War and Remembrance in Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address

Lucas Morel

February 1, 2009

As Lincoln prepared his Second Inaugural Address, he faced the problem of a defeated but defiant South. Though beaten on the battlefield, many southerners were unwilling to accept the imminent Union victory as a just conclusion of the war. As Johnny Rebmight have put it, “Lincoln’s might didn’t make it right.” The newly reelected president would have to find words to justify what federal troops had accomplished.

The problem was that victory for the Union cause came not only at the expense ofmuch blood and treasure, but also through the abolition of slavery.The war may have been long, but slavery had been around much longer, and the white supremacist mindset that had built up around black slavery would not give way easily. If slavery was, “somehow, the cause of the war,” as Lincoln put it in his Second Inaugural Address, emancipation would make relations between blacks and whites the greatest challenge in reconstructing self-government in the American South.

Instead of detailing his plans for Reconstruction in his inaugural address, Lincoln followed the model of his Gettysburg Address by delivering a speech that would be weighty but brief. Lincoln surprised his audience by rejecting the triumphalism of Radical Republicans in Congress, who sought to rule over the defeated Southern States with a vengeance. And in the face of resistance spurred by Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who exhorted Southerners “to stand to our arms,” Lincoln counseled “malice toward none, with charity for all.”

But he could do so only after addressing the justice of the war’s end, which included the abolition of slavery. Lincoln saw little hope of a truly United States of America without a united way of thinking about the place of slavery in America’s history. Rejecting the South’s defense of slavery as “a positive good” and the North’s assumption that they bore no responsibility for the peculiar institution, Lincoln used his Second Inaugural Address to propose a common public memory of both the war and American slavery as the basis for restoring national unity.

He did this by studiously avoiding any specifics about whether the so-called “seceded” states had actually left the federal Union, how they would be restored to the Union, or what the rights of the freedmen—or rebels, for that matter—would be under these returning governments. More important than a detailed agenda for the future was a careful review of the past: what was the meaning of the conflict and how could this understanding help heal the wounds of a divided nation?

Lincoln points out that both the war and emancipation came to the country despite the initial intentions of either side of the conflict. With surprising humility for a re-elected president and victorious commander in chief, he concludes: “Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding.” Another power must be at work: “The Almighty has His own purposes.” By appealing to the God of nations, Lincoln offers not merely a standard that transcends both parties to the conflict, but “a Living God” effecting His will through America’s greatest crisis. The fact that both sides “read the same Bible and pray to the same God” would seem to support a providential reading of the war.

However, the nation’s common religion did not produce a common view of slavery. Debate over its legitimacy eventually led to the Civil War. So Lincoln tries to produce a common understanding of the war by withholding judgment upon the South alone for the evil of slavery. He supposes that slavery was an offense that came through the agency of both Southern and Northern citizens, and one that God “now wills to remove” through “this mighty scourge of war.”

Lincoln does not say that he knows the long and bloody conflict was divine punishment for the national sin of slavery. He simply invites Americans, North and South, to accept this interpretation of the conflict as the best explanation for a war no one really wanted and an emancipation no one seriously expected: “If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences 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 offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him?”

Lincoln hides or diminishes the culpability of the South for the Civil War because “a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves” depended on blame for slavery being shared by all Americans. But Lincoln could not ignore the issue entirely, for he also sought to unite the country as a slave-free one. As he declared at Gettysburg, he intended all Americans (North and South, black and white) to experience “a new birth of freedom.” So rebellious southerners would not be held solely responsible for causing the war, but a reunited America would require that southerners change their mind about slavery and hence the meaning of the Union. Lincoln hoped the nation would now be in practice what it long declared in principle: a nation devoted to protecting the equal rights of all her citizens. The failure of Reconstruction would postpone Lincoln’s hopes for almost a century.

After his second inauguration, Lincoln wrote that he expected his address “to wear as well as—perhaps better than—anything I have produced; but I believe it is not immediately popular.” He explained: “Men are not flattered by being shown that there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them. To deny it, however, in this case, is to deny that there is a God governing the world.” This difference of purpose between God and man, and its connection to slavery’s demise and self-government’s survival, stands as the centerpiece of the Second Inaugural Address, making it the most profound political statement in American history.

Lucas E. Morel is Garwood Visiting Fellow at the James
Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at
Princeton University and Associate Professor of Politics at
Washington and Lee University.