What Lincoln Knew

In his second inaugural address, the 16th president had a message for a war-weary nation.

President Lincoln delivering his inaugural address on the east portico of the U.S. Capitol, March 4, 1865.
Abraham Lincoln delivering his inaugural address in 1865. (Alexander Gardner / Library of Congress)

Updated at 7:36 p.m. ET on January 17, 2021.

When Abraham Lincoln stood on the Capitol steps in March 1865, to swear the oath of office for a second term and to deliver his second inaugural address, the crowd below the bunting—soldiers of both races, men and women who had come through the rain and now stood in the breaking sunlight—might have expected that he would celebrate the triumph of Union arms. They were, after all, within weeks of final victory, and everyone could feel the weight of the war lifting from their shoulders. But he would only say, “The progress of our arms … is well known to the public as to myself and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all.” If the mood of the crowd was for triumphant celebration, he was not going to encourage it. If the crowd wanted a call for vengeance on the beleaguered Confederate armies now fighting their last stand around Richmond, he would not indulge them. If they wanted a long speech, he would not give that to them, either. His would be short, barely seven minutes, so anticlimactic that it left those who heard it puzzled and bemused.

He sought instead to explain why the war had happened at all, why such a catastrophe had befallen North and South alike. His question was directed to history and to Providence. He had long brooded on this question himself, and now he judged that it was time to say out loud what he had been thinking for years.

Four years previously, at his first inauguration, with the Union at a breaking point and armies massed for the beginning of a war, he had closed his address to the crowd assembled at the Capitol with an emotion-laden plea:

I am loth to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.

Book cover of On Consolation
This article is adapted from Ignatieff’s forthcoming book.

Friends and enemies alike had disregarded him. The attack on Fort Sumter followed soon after and then four years of unimaginable bloodshed and industrial slaughter. Men died with bayonets at each other’s throats; freed black men who fought for the Union were massacred wholesale at Fort Pillow; the streams at Antietam ran with blood; inside the coats of the bodies littering the fields of Gettysburg the burial parties found Bibles, some with holes where they had taken bullets to protect their bearer. He was a president who lived the agony of his people. He visited the regiments. He talked to the soldiers. He kept in his heart what he had seen on their young faces, sometimes buoyant innocence, sometimes the dead-eyed look of those who have survived battle at close quarters. He knew that boys could be driven insane by the noise, the blood, and the terror. Every week, mothers’ letters reached him, pleading for sons imprisoned for desertion. Every decision to hang deserters left its mark and sometimes his desperation at not being understood is evident:

Must I shoot the simple-minded soldier boy who deserts, while I must not touch a hair of a wily agitator who induces him to desert?

He hanged some of them, spared others, every decision his alone. In sentences and in commutations, he wielded the power of death and the power of life. These, at least, were decisive. Less efficacious were efforts to console. Every week, he wrote letters to orphans and widows, aware that in these cases, words had reached the very limit of their power:

I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tending to you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.

Every moment of the day and night, telegrams reached him from his generals on the battlefield, with maddeningly incomplete and sometimes desperate news; he realized that by the time he read them, events would have moved on, and so what he knew could only be the half of it. But at this distance, with his finger tracing the progress of battle on the maps in his office, he could see folly unfolding without being able to do much to avert it, though he certainly tried, reproaching George Meade for letting Robert E. Lee escape after Gettysburg. Barely keeping his temper, Lincoln wrote, in icy terms:

Again my dear general, I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee’s escape. He was within your easy grasp and to have closed upon him would in connection with our other late successes, have ended the war. As it is, the war will be prolonged indefinitely.

If war was to be waged, he gradually came to realize, it must be waged with ferocious intensity. So he encouraged Ulysses S. Grant, his army assembled before Richmond, to keep his hand on the enemy’s throat: “Hold on with a bull-dog grip, and chew and choke, as much as possible.”

In the days before Appomattox, when some slacking off might have been conceivable, he wrote Grant:

General Sheridan says, “if the thing is pressed, I think that Lee will surrender.” Let the thing be pressed.

Four years of slaughter had made him implacable. Tender reverie had been wrung out of him. “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies,” he had pleaded, but no more. Bloodshed and horror had made him inflexible. No more parleying. No more fruitless searches for armistice or peace. Only complete and utter victory would suffice.

