Monday, January 12, 2009

Great Inaugural Addresses - V

The Second Inaugural Address of Abraham Lincoln
by Charlie Leck

The is the final blog of this series about great inaugural addresses. Today we deal with the second inaugural address of Abraham Lincoln. It is probably the briefest and the greatest of all such speeches in our history. It is not only the content of the speech itself that makes it so extraordinary, but its historical context also enhances its meaning and power. We should be aware of this moment in history, or this time and place in our national life (sitz im leben), when Lincoln addessed the country. It was a sensitive time and so many important possibilities were hanging in the balance.

The inaugural ceremony took place on Saturday, 4 March 1865. In only a bit more than a month, Lincoln would fall victim of assasination.

It had rained for weeks leading up to Inauguration Day and Pennsylvania Avenue was horribly muddy and, in some places, there was deep, standing water. Of course, as the crowds gathered, the conditions grew worse. Nothing inhibited the crowds, however, and enormous numbers of people gathered in front of the Capitol Building for the swearing in and for Lincoln's speech. The dome on the capitol had only recently been completed and it served as a very real reminder of the fortitude and resolve of Lincoln's administration.

The crowd was nervously excited to hear what Lincoln would say about the war; however, he explained that the public was so well informed that they knew as much as, and everything that, he did.

In the first moments of the speech, Lincoln reminded his audience about the condition of the nation four years earlier, as things stood during his first inauguration.
"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 inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, urgent 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."
And then, Lincoln, speaking with great emotion explained the moral condition of the nation and the exact reasons why it was at war.
"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 offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses 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 offense 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 bondsman'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.'"
And then came Abe's sudden conclusion. He spoke boldly and loudly and all those before him and behind were totally silent. These words rank among the most famous ever expressed in a Presidential speech in America.
"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 lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."
Abraham Lincoln was an exhausted man, but he continued on, committed, as this speech makes clear, to seeing things through to their very end and then through all the aftermath of war and the restoration of the union. An assassin would interrupt history, however, and one of our greatest presidents was taken from us too early.

Lincoln prepares to address a large and excited crowd!

This image from Harper's Weekly shows the enormous size of the crowd that had gathered to hear Lincoln's speech. To see a much larger version of this image, click here!

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