Ruminations upon Honest Abe’s Second Inaugural Address, or Lincoln, The Movie, Review, Part II

11 Nov

After seeing the movie Lincoln, I spoke about it briefly at Toastmasters on Saturday, and about Lincoln’s Second Inaugural address, a document that has fascinated me for a long time. The first time I really studied it was for a book I was writing at the time called Great American Speeches, and guess what, this 700 word speech definitely made the cut. It encapsulated so much, with such vigor and subtlety, that I found it intensely moving. I re-experienced the speech a few years later when I went to the Lincoln Memorial and read it, carved in marble, right off the wall. And this week, I was reading a fascinating book—well, pretty fascinating anyway, I thought it could have done more—called On Apology by Aaron Lazare who is Chancellor and Dean of the UMass Medical School. He is a leading expert on the psychology of shame and humiliation and has written on the subject of apology. One point he makes early on in the book is that there is much talk of the importance of forgiveness these days—far less about the importance of apology, shame, and restitution. I have much to say on the subject of why I believe that unearned forgiveness for serious betrayals is not the act of generosity and goodness it is portrayed to be (unless the person is dead, and then, whatchagonnado?) and that it can actually at times be harmful.

Lazare writes (pp. 78-79) that this speech is an effective public ackowledgment of our nation’s sin. “the speech could be considered an exemplar of the apology  process itself—acknowledgment, remorse, explanation, and reparation.” Here is the speech itself (highlights mine) and I will express myself further at the end.

(about 700 words)


  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.


Here are a few of the aspects of this speech that fascinate me. It first of all reads less like an apology than what early Christian theologians would call an Apologia, an explanation or justification, for the plan of action he took. He makes it plain that he understands that both sides did not want war, but one side was more responsible than the other. That is because of the “peculiar and powerful interest” of the slaves—one eighth of the population whose subjugation was such a constant and powerful offense that it could no longer stand. His determination to get rid of slavery, as expressed in the words. “Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword,” is incredibly resolute. He is drawing the line in the sand—if all the wealth the South especially (the North was not innocent of this either!) had built up in the past two hundred and fifty years of stolen lives, the two hundred and fifty shameful years of the stolen wealth of the slaves’ unpaid work, was destroyed, so be it. If we had to pay in seas of blood of young Southern and Northern men and leave shattering scars in their family lives, then SO BE IT.

In essence, Lincoln is doing several things. On the one hand, he acknowledges slavery as a national shame, which it was. On the other hand, he is apologizing for the behavior of the South, where the bulk of the shame and suffering and national crime of institutionalized slavery took place—in other words, he is apologizing for the behavior of his enemies. This could be considered quite presumptuous. But there is something deeply merciful and pained, in his understanding of the cost of death to both Northerners and Southerners in his speech—an awareness of the terrible suffering of the expiation of the blood sin—that shows that he does not think of the loss of any life, Southern or Northern, black or white, lightly. In the end, there is something enfolding about this mercy—as if he were saying, ‘I cannot honestly say that this was a fight between two combatants with equal claims to justice—and we are in a state as a nation that cannot stand—but we all matter. I hunger for peace, I pray that this terrible shedding of blood will serve as at least partial reparation for our wrongs, and may we be a better nation for it.” It is the tender mournfulness that gives the speech the power that it still has today.

Writing Prompt: How far have we come since Lincoln wrote his speech?

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