Through what he had called this “fiery trial,” which aged and hardened him, as it hardened his country, he was forced to see this savage war between brothers at its full biblical scale. The terrible grandeur of what was happening astonished him. How was it to be understood? He could see how the downward spiral had begun, in politics, and how decent men, believing that everything they valued was at stake, could forget the better angels of their nature:

Blood grows hot and blood is spilled. Thought is forced from old channels into confusion. Deception breeds and thrives. Confidence dies, and universal suspicion reigns. Each man feels an impulse to kill his neighbor, lest he be first killed by him. Revenge and retaliation follow.

If this was the downward spiral that drew even honest men into its vortex, how could there ever be an upward climb out of the pit? Others might think history had an upward course to progress and a momentum all its own. The consolations available to other men—Karl Marx or the Marquis de Condorcet, for example, who placed their faith in the idea that men could make history and bend it to their will—were not available to him, because he knew, better than they, that the tide of time depended on chance, fortune, human genius, and error, all unpredictable, all unforeseeable. This did not leave him a fatalist. He had a powerful historical imagination and could place the ordeal of his time within the frame of his country’s history, as the gravest of its crises in all its “four score and seven years.” He understood the war as a hinge of fate whose turning would determine whether “government of the people, by the people and for the people” would prevail. As the war continued, he began to understand that “in giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free,” and in so doing preserve the “last best hope of earth.” This was the meaning he hoped history would reveal, but he was never certain, until the last months, that it would.

History, he believed, had given both him and his country a mission, but his experience of helplessness, waiting for telegrams, unable to know what was happening or unable to stop folly when he could clearly see it, brought home to him how little even a president could be the master of what was unfolding:

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.

So eventually, in the fastness of the night while he sat in the telegraph room with a blanket over his shoulders waiting for the messenger boys to deliver him the latest messages, ticktacking off the wire from the battlefield, he could not avoid reaching for a religious register to ponder the higher meaning of it all. For men and women of his generation, schooled every Sunday, this could only mean inquiring into the ways of Providence. The standard consolation offered in every church, in every gathering, in every solemn speech, to those who had lost their sons in battle, was that they had died in a holy cause. Julia Ward Howe’s ferocious “Battle Hymn of the Republic” had become the Union’s marching song, sung to vindicate every blow of “His terrible swift sword.”* Lincoln had wept when he had heard it first, but now he had seen the full measure of what the sword had done and the slaughter inflicted in God’s name. God must be on their side, everyone believed. But how, he began to ask, could that be true?

He knew full well that across the battle lines, the gray-coated soldiers of the Confederacy were also told the same pieties. A Tennessee woman had come to see him to plead for her husband taken prisoner by the Union side. She had told him that her husband was religious. This provoked him:

In my opinion the religion that sets men to rebel and fight against their government, because, as they think, that government does not sufficiently help some men to eat their bread on the sweat of other men’s faces, is not the sort of religion upon which people can get to heaven.

God could not possibly favor the maintenance of slavery, but could Lincoln also be sure He was on the side of the free? The president had long pondered this question. In 1862, when fate seemed to turn against the Union after the defeat at the second Battle of Bull Run, when Lee seemed to be closing in on Washington, Lincoln sat down and wrote a paragraph, for his eyes only:

The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong. God cannot be for, and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war, it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party—and yet the human instrumentalities working just as they do are of the best adaptation to effect His purpose. I am almost ready to say this is probably true—that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet. By his mere quiet power, on the minds of the now contestants, He could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. Yet the contest began. And having begun He could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds.

If both sides of the Civil War assured themselves that God was on their side, Lincoln holds our attention because he refuses such consolation. “It is my earnest desire,” he wrote to supporters in Chicago, “to know the will of Providence in this matter. And if I can learn what it is, I will do it.” But, he added, “these are not the days of miracles.”

The president’s problem was not just with the hubris of claiming to actually know God’s intention. He found it difficult to have any relation with God at all.

