God, Lincoln and the Second Inaugural Address

lincoln_second-inaugural

Hands down the most moving  inaugural address in American history is the second inaugural address given by President Lincoln, little over a month before his death.  It is short, to the point and powerful.  It is also the most important theological document written by any American President.  Here is the text:

“Fellow Countrymen:

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, 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.”

The address is brief, only 703 words.  This was unusual in Lincoln’s time when one hour speeches were not uncommon, and the style of oratory was very ornate.  However, throughout his life Lincoln had a talent for packing a great deal of thought in very few words, and that talent is on full display here.

“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.”

Like the good lawyer that he was, Lincoln got to the nub of the question, the war.  For Lincoln the immediate cause of the war was due to the success of the secession movement in the South and the unwillingness of the Unionists in the North to let the secessionists leave the Union.

“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. “

However, while secession was the spark that led to the conflagration, slavery was the issue that led to the war.

“Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding.”

Indeed.  Both sides were convinced at the onset that the other side really didn’t have their hearts in the war, and that the war would be brief if there was any fighting at all.  A. W. Venable of North Carolina expressed a common sentiment when he offered to “wipe up every drop of blood shed in the war with this handkerchief of mine”.  Shelby Foote, one of the finest historians of the war, wondered how many railroad boxcars full of handkerchiefs it would have taken to wipe up all the blood spilled in the war.

” Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. “

Theology enters in.  Each side has attempted to enlist God in support of their cause.  Battle Hymn of the Republic meet God Save the South.

“The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully.”

That the prayers of the Confederates had not been answered by this stage of the war, with the Confederacy on the verge of overwhelming defeat, would have been obvious to all who heard Lincoln’s speech.  However, what did Lincoln mean by stating that the Union’s prayers had not been fully answered?  Perhaps he was thinking of the dreadful cost in blood and treasure to obtain the victory that was dawning.

“The Almighty has His own purposes.”

Something that many of our great saints have  told us, but which we have a hard time accepting or understanding.  Lincoln pondered this in September of 1862 in a writing which has come down to us as Lincoln’s Meditation on Divine Will.  This was a private note written by Lincoln for his own reflection.

“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. God cannot be for and againstthe same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party — and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect His purpose. I am almost ready to say that this is probably true — that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet. By his mere great power, on the minds of the now contestants, He could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. Yet the contest began. And, having begun He could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds.”

‘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.’

Matthew 18:7.  Most of the much more biblically literate population of Lincoln’s time would have recognized the quotation immediately.

“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? “

The Civil War as God’s punishment to both North and South for slavery.  Imagine the reaction of the public today if, after leading the country through a terrible war, a president stated that the war was God’s punishment and that Americans were just as guilty in the eyes of God as their adversaries.

This sounds strange to most modern ears, and not just to those who are atheists or agnostics.  Even many believers in God are more apt than in Lincoln’s day to see such calamities as slavery or war caused by merely human action.  Traditionally Catholics and other Christians have been much more likely than we to see the hand of God guiding the course of history.

“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’.”

This is a truly remarkable passage.  The citizens of the Union were sick of war, and desperately yearning for victory and peace.  Yet here is Lincoln telling them that if it is God’s will that the war continue until an additional terrible penance has been paid for the evil of slavery, that the judgment of God was true and righteous.  By definition for Lincoln, whatever God willed was right, as demonstrated in this famous quotation of Lincoln:

“‘I am not at all concerned about that, for I know that the Lord is always on the side of the right. But it is my constant anxiety and prayer that I and this nation should be on the Lord’s side.'”

“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.”

With malice towards none, and with charity for all is a good summation of how Lincoln intended to treat the defeated Southern states.  He wanted them to assume their pre-war place in the Union as soon as possible.  No doubt there would have been a battle royal if Lincoln had lived between him and radical Republicans in Congress who wished to punish the South.

Note the phrase “as God gives us to see the right”.  Once again Lincoln is aware that what might seem right to humans may not be right to God, and hence the tentative nature of this phrase.

It is interesting that when Lincoln states: ” to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan” Lincoln does not limit this solicitude to Union veterans.  If the federal government had extended such care to crippled Confederate veterans, and the widows and orphans of dead Confederate soldiers and sailors, the binding up of the nation’s wounds would have been much easier.

“to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

Amen.

8 Responses to God, Lincoln and the Second Inaugural Address

  • Something for Mr. Obama to consider following his Abe-O-Rama inaugural. Note the somberness and sobriety, not to mention economy, of Mr. Lincoln’s address. Reminded me of nothing less than Dr. King’s final speech in Memphis, the night before his assassination. Trusting in God’s Will, proclaiming that it didn’t matter his fate, having ascended to the mountaintop. Still not sure that Mr. Obama approaches his office with the grave responsbility as these two great Americans. Too much of the air of Bill Clinton’s Party Presidency about him. We pray he will get far more serious.

  • Donald, I think you underrate this. This was not just the greatest inaugural address over, I believe this was the greatest political speech in American history.

  • “I believe this was the greatest political speech in American history”

    I’m not sure the Gettysburg Address doesn’t merit that honor. Or King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

  • I’ve always preferred this to the Gettysburg Address, though, really, it’s like choosing between prime rib and porterhouse.

  • Since we’re on the subject of great speeches in American history, I have to say that the Virginian in me is also somewhat partial to Mr. Henry’s speech at St. John’s Church in Richmond.

  • I intend to do a fisking of the Gettysburg address prior to February 12. As for Patrick Henry, I have always regarded him as the greatest American orator of the Eighteenth Century. People who heard Henry speak reported that the cold text of the speeches failed to give any indication of the enormous impact he had upon his listeners.

  • One hesitates to deprecate so [rhetorically] fine an address but there are a few flaws. Thus: “One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it”.

    While slavery was generally localized in the rebellious Southern states, there were slaves in the Union border states. And there were slaves in New England and the North. The last auction of slaves in New Jersey was held in 1846.

    As slavery persisted until the 1960s [v. Douglas Blackmon’s SLAVERY BY ANOTHER NAME], there is little to congratulate ourselves upon. Roger Taney has been vilified for the Dred Scott decision. But all he did was to point out the truth: blacks were not recognized as full U.S. citizens in no state.

    Samuel Johnson sneered at the DECLARATION: “Virginia slavers preaching equality”.

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