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

BUT it was precisely because he saw the staggering size of the problems that had to be addressed that he was setting a mood of pragmatic accommodation to each challenge as it came up. Doctrinaire approaches, he was sure, would lead to fighting the war over again in peacetime — which is what happened during Reconstruction under Andrew Johnson. Some people argued that the South had committed treason, had withdrawn from the Union, and should be treated like any conquered nation. Others felt that the southern states were never out of the Union, and that their citizens' rights should be respected even as criminal acts were punished (mainly by the defeat itself). Though Lincoln believed that the states had not seceded because legally they could not, he did not want to let the discussion reach for grand theories or ultimate principles, since that would make the problems of living together again irresolvable. The Second Inaugural was meant, with great daring, to spell out a principle of not acting on principle. In the nation's murky situation all principles — except this one of forgoing principle — were compromised. He was giving a basis for the pragmatic position he had taken in the Proclamation of Amnesty, which was deliberately shortsighted, looking only a step at a time down the long, hard road ahead. He defended that proclamation again in the last speech he gave, a month after the Second Inaugural. Speaking from a White House window to a crowd celebrating the war's end, he read carefully written words.

I have been shown a letter on this subject [Reconstruction], supposed to be an able one, in which the writer expresses regret that my mind has not seemed to be definitely fixed on the question whether the seceded States, so called, are in the Union or out of it. It would perhaps, add astonishment to his regret, were he to learn that since I have found professed Union men endeavoring to make that question, I have purposely forborne any public expression upon it. As [it] appears to me that question has not been, nor yet is, a practically material one, and that any discussion of it, while it thus remains practically immaterial, could have no effect other than the mischievous one of dividing our friends. As yet, whatever it may hereafter become, that question is bad, as the basis for controversy, and good for nothing at all — a merely pernicious abstraction.

To steer around theoretical claims that would carry people too far in one or another direction, Lincoln chose a resolutely nontheoretical statement of Reconstruction's goal — to restore the "proper practical relations" between the states. That phrase is emphatically repeated five times in his final speech. If restoring practical relations be accepted as the immediate goal, then

I believe it is not only possible, but in fact, easier, to do this, without deciding, or even considering, whether these states have even been out of the Union, than with it. Finding themselves safely at home, it would be utterly immaterial whether they had ever been abroad. Let us all join in doing the acts necessary to restoring the proper practical relations between these States and the Union; and each forever after, innocently indulge his own opinion whether, in doing the acts, he brought the States from without, into the Union, or only gave them proper assistance, they never having been out of it.

The key theme in Lincoln's discussions of Reconstruction was flexibility. Over and over he stressed that his Proclamation of Amnesty was just one plan to be tried as a practical experiment, to be altered or abandoned as better arrangements became possible. This was a first attempt to reintegrate the parts of the South reclaimed by force. "But, as bad promises are better broken than kept, I shall treat this as a bad promise, and break it, whenever I shall be convinced that keeping it is adverse to the public interest." Those who have claimed that Andrew Johnson simply carried out Lincoln's plan for Reconstruction miss the main point of Lincoln's plan — its flexibility, which Johnson's plan lacked.


THE problem with compromise on this scale is that it seems morally neutral, open even to injustices if they work. Answering that objection was the task Lincoln set himself in the Second Inaugural. Everything said there was meant to prove that pragmatism was, in this situation, not only moral but pious. Men could not pretend to have God's adjudicating powers. People had acted for mixed motives on all sides of the civil conflict just past. The perfectly calibrated punishment or reward for each leader, each soldier, each state, could not be incorporated into a single political disposition of the problems. As he put it on April 11,

And yet so great peculiarities pertain to each state; and such important and sudden changes occur in the same state; and, withal, so new and unprecedented is the whole case, that no exclusive, and inflexible plan can safely be prescribed as to details and colatterals [sic]. Such [an] exclusive, and inflexible plan, would surely become a new entanglement.

Abstract principle can lead to the attitude Fiat iustitia, ruat coelum — "Justice be done, though it bring down the cosmos." Lincoln had learned to have a modest view of his ability to know what ultimate justice was, and to hesitate before bringing down the whole nation in its pursuit. He asked others to recognize in the intractability of events the disposing hand of a God with darker, more compelling purposes than any man or group of men could foresee.

This lesson, learned from the war, he meant to apply to the equally intractable problems of the peace. In fact, the whole Second Inaugural was already present, in germ, in his letter of April 4, 1864, to Albert G. Hodges, a newspaper editor in Kentucky.

I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me. Now, at the end of three years struggle the nation's condition is not what either party, or any man devised, or expected. God alone can claim it. Whither it is tending seems plain. If God now wills the removal of a great wrong, and wills also that we of the North as well as you of the South, shall pay fairly for our complicity in that wrong, impartial history will find therein new cause to attest and revere the justice and goodness of God.

These were reflections very important to him. At the Sanitary Fair (an early form of Red Cross activity), in Baltimore, on April 18, 1864, he said,

When the war began, three years ago, neither party, nor any man, expected it would last till now. Each looked for the end, in some way, long ere to-day. Neither did any anticipate that domestic slavery would be much affected by the war. But here we are; the war has not ended, and slavery has been much affected — how much needs not now to be recounted. So true is it that man proposes, and God disposes.

