NO ONE EXPECTED that March 4, 1865, would become a memorable occasion for its inspiring vision of healing across a tragically wounded America. Lincoln’s second Inauguration Day dawned on a chilly, muddy Washington D.C. After two days of rain and daytime temperatures in the 40s, press reports commented on the inhospitably soft ground and resulting mud that seemed to mire everything in Washington. The rain finally stopped on Inauguration Day and some sun was visible—but Vice President Andrew Johnson already had set a new low for such occasions. Newspapers would describe Johnson as a “drunken clown” for giving a rambling and obviously intoxicated speech after his own oath of office. Finally, it was Lincoln’s turn to deliver a 6-minute address.
The war continued. The four-year-long conflict would not end until General Robert E. Lee surrendered on April 9 at Appomattox—and a final federal declaration of war’s end would not come until May 9. The last Confederate forces would not surrender until June, 1865. AND, Lincoln was in the final weeks of his own life. He was killed April 15, 1865.
THE SPEECH’S LEGACY:
Read our interview with historian Stephen Prothero for more on Lincoln’s remarkable address, which includes the now-famous closing “with malice toward none, with charity for all.” In his book, Prothero writes, in part: The president sounded no trumpet of triumphalism. He did not call for revenge. Instead, he waxed theological—“Let us judge not that we not be judged”—in a six-minute speech that, according to Frederick Douglass, “sounded more like a sermon than a state paper.” America’s theologian in chief did not call God to his side, however. He did not call his opponents evildoers. Instead, he struggled to make sense of “this terrible war” and, failing, humbly confessed his confusion.
ALSO ENJOY: If you think this address is fascinating, you’ll also want to read Lincoln’s declaration of the nation’s first Thanksgiving Day, which he issued in 1863—and Americans will celebrate in 2013 as a sesquicentennial event.
Original Text of Abraham Lincoln’s
1865 Second Inaugural Address
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 by 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.
LINCOLN AND HIS KING JAMES BIBLE
Lincoln explained within his address why he had turned to the Bible so extensively. After all, “both sides read the same Bible, and pray to the same God.” By calling upon those texts, Lincoln hoped to summon a common faith. The President took the highlighted phrases (bold-faced type above) from his King James Bible, including:
- Genesis 3:19 on sweat of the face for daily bread.
- Matthew 7:1 on not making judgments.
- Matthew 18:7 on ‘Woe unto the world …’
- Psalm 19:9 on ‘The judgments of the Lord …’ (Note: Some Lincoln historians analyzing this speech also point out that similar words are found in Revelation 16:7.)
LINCOLN’S COMMON GOOD AND THE REST OF THE STORY …
Of course, upon Lincoln’s assassination, his approach to Reconstruction gave way to an era of more turbulence as Northern and Southern forces approached the post-Civil War period with an unrestrained vengeance. Poet Walt Whitman penned one of his greatest poems in the spring of 1865: When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.
The novelist Herman Melville was among the writers who turned to verse when Lincoln was killed. In his poem The Martyr, Melville described the “sobbing of the strong and a pall upon the land” that he observed. Heartbroken and angry himself, Melville saw that Lincoln’s death turned the nation from compassionate forgiveness toward the unleashing of pent-up anger. As Melville put it:
He lieth in his blood—
The father in his face;
They have killed him, the Forgiver—
The Avenger takes his place.
Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.