Lincoln's Greatest Speech

Frederick Douglass called it "a sacred effort," and Lincoln himself thought that his Second Inaugural, which offered a theodicy of the Civil War, was better than the Gettysburg Address

Lincoln's Greatest Speech?

MARCH 4, 1865, the day of Lincoln's second inauguration as President, began in a driving rain that raddled Washington's famously muddy thoroughfares — women would wear the mud caked to their long dresses throughout the day's ceremonies. Walt Whitman saw Lincoln's carriage dash through the rain "on sharp trot" from the White House to the Capitol, scene of the swearing-in. He thought Lincoln might have preceded the tacky parade in order to avoid association with a muslin Temple of Liberty or a pasteboard model of the ironclad Monitor. Though Whitman was a close observer of the President, and would shadow him throughout this day, there was no way for Lincoln to recognize him in the crowd.

It was otherwise with Frederick Douglass. After the parade had arrived at the Capitol's east portico and the presidential company had come out, Lincoln recognized the civil-rights leader from Douglass's earlier visits to the White House. He pointed him out to Andrew Johnson, who had just been sworn in as Vice President in the Senate chamber. Douglass thought Johnson looked drunk, but did not know what a fool the Tennessean had made of himself after taking the oath. After Johnson had given a rambling and slurred speech attacking privilege, he melodramatically waved the Bible in the air and passionately kissed it. Benjamin Butler, of Massachusetts, who later led the impeachment effort against Johnson, said in a public speech that the Vice President "slobbered the Holy Book with a drunken kiss." Lincoln, who studiously avoided looking up during Johnson's odd performance in the Senate, quietly told the parade marshal, "Do not let Johnson speak outside." Perhaps Lincoln was trying to be compensatorily reassuring when he made conversation with Johnson by pointing out Douglass. But Johnson's disoriented sullenness came out as pure hate when this former slave owner looked at the escaped slave who was now a celebrity. Douglass recorded the instant.

The first expression which came to his face, and which I think was the true index of his heart, was one of bitter contempt and aversion. Seeing that I observed him, he tried to assume a more friendly appearance, but it was too late; it is useless to close the door when all within has been seen.

Much of future tragedy could be glimpsed in that silent exchange of glances — and much of the problem Lincoln faced in framing a speech for this occasion. Johnson, who had served as governor of the border state of Tennessee, was just one of the many compromises Lincoln had been forced to make in his attempt to shorten the war and make reintegration of the nation possible. It is easy for us to think of reconstructing the nation as a task that came after the war. But Lincoln faced problems of reconstruction soon after the war began. He had to govern sectors recaptured from the South, to keep border states from joining the rebellion, and to woo wavering parts of the southern coalition. All this involved the use of carrots as well as sticks — promises of amnesty, discussion of gradual emancipation, bargaining over things like black suffrage. These in turn alienated the radical Republicans, who wanted no compromise on the question of slavery or black civil rights.

This was a fight that could not be delayed until the war was over, and it flared up most bitterly after the occupation of New Orleans, in May of 1862. Lincoln hoped to make Louisiana, with its high percentage of educated freemen, a showcase of the way the South could be reunited with the North on the basis of a free black work force. But when congressmen were elected by Louisiana's provisional government, which seemed too conservative to Congress, they were not initially seated, and Congress continued with its own plan of reconstruction, entertaining such notions as that southern state lines should be erased and the conquered area territorialized. Lincoln feared that such congressional initiatives would reduce his flexibility in trying to bargain with the South. He placated the radicals with his Emancipation Proclamations (provisional on September 22, 1862, final on January 1, 1863) enough to be able to make his Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction on December 8, 1863. It readmitted any state that could form a government of at least 10 percent of the electorate which was willing to take an oath of allegiance to the Union and to accept the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln's proposal failed to affect the nettlesome problems in Louisiana (the Emancipation Proclamation did not apply to those parts of Louisiana that were not formally out of the Union when it was issued). In December of 1864 Lincoln was still protesting to critics that his approach to Louisiana was merely a temporary expedient for putting the state back in operation, and that " we can never finish this, if we never begin it."

People were laboring through all these controversies as they labored through the mud to Lincoln's inaugural ceremony. The end of the war was in sight — Lee would surrender at Appomattox a mere five weeks after the inauguration. But what would be done with that victory? Lincoln's appeal for latitude in the use of executive power, on the grounds that it was needed for waging the war, would lose all force when the guns fell silent. What new authority would he argue for to reach new goals? This was as thorny a situation, in its own way, as that which Lincoln had addressed in his lengthy First Inaugural. Then he had had to explain what terms he would accept for maintaining peace (including a promise to leave slavery perpetually undisturbed where it already existed) and what terms he would not accept (secession). That was a legal argument, involving constitutional philosophy, with many fine distinctions to be sharply drawn. If anything, the legal problems were even more complex in 1865. Would the Confederacy be a conquered nation? Or would it be a continuing part of America, in which some had committed crimes and others were innocent? How could the guilty be distinguished from the innocent, for assigning proper punishments or rewards? On what timetable? Under whose supervision? Using what instruments of discipline or reform (trials, oaths of allegiance, perpetual disqualification for office)? And what of the former slaves? Were they to be allowed suffrage, indemnified for losses, given lands forfeited by the rebels, guaranteed work and workers' rights? The problems were endless, and the very norms for discussing them were still to be agreed on. Lincoln had his work cut out for him, and his audience could reasonably expect a serious engagement with matters that were haunting everyone on the eve of victory.


