An Unpopular Truth: Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address

Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address is likely his most well-known speech with the exception of his Gettysburg Address. Not surprisingly, these are the two speeches which are engraved in marble in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC.

Lincoln had used his First Inaugural Address four years earlier to analyze what the Constitution had to say about the crisis facing our nation at that time. He had attempted to persuade the South to voluntarily turn back from the path it had taken without compromising the integrity of the Constitution and system of government. That did not happen, and instead, as Lincoln would now say in his Second Inaugural, “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.

The war had come, and finally, four long years later, it was apparently nearing its end. After so many setbacks and deceptions, the President could now confidently express “high hope for the future”. Facing a dramatically different situation, Lincoln’s speech was also entirely different. It was much shorter than the first, and did not mention the Constitution at all. Curiously, Lincoln spoke very little about the future, and devoted the bulk of his speech to the past, and in a way surely not expected by his audience that day. It’s as if he wanted to say, “Hold on a minute. Before we leave behind this terrible experience, let’s reflect upon it to discover what we are supposed to learn from it.”

Looking back on the past four years, Lincoln didn’t do the expected, i.e., defend his administration’s record. Instead, he offered a theological treatise on the reasons for the war. He first noted that the issue of slavery “was, somehow, the cause of the war” (another topic I have already addressed), and that neither side had expected such a long, difficult, and momentous struggle. He then observed that both sides “read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other”. At this point he took his only swipe at the South – “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” (a reference to Genesis 3:19) – but then he quickly added, “but let us judge not that we be not judged” (a quotation from Matthew 7:1).

Lincoln then noted that the ultimate purpose for the war could only be found in God, who must have had a purpose which far outweighed those of either North or South: “The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes.” And what were God’s purposes for the Civil War? Nothing short of a punishment on our nation for the sin of human slavery, as Lincoln asserted in the defining passage of his speech, starting with a direct quotation from Matthew 18:7 and ending with another from Psalm 19:9:

‘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 that, Lincoln turned from the past to the future. His audience was surely expecting to learn what the administration planned to do once the war was over in order to reunite the country and re-build the South. Yet on this point, Lincoln was extremely brief and not very specific, appealing to the people to be forgiving and magnanimous: “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.

Any doubt about Lincoln’s own religious beliefs at this point in his life should be unequivocally squashed by this profoundly theological speech. He referenced God thirteen times, prayer four times, and the Bible once, while also citing Scripture four times. It was an unapologetic defense of traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs regarding the sovereignty and providence of God and of humankind’s responsibility before Him. Furthermore, these were not new ideas; Lincoln had made similar claims in other writings during the previous three years. Finally, it was not a speech he had to make; he chose to make it, even knowing that it would be uncomfortable for the people to hear. When long-time New York political boss Thurlow Weed wrote to him afterwards to compliment him on the speech, Lincoln responded:

I expect [it] to wear as well as – perhaps better than – any thing I have produced; but I believe it is not immediately popular. Men are not flattered by being shown that there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them. To deny it, however, in this case, is to deny that there is a God governing the world. It is a truth which I thought needed to be told; and as whatever of humiliation there is in it, falls most directly on myself, I thought others might afford for me to tell it.

This was not the speech of a skeptic, nor a deist. Lincoln may have been either or both of those earlier in his life, but he was most certainly not at the end of his life. This was the speech of a man who accepted the Scriptures as truth, and who saw God as very much at work in the events and circumstances of the world and his own life.

LinkedIn-LogoSquareKevin J. Wood

May 17, 2015

The Baltimore Riots of April … 1861!

It’s April and the people of Baltimore – some of them, that is – are rioting. No, I’m not talking about the recent riots, nor those of April 1968 following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. I’m talking about the riots of April 1861!

On April 18 of that year, Abraham Lincoln had been President for only a month and a half, and the nation was in complete turmoil. In just the last week, Fort Sumter had fallen to the rebels, Lincoln had called for 75,000 volunteer soldiers to defend federal property, and the all-important state of Virginia had voted to secede from the Union and join the original seven southern states in the Confederacy. The other southern states were threatening to secede as well, among them another very strategic one: Maryland.

If Maryland had joined the Confederacy at that moment, it might have struck a fatal blow to the North. Washington, DC would have been cut off from the rest of the North, and would have easily fallen to the Confederates as it had no troops to defend itself. If the nation’s capital were controlled by the South, England and France would have been much more likely to recognize the South and come to her aid.

