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

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