Today we celebrate the inauguration of the forty-sixth president of the United States. The inauguration of a president is traditionally a time to take stock and ponder the direction of the republic. I expect that President Biden—like many of his predecessors—will try and make the best of his opportunity. (I’m writing this before the ceremony; I don’t know if he succeeded.) For a little inspiration—for us all—let’s look back at one of the great American speeches—perhaps the most moving and inspired of all the inaugural addresses—delivered at one of the most difficult and dangerous moments in our history.
A second term, and Union victory, were not certain…
For much of 1864, president Abraham Lincoln’s prospects for reelection looked dim. Union forces had suffered notable defeats and horrifying casualties in early 1864, and many in the North were tired of the cost of the war, both in dollars and human suffering. If not for Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s timely capture of Atlanta on September 2, 1864, Lincoln might have lost the election to Gen. George B. McClellan. McClellan sought to end the war by negotiating an armistice with the South. Such an armistice would have ended the fighting, but would not have solved the cause of the war: the continued existence of chattel slavery in the South and in the new U.S. territories and states forming in the West. But Lincoln’s popularity soared after Sherman’s decisive victories during the Atlanta campaign—especially after the fall of Atlanta—and the incumbent president won a decisive popular and electoral college victory on November 8, 1865.
Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, 1865
The inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, 1865. “Photograph by an unknown cameraman, probably [Alexander] Gardner, taken at the east front of the Capitol Building, Washington, D.C., March 4, 1865. Discovered by Lloyd Ostendorf in the files of the National Archives in February 1962, this scene appears to be the earliest of the Second Inaugural views which shows Lincoln.” (Source: Ostendorf, p. 202). Photo and source information via Library of Congress. Click to open larger image in new window.
On March 4, 1865, Abraham Lincoln took the oath of office as President of the United States for the second time. Take a good look at that photo. Click the photo to open it in a new window and click again to enlarge. It’s a remarkable photograph, showing the scene at the west side of the U.S. Capitol, after the oath of office, during Lincoln’s speech. Look along the temporary wooden platform, just behind the white pedestal table, and there he is, Abraham Lincoln, standing bare-headed, text in hand, mid-address.
The nation was still at war as the day of Lincoln’s second inaugural approached. It seemed likely that the Union would prevail, but it was not clear how much longer that might take, and how many more families would suffer the loss of a father, brother or friend. But the end was in sight, and many Americans wanted to know what would happen next. How would the wounds of four years of brutal fighting be healed? How would the citizens and governments of the secessionist states be reintegrated into the American nation? How would almost four million formerly-enslaved Black men, women and children be incorporated into American political, civic and economic life?
Words to heal a divided nation
Lincoln’s handwritten fair copy of the address is held by the Library of Congress and can be viewed and downloaded here. That manuscript is believed to have been sent to the printer to make copies of the address for distribution to the press. It seems that Lincoln took a printer’s galley proof and cut and pasted it onto a single page to make a copy for reading at the inaugural ceremony. He also made a few minor edits (identical with edits in the manuscript) and added a bit of extra punctuation (not found in the manuscript). This is believed to be the page that Lincoln read from on the steps of the Capitol, the page seen in the president’s hand in the photo above:
Abraham Lincoln papers: Series 3. General Correspondence. 1837-1897: Abraham Lincoln, [March 4, 1865] (Second Inaugural Address; endorsed by Lincoln, April 10, 1865) Library of Congress.
The address is not long, yet it cuts to the core of the moral and political issues that confronted the Union after four years of war. At the same time, its eloquent simplicity inspires the listener with Lincoln’s vision of a better America, rising from the ashes of the refiner’s fire. Please take a moment to read it.
Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, complete text
For clarity of reading—and speaking—I have added many of the line breaks found in Lincoln’s “reading copy,” (above).
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 this great conflict which is of primary concern to the nation as a whole, 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, insurgent 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.