Lincoln also shared his most profound reflections on the causes and meaning of the war. He communicates that the war is best understood as divine punishment for the sin of slavery, a sin for which all Americans were complicit.
As Lincoln began his speech under the newly-completed dome of the United States Capitol, rain and storm clouds gave way to sun.
When Lincoln gave the address, it had been 32 years since a president was re-elected (Andrew Jackson, 1833) in a country that was only 89 years old. This was newsworthy and increased the public’s interest in the event.
Unlike previous second inaugural addresses, Lincoln’s words are directed away from himself. Instead of words like “me” or “I”, he uses more inclusive words like “all” or “both” to draw attention to his broader intent.
“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.”
The war is the focus of this section. Nine times in ninety-nine words, Lincoln uses the word “war” and twice more he uses the word “it” to refer to the war. He presents the fact that neither side wanted the war, but shows favor to the northern effort when he frankly states that “one side made war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish.”
“And the war came” suggests that those making the decisions of the past four years were not always in control. This parallels his thinking in a letter written in April, 1864 where he credits a higher power in shaping the events of the war: “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.”
Here Lincoln names slavery as the cause of the war. This is a far cry from his First Inaugural Address where he attempted to calm the nation by reiterating his intentions of leaving slavery where it already existed. When Lincoln gave that address on March 4, 1861, seven southern states had already seceded from the nation, and civil war was imminent. Now, after four years of a terrible national crisis, Lincoln uses his Second Inaugural to gently, but clearly, call out slavery as the reason for the war.
“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.”
Another unique component of this inaugural speech is its use of Biblical verses and theological language. Lincoln provides quotes from the Bible four times, mentions God 14 times, and summons prayer three times. Throughout his presidency, Lincoln struggled to comprehend the purpose of all the death and destruction, and often turned to the Bible for answers.
In this passage, Lincoln expresses his own belief that the war was fought for God’s purposes; and that both sides used and misused the bible for their own purposes. In the first of four referenced biblical verses (Genesis 3:19), he is calling out Whites in the South who thought that God was on their side even as they ate bread that was harvested from the work and sweat of their Black slaves. And then he jumps right back to the Bible, referencing the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:1) and asking Americans “but let us judge not that we be not judged.”
“Offences” being slavery, Lincoln uses the words of Jesus in Matthew 18:7 to make it clear that slavery was wrong - a sin. He surmises that God has used the “terrible war” to finally end this sin.
As an historical reminder, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was issued in January, 1863 as a wartime measure, and it freed the enslaved people in the Confederate states. As commander-in-chief of the Federal Army, he had the authority to take any step necessary to cripple the rebellion and keep the country united. In the backdrop of the Second Inaugural, with the end of the war in sight, Congress was working to pass a Constitutional amendment to permanently end slavery in the United States. With this in mind, Lincoln is also using the address to promote the need for that amendment.
“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 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.”
In his First Inaugural address, Lincoln frames the slavery issue from the perspective of a lawyer. He deliberately outlines what he, and the federal government, were not going to do about it. He was well aware then of the Constitutional constraints that gave Southern States the right to decide for themselves whether to allow slavery. In 1861 he was also trying to suppress the onset of a Civil War. Now, after four devastating years of war, and the country in the process of integrating newly-freed Blacks into society, he takes slavery head-on. In this section of his Second Inaugural, he does not hold back. He warns that the war will continue until “every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword,” saying again, that this is God’s will.
Lincoln used inclusive language at the start of this address to connect people to their common responsibility for the war and its origins. In this concluding paragraph, his inclusive language (“us”, “we”, “ourselves”) is intended to move the nation forward towards reconciliation. Images of slavery, swords, blood, lashes, and war, are replaced in his conclusion with kindness, healing and unity.
Throughout the address, Lincoln doesn’t talk about retribution or punishment; themes that were expected by many in the North. Instead, he calls for peace among all Americans. He leaves his listeners with one of the most memorable, empathetic, and eloquent paragraphs in Presidential writings.
The Washington National Intelligencer recognized the importance and poetry of this conclusion when it reported that these words “...are equally distinguished for patriotism, statesmanship and benevolence, and deserve to be printed in gold.”
For more on Lincoln's eloquence and his remarkable use of language in his inaugural addresses, the Gettysburg Address, his 1862 Annual Address to Congress, and other writings, see Lincoln's Legacy: The Eloquent President.