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Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address: Reconciliation and Reconstruction Essay

Upon his reelection to the presidency in 1865, Abraham Lincoln could have sounded a victorious tone. The Civil War, at long last, was coming to a close. Lincoln had succeeded in preserving the Union despite fierce resistance in both the South and the North. He survived bitter political opposition to win a second term as president.Lincoln did not take the opportunity to gloat, however. He had been chastened by the terrible destruction of the war. He sees the big picture. Neither side is blameless. Instead, he offered a speech of hope, reflection and healing. He invokes religious principles to serve as a guide to national healing. It was short and to the point, but still soaring and thought-provoking. Many historians, and Lincoln himself, regard it as his best speech.The BackgroundLincoln and the Republican Party fully expected to lose his reelection bid. The war had defined his entire presidency. Public support eroded as the casualties exceeded even the worst pre-war estimates. Anti-draft riots erupted in the North. Civil rights were curtailed during the war. Some favored simply letting the South secede. Many were ambivalent, or worse, about ending slavery and granting full citizenship to former slaves.Lincoln himself had nearly been the victim of a kidnapping and a number of assassination attempts. The war itself claimed more than 600,000 lives (Anderson, 1970). In that context, Lincoln knew that any speech proclaiming victory would be hollow.Even though not elected by the entire country, Lincoln still wanted to appeal to its’ entirety. He knew that southerners would read the speech. Lincoln was already a reviled figure in the south, and did not want to antagonize them further. For that reason, he gave a conciliatory speech. At the same time, he wanted to offer some sort of explanation for a war many blamed him for instigating. At its’ outset, both sides expected a short war that ended in some type of political settlement.Lincoln had always seen the preservation of the Union as vital. As the war raged on, he began to realize that the war could not, and should not, end until the practice of slavery is destroyed. Hundreds of thousands of people died for these causes. After his unexpected re-election, a reflective Lincoln sensed that the country needed a reminder of what was fought for as well as a way to move forward.The ThemesAt the beginning of the speech, Lincoln explains why this would be a brief speech. He felt that it was too soon for a victory speech or a speech full of specific policy details. What was required, Lincoln felt, was a statement of purpose. He wanted to lay the moral and theoretical framework for the reconstruction to come. He feared that a climate of bitter vengeance could undermine what had been achieved through the sacrifice of blood. This was the time to emphasize what binds the two sides together rather than dwell on the differences.Along those lines, the most obvious aspect of Lincoln’s second inaugural address is the distinctly religious tone. Lincoln uses religious themes both to explain the war and to set the stage for reconciliation. God is invoked more than a dozen times in the 701 word speech. In the following passage, Lincoln uses the Bible to tie the two sides together. He also emphasizes the biblical principal that we are all sinners. Therefore, we are unworthy of casting blame upon others. From Lincoln’s address:Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokesHis aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men shoulddare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from thesweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged.(The Avalon Project, 2006)Up until that time, every president had mentioned God in his inaugural speech.Lincoln was the first, though, to actually quote scripture. Clearly, he is using as a tool to make his points. In a tragic war that will never be fully explainable, Lincoln challenged the people to look to their religion for answers, or at least for solace. He knows that the New Testament of the Christian bible teaches forgiveness and charity.At the same time, he criticized those who misuse the Bible for their own purposes. Through that prism Lincoln addresses the issue of slavery. In the years since the Civil War, historians have debated its’ ultimate cause. Some have claimed slavery only as a side issue in a larger war. The individual soldier fought for various reasons. Individual states had various reasons as well. Lincoln wants to make clear, though, that the issue slavery was ultimately the trigger to all the other issues. From his address:One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributedgenerally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. Theseslaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that thisinterest was somehow the cause of the war.(The Avalon Project, 2006)Lincoln goes on to imply that war was a necessary punishment from God for the two hundred and thirty years of American slavery. God ended for us what we would not end ourselves.While indicating that slavery resided in the South, Lincoln wanted to stress that in no way should Northerners feel superior. Even in a Union army fighting to end slavery, black soldiers were segregated, paid less and disrespected. Slavery and the attitudes that perpetuate it are an American problem owned by all, going back to the founding fathers and beyond.Having established that blame for the terrible war lies on both sides, Lincoln states the moral framework behind reconstruction. The most famous phrase of the speech sums up the path to a peaceful and more just nation:With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in theright as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish thework we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him whoshall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to doall which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace amongourselves and with all nations.(The Avalon Project, 2006)We must now take care of those who fought on both sides without castingjudgment. As a matter of Christian charity the wounded, poor and weary on both sides must be taken care of. After years of vicious battle the only way out, to Lincoln, is mutual respect and healing. It was a tall order after such a brutal war. This is why Lincoln appealed to all to be more Godly. In other words, it is God’s will that the healing should begin now that the scourge of slavery has been ended.The AftermathThose who had expected a speech of victory at this inauguration were to be disappointed and confused. The speech was not designed to be a crowd pleaser, but rather one provoking thought and inspiring forgiveness. Reviews at the time were mixed. Some criticized the lack of concrete policy proposals. Some understood at the time that the speech was historically significant. Ronald White cites one such review from a London newspaper:We cannot read it without a renewed conviction that it is the noblestpolitical document known to history, and should have for the nationand the statesmen he left behind him something of a sacred and almostprophetic character.   (2002)It has been debated for decades whether Lincoln was truly as religious as this speech would indicate. Some have seen his religion as simply a political tool. America was a highly religious nation in the 1860’s. If not ascribing purely by faith, Lincoln is a student of theology and recognizes the powerful human lessons contained within it.In a time before the war was completely over, emotions were raw. Lincoln knew that if a culture of revenge set in the war could continue, in one way or another, indefinitely. He recognized that religion was a powerful cultural element common to both sides. The South was still part of America; Lincoln wanted to remind the nation. Principles of Christian brotherhood dictate that they should not be treated harshly.Lincoln had barely begun his second term when one inauguration attendee, Jon Wilkes Booth assassinated him at Ford’s theatre in Washington D.C. White calls this speech Lincoln’s “last will and testament” to the American people (2002).Lincoln often said in a few words what could not be said by others in hours-long orations. As if the speech needed more symbolism, it was reported that the sun began to shine as Lincoln spoke. It had been raining for weeks in Washington (Boller, 2001).The way Lincoln treated the end of the war was as crucial as the way he treated the war itself. His words of healing, appealing to the best instincts of people, helped set a tone that would eventually bring the fractured nation back together. His words “with malice toward none…” are now etched in the memorial bearing his name.;

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