“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.”
387 of the 700 total words in Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, delivered 150 years ago today. Above is the only known photograph of the event.
Months of sleet had made Pennsylvania Avenue look like a muddy riverbed by the first week of March in 1865. On the 4th, thousands of spectators stood in the inch-thick runoff at the Capitol grounds to hear what was one of the shortest, and undoubtedly one of the finest, inaugural speeches by an American president. Standing under a recently finished East Portico, Lincoln was sworn in by Chief Justice Salmon Chase. Lee would surrender to Grant at Appomattox 33 days later. Lincoln was assassinated 6 days after that.
Christopher Buckley, a former speechwriter for George H. W. Bush, calls the Second Inaugural the greatest speech in American history, surpassing Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg as well as the thunderclap from Martin Luther King, Jr. on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. Entering that monument, Buckley reflects,
Inside the memorial, graven on the walls, are the two speeches in American history that surpass Dr. King’s: the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural. I read the latter aloud to myself, quietly, so as not to alarm anyone. It clocks in at under five minutes, bringing the total of those two orations to about seven minutes. Edward Everett, who also spoke at Gettysburg, wrote Lincoln afterward to say, “I should flatter myself if I could come to the heart of the occasion in two hours in what you did in two minutes.”
Daniel Chester French, who sculpted the statue of Lincoln that stares out on the Reflecting Pool, studied a cast of Lincoln’s life mask. You can see a cast in the basement of the memorial, and it is hard to look upon the noble serenity of that plaster without being moved. Embarking from Springfield, Illinois, in 1861 to begin his first term as president, Lincoln said, “I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington.” When I first read that speech as a schoolboy, I thought the line sounded immodest. Harder than what Washington faced? Come on! Only years later when I saw again the look on Lincoln’s face that French had captured did I understand.
More from the man:
- The simple, beautiful letter he wrote to the mother of five sons killed in the war
- In a moment for our time, he railed against shortsighted partisan scheming
- Would Jesus be a Republican (and did Lincoln think so)?