Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address

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LINCOLN'S SECOND INAUGURAL ADDRESS. Abraham Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address on 4 March 1865. As Lincoln prepared to speak, the Civil War was drawing to a close. Newspapers were filled with reports of the armies of William T. Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant. As late as August 1864, neither Lincoln nor his Republican Party believed he could win reelection. Now Lincoln would be the first president inaugurated for a second term in thirty-two years. The crowd of thirty to forty thousand was greeted by an ongoing rain that produced ten inches of mud in the streets of Washington. Sharpshooters were on the rooftops surrounding the ceremony. Rumors abounded that Confederates might attempt to abduct or assassinate the president.

What would Lincoln say? Would he speak of his reelection, report on the progress of the victorious Union armies, lay out policies for what was being called "Reconstruction"? How would he treat the defeated Confederate armies? And what about the liberated slaves?

Lincoln addressed none of these expectations. He did not offer the North the victory speech it sought, nor did he blame the South alone for the evil of slavery. Rather, he offered a moral framework for reconciliation and peace. The speech was greeted with misunderstanding and even antagonism by many in the Union.

Lincoln's address of 703 words was the second shortest inaugural address. Five hundred and five words are one syllable. Lincoln mentions God fourteen times, quotes Scripture four times, and invokes prayer four times. The abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass, who was in the crowd that day, wrote in his journal, "The address sounded more like a sermon than a state paper" (Autobiographies, 802).

Lincoln began his address in a subdued tone. In the highly emotional environment of wartime Washington, it is as if he wanted to lower anticipations. At the beginning of his speech, he sounded more like an onlooker than the main actor. Lincoln directed the focus of his words away from himself by using the passive voice.

In the second paragraph Lincoln began the shift in substance and tenor that would give this address its remarkable meaning. He employed several rhetorical strategies that guided and aided the listener. First, Lincoln's overarching approach was to emphasize common actions and emotions. In this paragraph he used "all" and "both" to include North and South.

Second, Lincoln used the word "war" or its pronoun nine times. The centrality of war is magnified because the word appears in every sentence. Previously war had been used as the direct object, both historically and grammatically, of the principal actors. In his speech, however, war became the subject rather than the object. The second paragraph concludes, "And the war came." In this brief, understated sentence, Lincoln acknowledged that the war came in spite of the best intentions of the political leaders of the land.

When Lincoln introduced the Bible, early in the third paragraph, he entered new territory in presidential inaugural addresses. Before Lincoln there were eighteen inaugural addresses delivered by fourteen presidents. Each referred to God or the deity. The Bible, however, had been quoted only once.

The insertion of the Bible signaled Lincoln's determination to think theologically as well as politically about the war. The words "Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other" are filled with multiple meanings. First, Lincoln affirmed the use of the Bible by both South and North. In a second meaning he questioned the use or misuse of the Bible or prayer for partisan purposes.

With the words "The Almighty has His own purposes" Lincoln brought God to the rhetorical center of the address. In quick strokes he described God's actions: "He now wills to remove"; "He gives to both North and South this terrible war"; "Yet, if God wills that it continue. …"

In September 1862 Lincoln had put pen to paper during one of the darkest moments of the war: "The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong. …In the present civil war it is quite possible that God's purpose is something different from the purpose of either party ("Meditation on the Divine Will").

In the address Lincoln uttered a blistering biblical quotation: "Woe unto the world because of offences" (Matthew 18:7). When he defines American slavery as one of those offenses, he widened the historical and emotional range of his address. Lincoln did not say "Southern slavery" but asserted that North and South must together own the offense.

Lincoln carried the scales of justice to his speech. He did so knowing that Americans had always been uncomfortable facing up to their own malevolence. Lincoln suggested that the war was a means of purging the nation of its sin of slavery. The images reach their pinnacle in "until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword." His words sound more like the romantic language of Harriet Beecher Stowe than the legal language of the lawyer who delivered the first inaugural address.

The first eight words of Lincoln's last paragraph proclaim an enduring promise of reconciliation: "With malice toward none, with charity for all." These words immediately became the most memorable ones of the second inaugural address. After his assassination they came to represent Lincoln's legacy to the nation. Lincoln ended the address with a coda of healing: "to bind up … to care for … to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace. …" In this concluding paragraph he offered the final surprise. Instead of rallying his followers, in the name of God, to support the war, he asked his listeners, quietly, to emulate the ways of God.


Basler, Roy S., et al., eds. The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. 8 vols. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1953. Also index vol., 1955, and supplements, 1974 and 1990.

Donald, David Herbert. Lincoln. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.

Douglass, Frederick. Autobiographies. New York: Library of America, 1994. Reprint of 1893 ed.

White, Ronald C., Jr. Lincoln's Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2002.

Wills, Gary. Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America: New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992.

Ronald C.WhiteJr.

See alsovol. 9:President Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address .

Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address (4 March 1865)

views updated May 08 2018


President Abraham Lincoln consistently remarked that his days looked to be numbered in 1864; offensives had bogged down and the Northern populace had grown weary of high casualties and the exigencies of a grueling war. Breakthroughs at Atlanta, in the Shenandoah Valley, and outside Petersburg, Virginia late that year, however, turned the tide of opinion at home and carried Lincoln to victory in his bid for reelection.

The strain of four years of conflict discernibly showed on the president's face, yet his resolve may have never shone brighter than in his Second Inaugural Address. Though brief, Lincoln's 4 March 1865 speech marked perhaps his greatest oratory effort and rightfully earned Charles Francis Adams Jr.'s remark that it represented "the historical keynote of this war." Frederick Douglass pronounced it "a sacred effort," although the speech's seeming ambiguity puzzled many contemporaries.

Lincoln surprisingly attributes little direct blame for the conflict, instead surmising that God was punishing the entire nation for two hundred and fifty years of slavery. He refers to God twelve times and quotes three separate passages of scripture in one span of twenty-five lines alone, giving the temporal conflict a moral tone and decidedly spiritual character.

Much had been accomplished by March 1865, but Lincoln outlined the work left to be done both militarily and socially. He offered an impressionistic plan for peace and reconciliation—a plan Lincoln likely thought he would survive to see through to fruition. His last major speech, the Second Inaugural Address ranks among the greatest addresses of its kind ever given.

Paul S.Bartels,
Villanova University

See also Civil War ; Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address .


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 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.

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."

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.

SOURCE: Nicolay, John G. and John Hay, eds. Complete Works of Abraham Lincoln. New and enlarged ed. New York: Lamb, 1905.

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Lincolns Second Inaugural Address

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