ONLY against the backdrop of such concerns can we appreciate the daring, almost the effrontery, of the Second Inaugural's most obvious characteristic — its extreme brevity. It is true that the Gettysburg Address is even briefer (272 words to the Inaugural's 703), but that was given at a ceremonial occasion for which Lincoln was not even the principal speaker. No one expected serious discussion of national imperatives when the business of the day was honoring fallen soldiers. It is a different matter when a presidential address is given during a war that is collapsing into a potentially more divisive peace. Yet Lincoln almost breezily dismissed questions of both war and peace, saying that nothing in either called for lengthy treatment. Was he not able to appreciate the scale of the difficulties facing him? Did he think he could reduce them to manageable size by ignoring or belittling them?

That this bold defiance of expectation was deliberate is clear from the pride Lincoln took in this speech. Some have wondered if he realized what a masterpiece he had created at Gettysburg. He clearly knew that he had done well; but he expected to do even better in the years ahead — years he would not be given. He believed he had already equaled or surpassed the Gettysburg Address at least once — in his Second Inaugural. Eleven days after delivering it he wrote to Thurlow Weed, the Republican organizer in New York, that he expected it to "wear as well as — perhaps better than — any thing I have produced."

Yet if this later speech was better than the earlier one, that was because it built on the earlier one. At Gettysburg, Lincoln had proved to himself and others the virtues of economy in the use of words. He had put many-layered meaning in lapidary form. He aspired to the same thing in his inaugural speech. This is the more surprising when we consider the full-blown nature of most nineteenth-century oratory, and the fact that Presidents had so few opportunities for making speeches at that time. They did not deliver their annual messages to Congress in person. They did not address the conventions that nominated them. They could address groups that came to visit them in Washington, but Lincoln tried to avoid impromptu statements. All the words of a man in his position had to be well considered. He had denied himself the chance to make campaign speeches in both his presidential races, for fear of saying something divisive. All this must have been frustrating to Lincoln, who knew well the power of his oratory — what it had accomplished in the "House Divided" speech and the Douglas debates of 1858, and the Cooper Union speech in 1860, and at Gettysburg in 1863. The temptation must have been strong to load his inaugural address with everything he had been wanting to say. Here, at last, was his opportunity, too good to be wasted, and at just the moment when major issues were being hotly debated and an intervention by the President was desired.

The first thing to admire, then, is the discipline that kept him from saying anything more than what he considered essential, just as at Gettysburg. The earlier speech was a model for more than its brevity. He used the same rhetorical ploy to begin the two addresses. At Gettysburg he would not dedicate the battlefield, though he admitted that that was "altogether fitting and proper." In the Second Inaugural he would not make an extended speech, though he conceded that doing so had been "fitting and proper" at his first inauguration. (The phrase "fitting and proper," occurring in these two short addresses, thus ends up being repeated in the inscriptions on the Lincoln Memorial.) Familiarity with both speeches has made us appreciate too little how unexpected this approach was at the time.

We most easily read Lincoln's refusal to dedicate the battlefield as acting like a praeteritio in rhetoric: "I will not mention ... " But it has been mentioned in the very statement that refuses mention, and that device draws more attention, after all, to the "unmentioned" thing. So we expect Lincoln to say that he will not dedicate in some sense or other, leaving the impression of dedication at a deeper level. But Lincoln was not doing anything so tame. He did not distinguish different kinds of dedication. He turned the whole subject upside down: We cannot dedicate the field. The field must dedicate us.

THE defiance of expectation is not so obvious in the Second Inaugural, but it is clearly there, and is carefully stated in order to exclude things that people wanted Lincoln to say. He said that he would not speak at length, as he did in the First Inaugural (when he was "loth to close"), when there were important things to discuss. Now, in contrast (and this had to be a shocker to some people), there was nothing useful to say about the war. It took its course, and he did not even pretend to be steering it anymore, much less to predict the time of its conclusion.

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.

That impersonal last sentence, with its dangling prepositional phrase, reflects the nonassertiveness that Lincoln wanted to recommend at this point. To show that predictions were worthless, he pointed out how little the war's development had been, or could have been, predicted.

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.

With the end in sight, Lincoln did not voice the expectable, even forgivable, emotion that most leaders would in such a situation — a declaration that the rightful cause had triumphed, as it must. "The prayers of both [sides] could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes." To Lincoln, as he looked back, even his First Inaugural seemed to have been an exercise in futility.

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 inaugeral [sic] 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.

Events were beyond anyone's control. War came of itself, the personified process overriding personal agents.

What was going on here? His audience had a right to think Lincoln disingenuous when he said there were no thorny policy problems to be addressed now, as there had been in the First Inaugural. His words sound almost eerily "above it all." As the historian David Donald says, "It was a remarkably impersonal address. After the opening paragraph, Lincoln did not use the first-person-singular pronoun, nor did he refer to anything he had said or done during the previous four years." Lincoln was hardly the one to say that no great issues were resolved by the war, or that high ideals should not be used for guidance in the waging of peace. His Gettysburg Address had been sweeping in its claims — that the war would demonstrate whether all men are created equal, and would determine whether popular government could long endure. Now he was expressing an agnosticism about human purpose in general, and a submission to inscrutable providence. This resigned mood seems inappropriate for bracing people to the task of rebuilding a nation — a nation bloodily wrenched from all normal politics and facing problems without precedent.

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