From the vantage point on March 4, 1865, President Lincoln saw the approaching end of the war, a most terrible war that exacted a toll on America never before seen and not seen since. Lincoln’s Second Inaugural address, delivered shortly before the war’s end and his assassination, is a brief summation of the events and looks forward to rebuilding the nation and healing her wounds. It is a speech, which is perhaps unique to its era, but not solely in the events it addresses or its length. Rather, can you imagine a modern President speaking in such a way today- making recurring references to the bible and God? Perhaps even more alien to our modern ears, a leader conceiving that our current predicaments are a result of a turn from what is unequivocally and immutably right and towards what is inherently wrong? Concurrently, justice also finds its way into the discourse of the speech.
Lincoln claimed that the Civil War was a trial of the United States, for her sins in allowing and enabling slavery to exist. In 1854, at Peoria, Lincoln noted America’s “Republican robe is soiled and trailed in the dust. Let us purify it. Let us turn and wash it white in the spirit if not the blood of the Revolution. Let us turn slavery from its claims of moral right…” Lincoln believed a return to the Founders, who declared that “all men are created equal” and believed that the new Union had placed slavery on a course of ultimate destruction. Of course, that “peculiar institution” was not so easily expunged from the Republic. After the war had come, and the destruction wrought, a somber Lincoln believed it was a judgment from God: “He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offense came… 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…” The Civil War was for Lincoln a punishment, for two hundred fifty years of violating the natural rights of those held in bondage.
Lincoln of course approached this from a Christian perspective, but acknowledgement of the rights of men does not necessitate membership in an Abrahamic faith. Indeed, the great tension is over slavery and whether it is true that “all men are created equal,” or whether it is the right of one to own another. The embrace of slavery is a turn from God, though we need not understand this in strictly religious terms; this is about a turn from a self-evidently true and right principle, the equality of men, towards an idea that you can own and govern another man without his consent. Slavery, underpinned by the idea that a group of men can be selected as unfit to govern themselves, not only undermines republican self-government, but is an idea that reason, “as God gives us to see the right,” tells us is evil.
Justice is a recurring theme in Lincoln’s writing and speeches. He questions the south’s invocation of God in their cause, when he says, “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…” In his first debate with Stephen E. Douglas at Ottawa in 1858 Lincoln said something similar,“[a slave]…is not my equal in many respects-certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment. But in the right to eat the bread, without the leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man.” There is a grave injustice in forcibly taking the profits of the labor of another. Slavery is not just a question of recognizing the equality of men, but of a moral economic system where men keep the profits of their labor.
With this belief in the equality of men and unyielding commitment to justice, Lincoln ended a morose speech with an eye to the future. “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right…to bind up the nation’s wounds…” are the phrases most associated with the second inaugural address. We cannot know how the process of reconstruction would have progressed with Lincoln in the White House, but the Great Emancipator was able to steer the nation through its greatest trial, to begin to right the wrong of slavery, and rededicate the American experiment towards the Founders vision.
Read President Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address here: https://constitutingamerica.org/?p=4336
James Legee recently completed his Master of Arts in Political Science at Villanova University, where he was a Graduate Fellow at the Matthew J. Ryan Center for the study of Free Institutions and the Public Good. You can find him on twitter @JamesLegee.
May 27, 2013 – Essay #71