The situation was dire and tense. All of Washington – southern sympathizers excluded – anxiously awaited the arrival of the first northern troops. Finally, on April 18, several hundred Pennsylvania volunteers reached Baltimore, only 40 miles away. Baltimore presented a complication, however, as it had separate train stations for the lines arriving from different directions, meaning that travelers needed to have their railcars pulled a mile by horses through the center of the city, or they had to cover that distance on foot or by stagecoach. In addition, Baltimore was a secessionist hotbed. In fact, two months earlier, these two factors had coalesced in a plot to assassinate Lincoln while he changed trains in Baltimore, which was only thwarted by disguising him and sneaking him through the city in the middle of the night.

As the Pennsylvania troops proceeded from one train station to another, an angry mob of southern sympathizers confronted them, throwing bricks and stones and causing some serious injuries. The next day, a Massachusetts regiment arrived and was also confronted by a mob, this time armed with pistols and knives. The situation escalated, and four soldiers and a dozen civilians were killed, the first fatalities of the Civil War. The mob also looted and destroyed properties such as the office of a German pro-Union newspaper.

How would the new President, still inexperienced and perhaps unprepared for the demands of the office, respond to the Baltimore riots? His response gives us a glimpse of something of the thought processes, temperament, and character which later would be recognized for what made him an effective leader.

  1. He gave his opponents the opportunity to be heard

Lincoln summoned Maryland Governor Thomas Hicks and Baltimore Mayor George Brown to the White House to consult with them, and he also received another rather hostile delegation from Baltimore. He gave them the opportunity to air their grievances and to make their case that no more northern troops should be allowed to pass through not only Baltimore, but also no part of the entire state.

  1. He consulted with others

Lincoln consulted with his Cabinet, which by his own design was split evenly between the two major groups which made up the still-new Republican Party. Although they would not be of one accord on this, nor many other issues, their frank discussion would allow Lincoln to consider the merits of conflicting points of view as he deliberated on the best course of action.

  1. He made a decision consistent with his obligations and with justice

Although Lincoln still desperately needed to keep Maryland in the Union, he could not accept the demands of her officials and still meet his own obligation to defend Washington. As he explained to them: “I must have troops to defend this Capital. Geographically it lies surrounded by the soil of Maryland; and mathematically the necessity exists that they should come over her territory…

  1. He used humor to help explain his reasoning and to alleviate tension

Lincoln’s explanation continued as follows: “…Our men are not moles, and can’t dig under the earth; they are not birds, and can’t fly through the air. There is no way but to march across, and that they must do.”

  1. He made concessions when possible

Lincoln directed subsequent troops to come by ship to Annapolis and then continue by train or on foot to Washington, in order to avoid Baltimore. He also appealed to the Maryland officials to do their part in reducing the tension: “Keep your rowdies in Baltimore, and there will be no bloodshed. Go home and tell your people that if they will not attack us, we will not attack them; but if they do attack us, we will return it, and that severely.”

  1. He didn’t act out of vengeance or pettiness

When Governor Hicks called the state legislature to a special session a week later, General Benjamin Butler asked Lincoln to allow him to “bag [arrest] the whole nest of traitorous Maryland legislators”, who were expected to vote for secession. Lincoln chose instead to allow them to meet, and his gamble paid off when they adopted a neutral position in the conflict while overwhelmingly rejecting secession.

  1. He didn’t allow inflammatory criticism to influence him

The Baltimore riots were immediately memorialized in a poem by James Randall, “Maryland, My Maryland” – later to become the official state song –, which urges the people to “Avenge the patriotic gore that flecked the streets of Baltimore”, and which calls Lincoln a despot and tyrant. Lincoln didn’t allow these nor many other vituperative and inflammatory comments to influence him or his decisions.

  1. He held firm to his decision

Over the next few years, Lincoln would make many controversial and heavy-handed decisions in order to keep Maryland in the Union, including suspending the writ of habeas corpus and imprisoning Mayor Brown and other pro-Confederate officials. But these were always done with the understanding that they were only warranted by the extraordinary conditions of civil rebellion, and he still opted for a softer approach whenever possible.

Perhaps those responsible for responding to the recent Baltimore riots would do well to study Lincoln’s response in 1861, in hopes of preventing her streets from being ‘flecked’ even more.

LinkedIn-LogoSquareKevin J. Wood

May 1, 2015