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Dissecting Important Documents - Lincoln’s Second Inaugural

On March 4, 1861, newly elected President Abraham Lincoln delivered his first inaugural address. Seven states had already seceded less than a month before, forming the Confederate States of America. Lincoln hoped to reassure the remaining southern states that he would not impose on their slaves, preventing further division. One month later Confederate forces opened fire on Fort Sumter, signaling the beginning of the American Civil War. Ultimately four other states joined the Confederacy, and over the next four years Union and Confederate forces clashed.


While the Union initially suffered defeat after defeat, by 1863 they had rebounded under the leadership of General Grant and General Sherman. Their success propelled Lincoln to a second term, handily defeating his former general, George McClellan, 212 electoral votes to 21.


Four years after his first inaugural address, Lincoln was sworn in once again. This time Lincoln’s speech had a markedly different tone. While Lincoln could have gloated and blamed the South for the war, he instead appealed to unity.


Compared to his first speech, Lincoln’s second inaugural was significantly shorter. He acknowledged this, beginning the speech, “ 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 enerergies of the nation, little that is new could be presented.”


He continued, addressing the causes for the war. “...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.” He then spent a large portion of the speech discussing America’s ugly history of slavery. While the South had perpetuated the institution, the North had allowed it to survive through a variety of compromises. Both sides of the war shared a common history and prayed to the same God, and they also shared the same responsibility for the war. He said, “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, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether"


Lincoln concluded the speech, intending to repair the ailing and divided nation that he had hoped to preserve four years prior. He said, “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 a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”


The war would conclude a month later with General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House. Lincoln was assassinated shortly after, and while he never saw the rebuilding process, his legacy has endured. Lincoln’s second inaugural served as a healthy example of his humility. Alongside the Gettysburg Address, this speech has been etched in stone at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.


To learn more about Lincoln’s second inaugural address, check out the Bill or Rights Institute’s resource: https://billofrightsinstitute.org/activities/with-charity-for-all-abraham-lincolns-second-inaugural-address-and-respect-handout-a-narrative.


For the full text of the speech go to: https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=false&doc=38&page=transcript

Image Credit: Alexander Gardner / Library of Congress

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