Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Speech
Library of Congress
Reference Number: LC-USA7-16837
Ronald C. White, Jr., Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural
(Simon & Schuster, 2002)
“There was a fall of rain with hail on the 4th of March, 1865, recalled journalist L.A. Gobright. An hour before noon, the inaugural procession left from the War Department for the Capitol without a key participant. According to Gobright, “Mr. Lincoln did not occupy the position assigned to him in the carriage, (Third in the procession,) as he had been at the Capitol during the entire morning, engaged in signing bills. Mrs. Lincoln, accompanied by Senators [James] Harlan and [Henry B.] Anthony, was driven to the head of the line, and preceded the procession to the Capitol. A platoon of marshals pioneered the carriage of Mrs. Lincoln, the escort being composed of the Union Light Guard. The crowd generally mistook the carriage of the President’s wife for that of the President, and under this delusion cheered it all along the route.”1
It was a large and hopeful crowd that awaited the Second Inaugural of President Lincoln. Historian Allan Nevins wrote: “This Inauguration Day was vastly different from that of March 4, 1861, when people awaited the words of the newly elected President on the crisis momentarily descending on the nation..”2 The end of the war – rather than the beginning of it – was clearly in sight. After Vice President Andrew Johnson took the oath of office in the Senate chamber and gave a rambling, drunken speech, officials proceeded to the east front of the Capitol for the presidential inauguration. A rainy and stormy morning turned to bright sunlight just as the President took the podium. “As Lincoln rose, he put on and adjusted his steel-rimmed eyeglasses. He held in his left hand his Second Inaugural Address, printed in two columns. The handwritten draft of the address had been set in type. The galley proof was clipped and pasted in an order to indicate pauses for emphasis and breathing,” wrote Ronald C. White, Jr., in Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural.3
The speech itself was remarkably brief. Historian Don E. Fehrenbacher wrote: “In the Second Inaugural, [Lincoln] revealed his most deeply held convictions to a national audience in a way that no other president has done throughout all of American history. In this religious belief, Lincoln had found strength to persevere, and at the time of his Second Inaugural when it was apparent that the Union cause would eventually be won, he publicly acknowledged its tenet that the final outcome had been foreordained all along. It must be emphasized that this view had not bred within Lincoln any passivity or Hamlet-like indecisiveness; rather, just the opposite.”4 President Lincoln said:
“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 [sic] 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–seeking to dissol[v]e 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 seat 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 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 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 a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”5
White wrote: “Lincoln had defined the signposts toward winning the peace by achieving reconciliation. In this final paragraph, he declared that the true test of the aims of war would be how we now treated those who have been defeated. If enmity continued after hostilities ceased, the war would have been in vain.” The words were practical as well as beautiful, according to White. “In this final paragraph, Lincoln offered the ultimate surprise. Instead of rallying his supporters, in the name of God, to support the war, he asked his listeners, quietly, to imitate the ways of God.” In his book, religious historian White gives an extended exegesis of the origins and meaning of Lincoln’s short but very deep text. White also reviews the context of the day’s events, “As Lincoln concluded his Second Inaugural Address, people were still arriving, He had spoken for only six to seven minutes,” noted White. “After a brief silence at the end of the address artillery combined with cannonades of applause from the crowd. Lincoln bowed in acknowledgment of their acclamation.”6 There had been little applause during the first part of the speech – to the surprise of a report from the New York Herald. White wrote: “Frederick Douglass was an astute observer of the meaning of both the event and the address. The whole proceeding was wonderfully quiet, earnest, and solemn.” He agreed with the observations of the reporter for the New York Herald, but went further in describing the mood: “There was a leaden stillness about the crowd.” He believed he knew why. “The address sounded more like a sermon than a state paper.” Reflecting on Lincoln’s words, Douglass said that he “clapped my hands in gladness and thanksgiving at their utterance.” But when he looked around, he saw in the faces of many about me expressions of widely different emotion.”7
Lincoln scholar C.A. Tripp noted: “Public reactions to Lincoln’s second Inaugural Address varied at the time from sheer bafflement to a kind of reverence for its Christian gentleness at the end.”8 Union officer Charles Francis Adams, Jr. wrote his father, the American minister to England, “That rail-splitting lawyer is one of the wonders of the day. Once at Gettysburg and now again on a greater occasion he has shown a capacity for rising to the demands of the hour which we should not expect from orators or men of the schools. This inaugural strikes me in its grand simplicity and directness as being for all time the historical keynote of this war…..” 9
“There were many cheers and many tears as this noble address was concluded. Silence being restored, the President turned toward Chief Justice [Salmon P.] Chase, who, with his right hand uplifted, directed the Bible to be brought forward by the clerk of the Supreme Court,” wrote journalist Noah Brooks. “Then Lincoln, laying his right hand upon the open page, repeated the oath of office administered to him by the Chief Justice, after which, solemnly saying, “So help me God,” he bent forward and reverently kissed the Book, then rose up inaugurated President of the United States for four years from March 4, 1865.” According to journalist Gobright, “At the conclusion of the ceremonies, a salute was fired, the band struck up “Hail to the Chief,” and the thousands in attendance greeted the President with repeated huzzas.”10
