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.
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."AMERICAN SLAVERY"
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.