#3 on the list of 150 Most Teachable Lincoln Documents
Context: By the time Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated for his second term as president on Saturday, March 4, 1865, the union was nearly restored, slavery essentially destroyed, and high hopes for a better future were widespread. Yet the short, solemn Second Inaugural Address suggest just how exhausted Americans must have felt after the terrible ordeal of their four-year Civil War. Instead of celebration, President Lincoln offered something like a sermon, turning the occasion into a sober reflection on how the conflict over slavery had erupted into an unexpectedly long, hard war, and about how astounding it was to contemplate if that had all been God’s plan. (By Matthew Pinsker)
“Lincoln then sought, both for himself and for the American people, an explanation of why the war was so protracted. His answer showed no trace of any late-at-night anguish over his own responsibility for the conflict. If there was guilt, the burden had been shifted from his shoulders to those of a Higher Power. The war continued because ‘the Almighty has His own purposes,’ which are different from men’s purposes . . . He might have put his argument in terms of the doctrine of necessity, in which he had long believed; but that was not a dogma accepted by most Americans. In an earlier private meditation he had concluded that it was ‘probably true—that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end,’ . . . but that was too gnostic a doctrine to gain general credence. Addressing a devout, Bible-reading public, Lincoln knew he would be understood when he invoked the familiar doctrine of exact retribution, the belief that the punishment for a violation of God’s law would equal the offense itself . . . This was a harsh doctrine, but it was one that absolved both the South and the North of guilt for the never ending bloodshed.”
—David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), pp. 566-567
“This pronouncement might not have sounded out of place in the mouth of a devout abolitionist or a minister preaching a sermon, but for a president to utter it in such an important state paper was astonishing. It rested on a proposition that he had articulated before: that both North and South were complicit in the sin of slavery. But never had he suggested that whites of both sections must suffer death and destruction on a vast scale in order to atone for that sin, and that the war would not end until the scales were evenly balanced. Lincoln offered this as a hypothesis, not a firm conclusion, but if it were true, then the words of the Nineteenth Psalm would have to be recalled: ‘the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.’ A curious feature of this extraordinary analysis, which resembled late seventeenth-century Puritan election-day jeremiads, is the reference to ‘the believers in a Living God.’ It might be inferred that Lincoln did not count himself among those believers, for he did not say ‘we believers in a Living God.’ But the impersonal manner of presenting his argument recalls the impersonal way in which he wrote his autobiographical sketch in 1860, alluding to himself in the third person. He probably did mean to include himself among the believers, but his instinctive modesty and reserve led him to use such impersonal language. Lincoln blamed white Americans for the war, not God; the Almighty was merely enforcing the elementary rules of righteous justice.”
At this second appearing to take the oath of the presidential office, there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement, somewhat in detail, of a course to be pursued, seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention, and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. 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.
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 wouldmake war rather than let the nation survive; and the other wouldaccept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.
One eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the Southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union, even by war; while the government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it.
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. Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully.
The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!” 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?
Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. 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.”
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.