The Three Most Interesting Civil War Documents, Part 3

November 29, 2012

“The Second Inaugural”

This week I wrote about two Civil War documents that are relatively obscure, the “Cornerstone Speech” and the "Order of Retaliation.” Today’s document is among the most famous of that period of history – in fact, it is chiseled on the side of Lincoln’s memorial in Washington.

Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address is one of a handful of memorable inaugural speeches. For whatever reason, almost all the speeches presidents give after taking the oath of office are boring and forgettable. Aside from FDR’s “nothing to fear but fear itself,” Kennedy’s “ask not what your country can do for you,” and Lincoln’s second effort, few Americans can recall any words from the dozens given by American presidents. Even Lincoln’s first effort, in 1861, was an uninspiring attempt to recall the South from succession. I think part of the problem, in recent decades at least, is that every new president reaches for history, speaking in grand and lofty terms, and it comes off as trying too hard to be JFK.

But Lincoln’s second address, near the end of the war, was both wise and genuinely majestic. Its most famous lines are the words spoken in closing, “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…” But those and other poetic lines are not what makes this speech truly stunning -- perhaps unique -- in American political history.

In the middle of the short address, Lincoln says, “if God wills that [the 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 was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.” Recall that he is speaking to a nation four years into an awful war that has touched nearly every extended family with misery, trauma, and death. In almost every other case in which Americans feel aggrieved, our politicians will look for some outside source to blame – other nations, the other political party, terrorists, profiteers – anyone but their constituents. In cases of far smaller injury, a leader will rally the nation by pointing to a common external enemy. Yet here is the President of the United States, at easily the most traumatic and devastated moment in our history, telling the people who just re-elected him that their misery is justified by their actions. That through our collective national sins, we have brought this upon ourselves, and it will continue until our moral bill has been paid. Stop for a moment and imagine any other President at any other time making this statement.

What makes his words even more astonishing, is that he was actually telling white Americans – who held, at best, ambivalent feelings towards blacks – that the crimes done by them to this unpopular race are worthy of a horrendous punishment from God. He knew many white Americans were still unenthusiastic about the abolition of slavery, and certainly cared far more about the loss of their sons and fathers, and yet he didn't hesitate to place blame where it belonged.

Other great men have held the Presidency, but I think few would have had the moral courage to speak those words, at that moment, to the American people.

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