To the Quaker Eliza Gurney he wrote, on September 4, 1864,

The purposes of the Almighty are perfect, and must prevail, though we erring mortals may fail to accurately perceive them in advance. We hoped for a happy termination of this terrible war long before this; but God knows best, and has ruled otherwise. We shall yet acknowledge His wisdom and our own error therein. Meanwhile we must work earnestly in the best light He gives us, trusting that so working still conduces to the great ends He ordains. Surely He intends some great good to follow this mighty convulsion, which no mortal could make, and no mortal could stay.

Along with the agnosticism about God's purposes in advance goes the recognition of some, at least, of God's plan, as seen in retrospect — such as the train of necessities leading to the abolition of slavery (the Thirteenth Amendment was in process as he delivered the Second Inaugural). He did not begin the war with abolition as a goal. It was necessary for military purposes by the time of his limited and conditional Emancipation Proclamation, and then in the opportunity given Congress for initiating the Thirteenth Amendment. The force that led him was, he came to believe, divine. As he wrote to Mrs. Horace Mann, when she asked for an immediate emancipation of all slave children in the spring of 1864, "I have not the power to grant all they ask, I trust they will remember that God has, and that, as it seems, He wills to do it." So flexibility about Reconstruction should not deny the divine purpose of eliminating slavery (whatever practical steps might be called for in that elimination). Lincoln put this matter more starkly and vividly in the Second Inaugural by invoking the lex talionis ("an eye for an eye").


PEOPLE who stress only Lincoln's final words about charity for all, about the healing of wounds, may think that Lincoln was calling for a fairly indiscriminate forgiveness toward the South, especially since he referred to the North's share in the guilt for slavery. But the appeal to "Gospel forgiveness" is preceded by a submission to "Torah judgment" and divine wrath — an odd vehicle for a message of forgiveness. How seriously Lincoln took the lex talionis principle of punishment comes out in his Order of Retaliation, from July of 1863.

It is therefore ordered that for every soldier of the United States killed in violation of the laws of war, a rebel soldier should be executed; and for every one enslaved by the enemy or sold into slavery, a rebel soldier shall be placed at hard labor on the public works and continued at such labor until the other shall be released and receive the treatment due to a prisoner of war.

Corpse for corpse would be the rule, and slave for slave. In the Second Inaugural, Lincoln imagined God performing the kind of harsh wartime act that he was driven to. Blood for blood is rendered in strict accountant's language: the verb "sunk" comes from the scheduling of sinking debts.

Yet, if God wills that it [war] continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man'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 [it] was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.

If anyone thought that Lincoln's principle of compromise must lead to moral relativism, this came as a strict reminder that justice must be done even in the partial and fumbling ways available to mankind. Otherwise divine punishment would be duly exacted.


NO one can pretend to know what Reconstruction would have been like if Lincoln had lived, since he did not know himself, and he was open to experiment, reversal, and practical maneuvering. But the whole process would have been conducted in light of the Second Inaugural's recognition that slavery was the great national sin — a view that Andrew Johnson did not share. Paying the cost of slavery was not something that would end with the war. It would be paid in the agony of defeated men deprived of the slave labor on which their prosperity depended. It would be paid in the effort to defend the freed blacks from white hostility and persecution. Lincoln asked for charity, but he knew that the healing of the nation's wounds would be a complex and demanding process, and no one could be smug about it. All sides would have to question their own moral credentials. They could not get an easy and overall answer to particular problems by saying that traitors deserved whatever they got, or that southerners, as erring citizens, should simply resume their former political status. If God's purposes were to be discerned, they would not be manifest at the outset, any more than they had been when the war began. They would have to be read, slowly and patiently, in the moral complexities of a developing situation.

It was a very delicate task that Lincoln had assigned himself in this speech. He performed something like the somersault of the Gettysburg Address. There he had said that his audience must not dedicate but be dedicated. Here he said that his audience must not judge but be judged. This entailed a very subtle appeal to the national psyche (which may be why he thought this speech perhaps superior to the earlier one). Americans must be judged in a comprehensive judgment binding on all — God's judgment on slavery, which was to be worked out of the system with pains still counted in the nation's "sinking debt" of guilt. There was no "easy grace" of all-round good will in the message. The speech was flexible, but it was flexible steel.

When we see what objects Lincoln had in mind for this speech, we recognize how skillfully he orchestrated his effects, moving to the goal of a moral flexibility — with emphasis on morality — to counter the suspicion that pragmatism meant the nation would settle for anything workable. The speech's first paragraph refuses to go into a basic discussion of the sort Lincoln had circumvented with his Proclamation of Amnesty. The second paragraph shows the futility of prior dogmatism with regard to the war. This is a beautifully rounded paragraph, its very symmetry showing the lack of effective action. It begins with a statement of the agreed-on goal of avoiding war, and ends with four dread monosyllables that mark that goal as unattainable: "And the war came."

Between the opening and the closing of the paragraph Lincoln stated again what all dreaded, all sought to avert — only to describe how the two sides (while still holding that their acts should be "without war ... without war") diverged. The penultimate sentence recurs to the shared starting point (both still deprecated war), to show how even the limited agreement of the preceding sentence crumbled, one side making and the other accepting war. The effect of the passage is almost comic, a comedy of errors whose scurrying urgency undoes itself. Lincoln looked down from a great height on antlike efforts, establishing what the whole sequence might look like from God's vantage point, to which he had climbed by the end of the speech. Only at the end of the paragraph does the comedy of errors yield to tragedy in the lapidary last sentence. (I underline twice the shared hopes and once the diverging actions, to show how neatly they are balanced in this orderly presentation of disorder.)

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 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.
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