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

Having established that the war defeated all expectation, Lincoln mentioned the most unexpected turn of events — the drastic change in the condition of slaves. Admittedly, "All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war" (emphasis added). But as the war ground on, the effect on slavery became its most far-reaching social result. Here Lincoln reversed the order of the preceding paragraph, in which he had moved from what all agreed on to what sundered them from one another. Here he began with the two sides' divergence ("to ... extend this interest" on the one side; "to restrict the territorial enlargement" on the other) and moved to the shared bafflement of hopes. This is a union of the two sides different from the first one — different from the shared hope of avoiding war by action. Activity divided men. The passivity of suffering would rejoin them.

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 [according to the progress of the Thirteenth Amendment], the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding.

Both sides felt that their basic values would not be disturbed, because both had come to terms with slavery — as either unrestricted or merely restricted — and thought that God had no stake in the matter.

Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.... The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully.

BETWEEN these two sentences of shared frustration Lincoln introduced a note of partial divergence. It is odd that people could think God wanted some people to steal the labor of others — but he drew back from a total separation from the other side even here: "But let us judge not that we be not judged." He put the same thought, before deepening it, by quoting the gospel of Matthew (18:7) — evil must, in God's mysterious providence, come into the world, but "woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." Here the guilt of the South is clear, but Lincoln's next sentence shows that the guilt is for American slavery. Both North and South countenanced it — in the Constitution, in the limited goal of restricting rather than eliminating such an injustice. This sentence is the first of three long ones that give his conclusion monumental scale, even in the short temporal space of this address. By its scale and weight, by an easy pace of magisterial utterance, it comes to us like a judgment handed down on the whole course of American history. The structure is marked out by grammatical parallels (which/but which and to both/to those).

If we shall suppose
that American Slavery is one of those offences
which, in the providence of God,
must needs come,
but which, having continued through His appointed time,
He now wills to remove,
and that He gives
to both North and South,
this terrible war, as the woe due
to those by whom the offence came,
shall we discern therein
any departure from those divine attributes
which the believers in a Living God
always ascribe to Him?

This whole sentence is a meditation on the text of Matthew — and the next long sentence will climb to an almost ecstatic citation of the Psalmist (19:9): "The judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether." This is the same Psalm that Lincoln alluded to in his letter to the Quaker Mrs. Gurney ("The law of the Lord is perfect," 19:7), showing its deep connection, for him, with this line of thought. Between Matthew above and the Psalmist below, Lincoln gave to his thought the sanction of both Old and New Testaments, both of them speaking here with minatory, not exculpatory, finality. But between these two great sentences he interjected a brief prayer, one marked by a modest recognition that what was prayed for might not correspond to God's will — a note that marks this prayer off from the empty certitudes of the earlier prayers (by which both sides prayed to the same God).

Fondly do we hope —
fervently do we pray —
that this mighty scourge of war
may speedily pass away.

Resignation to God's supervening will fills the next sentence, whose connections are made with tight internal parallels, as if riveting the judgment inexorably into place: until all/until every ... piled by/drawn with/drawn with ... shall be sunk/shall be paid ... as was said/so still it must be said.

Yet, if God wills that it 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 was said three thousand years ago,
so still it must be said
"the judgments of the Lord, are true
and righteous altogether."

The symmetries of retributive justice could not be better imaged than in this sentence's careful balancing of payments due. The war was winding down; but Lincoln summoned no giddy feelings of victory. A chastened sense of man's limits was the only proper attitude to bring to the rebuilding of the nation, looking to God for guidance but not aspiring to replace him as the arbiter of national fate.

The Gettysburg Address called people to be dedicated to "the great task remaining before us." The last sentence of the Second Inaugural supplied the moral music, as it were, with which the nation must "finish the work we are in."

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.

Long as this sentence is, it is simple in structure, gliding down from the heights of the preceding period. Instead of the complex interconnections of the other long sentences, which have an internal dialectic, this one begins with simple anaphora in the three opening phrases (with/with/with), and then lines up four infinitives (to finish/to bind/to care/to do), the last one expanded into a coda. The tone is supplicating, like the sighing replications of a litany.