In an August 1863 letter he casually observed that he preferred King Claudius’s speech “O my offence is rank” to Hamlet’s “To be or not to be.” In that speech, the king, alone with himself, grappling with remorse, confesses:

Pray can I not,

Though inclination be as sharp as will;

My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent,

And, like a man to double business bound

I stand in pause where I shall first begin,

And both neglect.

A president as morally responsible as Lincoln was, who could never rid his mind of the consequences of ordering the execution of a deserter or a command to commit young boys to battle, might well have found his inclination to pray as sharp as ever but his strong intent defeated by a stronger guilt.

The times had tested his faith to its limits, and alone with himself he could see only his failures of belief. As he confessed to some Presbyterian ministers in Washington:

I sincerely wish that I was a more devoted man than I am. Sometimes in my difficulties I have been driven to the last resort to say God is still my only hope. It is still all the world to me.

If he could not pray, or secure consolation when he did, he did cling to the idea that the war had been visited on the nation by a Providence whose ways it was not in his power to discern. And this is the theme he chose for the second inaugural address.

His purpose, as always, was political: not a sermon, as some hearers took it to be, not a personal excursion into his own private eschatology, but rather a long-considered exercise in political argument designed to prepare American citizens for the next phase of their life together, the moment when peace would come at last, when enemies would have to join together as citizens again.

For this to be possible, some common understanding was necessary, some coming to terms with illusions both sides had shared even as they fought for visions that could never be shared. When he rose to deliver his address, he was speaking to the South still fighting for its life as much as to the Union armies closing in on Richmond. His aim was to find language that would reunite them, at first in common sorrow, then in shared repentance, and finally in reconciliation.

Abraham Lincoln
Lincoln taking the oath of office in 1865. (Library of Congress)

He told the audience before him, lest rancor and rage inclined them to forget the fact, that neither side had desired the war: “All dreaded it—all sought to avert it.”

Both sides, he said, “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.” At this, the northern crowd applauded, and some of the Black men in the audience were heard to call out “Bless you.” They liked it that he did not carry charity so far as to forget who had started the killing.

Searching for words that would give consolation, Lincoln reminded his audience, lest in grief and disillusion they were tempted to forget, that slavery was “somehow” the cause of the war, the word somehow conveying the dark reality that men can fight and die in battle, and even for a cause, without understanding the reason why. Lincoln wanted his listeners to recognize that at the very least the war had not been fought for nothing: It had been fought to set men free, and for those who had lost sons it might be the only consolation for their loss that he could offer.

He could have defined the great cause of the war as southern slavery and brought the whole weight of moral condemnation upon one side. Instead, he took a decisive moral turn, referring to the cause of the war as “American slavery,” as an original sin—an “offense,” he called it—that the whole nation, North and South, must now recognize as its own.

As if that was not enough, he reminded his northern audience that the southern enemy “read the same Bible and pray[ed] to the same God.” Where only two years before, in responding to the Tennessee woman begging for her Confederate husband’s life, he had said that no man could be called truly religious who used faith to justify slavery, now he said something very different. It might seem strange, he admitted, that any man should dare to ask a just God’s assistance to wring bread from the sweat of another man’s brow, but—here he quoted the Gospel of Matthew, 7:1—“let us judge not that we be not judged.” Slavery was deeply wrong, but that was not the issue: The issue was whether one side in a civil war had the right to condemn the other for believing that God had been on their side.

Instinctively Lincoln understood the connections between consolation, forgiveness, and reconciliation. He understood them politically, as the tasks that fell to him on taking office, in this second term, to find a way for the North to forgive the South for the war, for the South to accept its defeat, and for both to be reconciled to each other by recognizing each other’s losses.

To accomplish these political tasks, he decided to describe American slavery as the original sin both sides must acknowledge as they must also recognize the Civil War as God’s just punishment for that sin: “He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offenses come.”

Reconciliation would be impossible, the “new birth of freedom” he called for at Gettysburg would founder in recrimination and hatred, he was telling the audience below him, unless both sides could bring themselves to understand the war, not as a triumph for one side and a tragic defeat for the other, but as a catastrophe for both, as the wages of an original sin both must own.

