reportedly told the president, "Mr. Lincoln, that was a sacred effort."
Douglass was there. He heard the speech when it was given. What a privilege that must have been — especially when you consider that modern presidents seem to feel obliged to speak interminably. Lincoln gave the greatest speeches in the nation's history; frequently, they lasted only a few minutes. His Gettysburg Address was written on an envelope, and his second inaugural address might as well have been.
And the significance was in the eye — or, rather, the ear — of the beholder.
"Like the Gettysburg Address, and more particularly the House Divided speech, the second inaugural took on varied meanings," Sandburg wrote. "To some it was a howl for vengeance, to others a benediction and a plea — with deep music."
Lincoln was re–elected with 55% of the popular vote four months earlier on Nov. 8, 1864, defeating his former general, George McClellan.