WHEN he had finished the speech, to somewhat puzzled cheers and applause, Lincoln took the oath of office. There was a solemnity here that had been lacking in the slobbery performance of Johnson's oath. The day's storm had yielded to dramatic meteorological effects during the speech. A peephole in the dark clouds let some see a bright star in midday. Sun slanted through the lattice of clouds with spotlighting effects. Whitman saw a "curious little white cloud ... like a hovering bird, right over him." Despite this breaking of the storm, Lincoln seemed "very much worn and tired" when Whitman saw his carriage returning, with only Lincoln and his ten-year-old son sitting in it. Later that evening, at the White House reception, Whitman noticed the same sad weariness in the expression of the President (which inhibited Whitman from going up to shake his hand).

Lincoln no doubt wondered how many, if any, understood the profound message he had crafted. The response of the crowd was proper, but the religious tone of the speech hardly called for jubilance. His tone puzzled the reporter from the New York Herald (Lincoln's grudging ally).

It was not strictly an inaugural address.... It was more like a valedictory.... Negroes ejaculated "bress de Lord" in a low murmur at the end of almost every sentence. Beyond this there was no cheering of any consequence. Even the soldiers did not hurrah much.

The Herald deplored the lack of specifics about peace terms and urgent problems. Harsher critics found, in the speech's paradoxes and subtlety, mere incoherence.

Lincoln expected some to dislike the address, not because they did not understand it but because they understood it too well. In the letter to Thurlow Weed in which he called it as good as anything he had written, he continued,

I believe it is not immediately popular. Men are not flattered by being shown that there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them. To deny it, however, in this case, is to deny that there is a God governing the world. It is a truth which I thought needed to be told; and as whatever of humiliation there is in it, falls most directly on myself, I thought others might afford [an occasion?] for me to tell it.

Before Inauguration Day was over, Lincoln was cheered by the realization that one man at least had understood his message. But that comfort was almost denied him, when guards at the White House tried first to turn Frederick Douglass away from the reception, and then to conduct him rapidly through before he could see the President. But Douglass caught the attention of another guest, and the guards let him alone. He went to the East Room, where Lincoln was receiving the guests.

Recognizing me, even before I reached him, he exclaimed, so that all around could hear him, "Here comes my friend Douglass." Taking me by the hand, he said, "I am glad to see you. I saw you in the crowd to-day, listening to my inaugural address; how did you like it?" I said, "Mr. Lincoln, I must not detain you with my poor opinion, when there are thousands waiting to shake hands with you." "No, no," he said, "you must stop a little, Douglass; there is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours. I want to know what you think of it?" I replied, "Mr. Lincoln, that was a sacred effort." "I am glad you liked it!" he said; and I passed on, feeling that any man, however distinguished, might well regard himself honored by such expressions, from such a man.

Douglass obviously did not see moral relativism or unprincipled pragmatism in the address. It laid the basis for a continuing exposition of the national purpose, an exposition interrupted by the assassin's bullet. That was, among other things, a blow to American literature. Lincoln had been growing as a writer and deepening as a thinker under the pressure of the war, which made him weight every word with the fateful events impending on it. He was at the peak of his creativity when he wrote the Second Inaugural Address, fired in the crucible of his and the nation's ordeal.

But tragedy was shadowing things more important than our literary annals. The loss of Lincoln would scar our politics for decades. The sad pendant to the scene of Douglass's Inauguration Day meeting with Lincoln is the very next appearance Douglass made at the White House, as part of a black delegation that protested Johnson's opposition to suffrage for blacks in the District of Columbia. Johnson lectured the visitors on blacks' oppression of poor whites (whom Johnson considered his people). After Douglass left, Johnson exploded before his private secretary, who passed on his reaction to a sympathetic reporter. Johnson said, "Those damned sons of bitches thought they had me in a trap. I know that damned Douglass; he's just like any nigger, and he would sooner cut a white man's throat than not." It is clear that Lincoln's inaugural address did not reach the befuddled Vice President who sat behind him as he delivered it, though he was the man who most needed its message. The executive mansion was a darker place in every way when Lincoln was removed from it, and from us. The Second Inaugural is the towering measure of our loss.

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