He knew, because the same doubting and questioning was so deep inside him, that many in the audience would question how a just and merciful God could possibly have inflicted war on both sides—Sherman’s march to the sea, the carnage at the Wilderness, the slaughter at Antietam, the whole catalog of blood and sorrow—but he pressed home his argument to the bitter end. The war was not yet won, and while he hoped it would end soon,

if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s 250 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 3,000 years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

He quoted Psalm 19:9 here to vest his argument with scriptural authority, but never has that psalm—which begins, “Heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament showed his handywork,” and which continues with the image of the sun rising like a bridegroom to meet his beloved bride—never has a psalm had to do such demanding moral work. For it had to affirm the most difficult thought of all: that this same God had willed both slavery and the war to end it.

How could this possibly be? Everything in Lincoln’s peroration turns on the word still: “so still it must be said.” You can almost hear him bring the weight of his voice onto the word, so that everyone in the audience, whose own faith had been tested by sorrow, could hear what he meant: Still we must believe, still we must continue to have faith in a just God, even if the battle continues, even if the 250-year crime of slavery cannot be repaid in full by the blood of the sword. Still, we must go on believing, for the alternative—though he does not say it—is that the war was senseless, and the deaths were all in vain. A single word—still—has to bear the entire weight of Lincoln’s faith.

His quotation from Psalm 19 is the hinge on which the speech turns. To say that the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether was to declare that the ultimate meaning of the war was beyond the understanding of men and women on either side. The victorious could not read their victory as God’s reward any more than the vanquished could read it as their punishment. To say this was to create the political possibility of mercy and magnanimity, for if neither side could ever know what God intended by the fiery trial, then the victor had no right to raise the sword of vengeance while the defeated had the right to claim the dignity of honorable defeat. Humility about the ultimate meaning of the war, in other words, created the space for mercy.

In turn, if ultimate meanings were beyond our sight, Lincoln was saying, our duties here and now were clear. They were duties counseled by the religious and moral traditions of both sides, in Lincoln’s words, to “bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have born the battle and for the widow and his orphan”—with “malice towards none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right.”

At the reception in the White House that followed the speech, Frederick Douglass, the freed slave and abolitionist, who had been in the crowd, congratulated Lincoln on a noble effort. Lincoln was heard to say he thought it would wear better than most of his speeches, but when someone suggested that it would not be popular, he agreed: “Men are not flattered by being shown that there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them.” It had been his purpose to show that there was such a difference, and, by opening up a place for humility and doubt, to create the space for a politics of reconciliation.

It was not to be. His assassin was also in the crowd below, listening to the speech, and 41 days later, Lincoln was dead. His hopes for a magnanimous reconstruction were dashed; Black men and women’s hopes for freedom were betrayed; and 150 years later, the nation’s wounds from that war are still not healed.

Lincoln should be with us these days, especially since “malice towards none” has been replaced by malice towards all, as if in our ideological arrogance we have forgotten that neither God nor justice are necessarily on our side. It is often said, perhaps rightly, that the civil war whose end he thought was in sight still continues. The freedom he thought was coming to Black Americans is still not securely in their hands. So his work is not done, and the words of the second inaugural, now carved on the walls of the monument where his likeness sits brooding over the city, are less a consolation than a reproach to posterity.

It is easiest to remember him as a saint, but we cannot draw consolation from his words unless we learn from him. He struggled with exactly what we struggle with, the tidal forces of political malice that recurrently rise and threaten the hard-won civility on which a republic depends. What helped him, as it might help us, was the tenacity with which he forced the best traditions he had inherited—in this case the Gospels and the Psalms—to deliver insight and perspective. He did not even have a secure footing in faith, but he understood that these biblical traditions called on him to forswear vengeance and judgment and to appeal for mercy and forgiveness.

These traditions can speak through us, too. What consolation can there be in this? That we are not condemned to live imprisoned in the rhetoric, foolishness, and mendacity of the present. We can reach back to Lincoln, to Matthew, to the Psalms, to whatever deep wisdom we have ever been taught, and can find out, once again, who we are, where we are, what we must accept, and what we must do. These traditions of ours risk becoming inconsequential and empty words on monuments, unless we use them, unless we force meaning from them, as Lincoln did, and continue to live them, as he tried to do.

This article is adapted from Michael Ignatieff’s forthcoming book On Consolation: Finding Solace in Dark Times.

*This article originally misidentified the author of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic."