March 4, 1865 :

Fellow countrymen :

At this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement somewhat in detail of a course to be pursued seemed fitting and proper. 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 energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.

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, urgent 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.

One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. 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. Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh. If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses 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 offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? 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.

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 lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

- (Babe)raham Lincoln, 1865

We all grow up seeing Abraham Lincoln's face. He stares at us, stately, unmoving, and ancient, from the penny and the five dollar bill. Both his appearances and actions are so iconic that it is easy to forget or overlook what he actually said. Even his most famous speech, The Gettysburg Address, is more known for its seemingly stilted and archaic opening: "Four Score and Seven Years Ago" than for its content.

I only knew of the Second Inaugural Address through a few scattered phrases, such as "until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid with another drawn by the sword" and "With malice towards none, with charity towards all". When I actually read it, I found its content to be quite different from what I expected.

It is a very short document, only four paragraphs long. Although the war was almost over by the time Lincoln gave the speech, he spends little time discussing the military progress of the war:

"The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured."
Instead, Lincoln decides to give his audience a discussion of theodicy. Both sides believe God is guiding them: but one of them must be wrong. God uses the progress of history in ways that we can't understand, but even though we can't understand, we must play our part in it. In fact, God might use things that are contrary to our sense of justice to further His plans, but that the people who do the unjust things may still be punished for what they do. And Lincoln finally says that if the war goes on "until every drop of blood drawn with the lash will be paid back by one drawn by the sword", then no human can fault God's justice. It is both easy to state and hard to understand: it mixes a sense of compassion with a sense of inevitability that has a ferociousness behind it.

I don't know enough about the 19th century and the standards of speechmaking and philosophical discourse to know how the audience would have received the speech. Although religious arguments, especially in formal language, were probably familiar to the audience, they were probably usually of the platitudinous variety. For Lincoln to instead talk about the paradoxical nature of God's will, with language as dense as the concepts presented, probably went well over the audience's head.

And I like that, because despite his now august presence in our national consciousness, Abraham Lincoln was the type of person who, even in the middle of war and catastrophe, was able to (in modern terms) troll his audience by speaking of the unexpected and the seemingly contradictory.

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