Op Ed: Liberty for all is key to America's mission

December 24, 2020

This op. ed originally appeared in today’s edition of the Columbus Dispatch.

Today marks the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. Though delivered 151 years ago, it still has relevance for Americans today as we face challenges regarding race, equality, and freedom, and struggle to find a common sense of national purpose and identity.

In March 1865, Americans also had to confront similarly hard questions: How should they think about the great and terrible war in which they were engaged? What was the war’s cause and when would it end? What would the nation be like after it was over? Union supporters wanted reassurance that their cause was just and therefore worth the terrible cost in life and limb. President Abraham Lincoln, sensing the heaviness of the moment on American hearts, offered his own reflections on those questions in his Second Inaugural.

Lincoln’s answers, however, were not exactly what many in the North expected, or even wanted, to hear. All knew, Lincoln began, that slavery was the cause of the war – “and the war came.”  Rather than emphasizing the division between Americans, Lincoln noted what North and South had in common. “Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God” for victory.  But, Lincoln continued, “the Almighty has His own purposes,” and “woe unto that man by whom the offense cometh!”

Many in the North expected Lincoln to place the full blame for the war on the South. Lincoln instead turned again to the question of why the war came:  “American Slavery is one of those offences” which God now wills to remove, and “He gives to both North and South this terrible war” as the price for centuries of slavery in America. How long would the war continue? “Until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk,” Lincoln answered, “and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.”

By raising the purpose of the war to the level of divine justice, Lincoln reassured Americans that the cause of ending slavery was just, for it would place the nation back on the course of living up to the Founders’ promise of equal liberty for all. But it was bittersweet medicine, as Lincoln courageously pointed out the collective blame for slavery. In this Lincoln reminded everyone that slavery was a national sin; that guilt for the war rested upon the heads of all, both the Southern masters and the Northern merchants who had profited, directly or indirectly, from the slave trade and slave labor over the centuries.

Lincoln believed that his Second Inaugural would “wear as well as – perhaps better than – anything I have produced,” but he admitted that it was not “immediately popular.” “Men are not flattered by being shown that there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them,” he later wrote. But Lincoln’s purpose in holding up this stark mirror for the nation was to remind all – especially the soon-to-be victorious Northern Republicans – of the Biblical adage, “Let us judge not that we be not judged.” Even as he reaffirmed the justice of the war, Lincoln looked forward to the nation’s reunification. Anticipating attempts by the victorious North to treat the South with harsh terms as a conquered foe, Lincoln rejected the idea that might makes right. “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right,” Lincoln urged, “let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds.” Former slave Frederick Douglass told Lincoln after the inauguration that his Address constituted a “sacred effort” at salving the wounds of national division.

In Lincoln’s own example of statesmanship, and in the wisdom of his Second Inaugural, we can find useful advice for our own day, especially in an election year in which Americans face a new set of challenging questions and seek a clear direction for the nation. In laying out his vision for America’s future, Lincoln had the courage to call for common accountability and a rededication to the principle that Americans should strive for in common – equal liberty for all.

Christopher Burkett is an associate professor of political science and co-chair of the Master of Arts in American History and Government program at the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University.