Although it is the second shortest inaugural address in American history, Lincoln’s speech is probably the most memorable in language and content. Despite its brevity, it addresses the nation’s relationship to God at great depth. “A feature that sets the address apart is its biblical and theological language,” White has written. “Within 701 words Lincoln mentions God fourteen times, quotes the Bible four times and invokes prayer three times.” 10 Later, Supreme Court Chief Justice Chase gave the Bible to Mrs. Lincoln, marking the pages from Isaiah 5:27-28 which the President kissed:
None shall be weary nor stumble among them; none shall slumber nor sleep; neither shall the girdle of their loins be loosed, nor the latchet of their shoes be broken:
Whose arrows are sharp, and all their bows best, their horses’ hoofs shall be counted like flint, their wheels like a whirlwind.”12
White notes that “Forty-one days after delivering the Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln was dead.” 13 But Lincoln’s powerful homily was never killed. “The spirot of Lincoln’s words inspire awe,” wrote White. “Neither vindication nor triumphalism is present in the Second Inaugural. At the bedrock is Lincoln’s humility. He included himself as one who “looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding.” As Lincoln told Thurlow Weed on March 15, “Whatever of humiliation there is in it, falls most directly on myself.”14 Lincoln aide John Hay later wrote of the Second Inaugural:
I know of nothing in the whole range of history or of literature more remarkable than this paper – this unflinching facing of absolute truth – this cold cross-examination of omnipotence. Many men are honest with each other. This one was mercilessly honest with himself. In these deeply-solemn musings, which carried him down to the very bed-rock of things, he passed a large portion of his time during the Summer of 1862; and they produced the act which is more his own than any other of his life – the Proclamation of Emancipation. His singular justness of spirit was displayed in his treatment of this question before it was finally decided. If any one tried to dissuade him from it, he gave the argument in its favor. If others urged it upon him, he exhausted the reasoning against it. Even when it was resolved upon, written, copied, and lying in his desk only waiting promulgation, a delegation of clergymen waited on him to insist upon such a measure, and he confounded them all by his close and logical argument against it. They went away sorrowful, and a few days after, like lightning from a clear sky, came the long-pondered liberating word, melting with a flash four million shackles.15
Lincoln biographer David Herbert Donald: “As the day for Lincoln’s second inauguration drew near, Americans wondered what their sixteenth president would say about the Civil War. Would Lincoln guide the nation toward “Reconstruction”? What about the slaves? They had been emancipated, but what about the matter of suffrage? When Lincoln finally stood before his fellow countrymen on March 4, 1865, and had only 703 words to share, the American public was stunned. The President had not offered the North a victory speech, nor did he excoriate the South for the sin of slavery. Instead, he called the whole country guilty of the sin and pleaded for reconciliation and unity. In this compelling account, noted historian Ronald C. White Jr. shows how Lincoln’s speech was initially greeted with confusion and hostility by many in the Union; commended by the legions of African Americans in attendance, abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass among them; and ultimately appropriated by his assassin John Wilkes Booth forty-one days later.”
More on the Author
Ronald C. White, Jr., is professor of American Intellectual and Religious History at San Francisco Theological Seminary. Among his seven books are The Eloquent President: A Portrait of Lincoln Through His Own Words; Liberty and Justice for All: Racial Reform and the Social Gospel (1877-1925); and An Unsettled Arena: Religion and the Bill of Rights (co-editor). He received his Ph.D. from Princeton University and formerly taught at Princeton Theological Seminary, Colorado College, UCLA, and Whitworth College.
- Lawrence A. Gobright, Recollection of Men and Things at Washington During the Third of a Century, p. 341-342.
- Allan Nevins, The War for the Union, Volume IV, p. 27.
- Ronald C. White, Jr., Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural, p. 42.
- Don E. Fehrenbacher (completed and edited by Ward M. McAfee), The Slaveholding Republic: An Account of the United States Government’s Relations to Slavery, p. 320.
- Roy P. Basler, editor, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume VIII, pp. 332-33 (Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865).
- Ronald C. White, Jr., Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural, pp. 179-180.
- Ronald C. White, Jr., Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural, p. 184.
- C. A. Tripp, The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln, p. 197.
- Lawrence A. Gobright, Recollection of Men and Things at Washington During the Third of a Century, p. 343.
- Ronald C. White, Jr., The Eloquent President: A Portrait of Lincoln Through His Own Words, p. 282.
- Noah Brooks, Washington, D.C. in Lincoln’s Time: A Memoir of the Civil War Era by the Newspaperman Who Knew Lincoln Best, p. 214.
- Ronald C. White, Jr., Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural, p. 200.
- Ronald C. White, Jr., Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural, p. 202.
- Hans L. Trefousse, “First Among Equals” Abraham Lincoln’s Reputation During His Administration, p. 130 (Letter from Charles F. Adams, Jr. To Charles Francis, March 7, 1865 in Ford, editor, Adams Letters, Volume II, p. 257-258).
- Michael Burlingame, editor, At Lincoln’s Side: John Hay’s Civil War Correspondence and Selected Writings, p. 127 (“The Heroic Age in Washington”).