Lincoln's Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural

Lincoln's Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural

by Ronald C. White Jr.
Lincoln's Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural

Lincoln's Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural

by Ronald C. White Jr.


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As the day for Lincoln's second inauguration drew near, Americans wondered what their sixteenth president would say about the Civil War. Would Lincoln guide the nation toward “Reconstruction”? What about the slaves? They had been emancipated, but what about the matter of suffrage?

When Lincoln finally stood before his fellow countrymen on March 4, 1865, and had only 703 words to share, the American public was stunned. The President had not offered the North a victory speech, nor did he excoriate the South for the sin of slavery. Instead, he called the whole country guilty of the sin and pleaded for reconciliation and unity.

In this compelling account, noted historian Ronald C. White Jr. shows how Lincoln's speech was initially greeted with confusion and hostility by many in the Union; commended by the legions of African Americans in attendance, abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass among them; and ultimately appropriated by his assassin John Wilkes Booth forty-one days later.

Filled with all the facts and factors surrounding the Second Inaugural, Lincoln's Greatest Speech is both an important historical document and a thoughtful analysis of Lincoln's moral and rhetorical genius.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780743299626
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 11/07/2006
Series: Simon & Schuster Lincoln Library
Edition description: Reissue
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 532,116
Product dimensions: 6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Ronald C. White Jr. is professor of American Intellectual and Religious History at San Francisco Theological Seminary, as well as the author and editor of five books. He lives in La Cañada, California.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 2: "At this second appearing..."

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 enerergies [sic] 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.

Lincoln's opening words, "At this second appearing," are not a throwaway line. Lincoln almost did not appear.

For much of Lincoln's first term, political pundits had predicted that he would be another of the one-term presidents that had become customary in the middle years of the nineteenth century. In the days before March 4, 1865, in a federal government that was only seventy-six years old, American as well as foreign newspapers much commented that this would be the first time in thirty-two years that a president would be inaugurated for a second term.

The Republican Party had been cobbled together in 1854 from Whig, Free Soil, Democratic, and other parties and interests. Lincoln, who had served only a single term in the House of Representatives in the late 1840s, had first attracted national attention in 1858 as a result of his performance in his debates with Senator Stephen Douglas in Illinois.

Lincoln trailed William Seward 1731/2 to 102, with Salmon Chase third, on the first ballot for presidential candidate at the 1860 Republican convention. Seward, a senator and former governor from New York, and Chase, the governor of Ohio, were both better-known politicians. Lincoln was chosen as the Republican Party's presidential candidate on the third ballot. Critics were quick to point out that the nominating convention was held at Chicago, in Lincoln's home state of Illinois. (On the eve of his second inauguration, the New York Herald reminded its readers that Lincoln was elected "as a one-term compromise" by "cliques" within his party.) Ever after, politicians gossiped that the relatively unknown Lincoln was put forward as an available compromise candidate in 1860.


In the midst of the elation of Lincoln's second inauguration, many could remember back a scant seven months to a quite different mood. In the summer of 1864, many of Lincoln's supporters were resigned to his having only one term. A mood of desolation pervaded the White House. Lincoln appeared weary, his lanky frame visibly sagging under the burdens of the presidency. Just a year after the decisive summer victories of '63 at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, the summer of 1864 witnessed campaigns that brought disappointment, even despair, throughout the North. In early May 1864, Grant began the year's Eastern campaign by confidently leading nearly a hundred thousand men against Lee's sixty-five thousand soldiers in the Battle of the Wilderness. In the fighting that lay ahead, at Spotsylvania and at Cold Harbor, Virginia, Grant would suffer almost sixty thousand casualties — nearly the equal of the troops Lee put in the field. By the end of seven weeks of battles and skirmishes, the Northern public began to ask if victory was worth the swelling cost in human lives.

As casualties escalated in the North, the cumulative effect of more than three years of war began taking its effect on the president, politicians, and the populace. Lincoln barely slept during the first week of the Battle of the Wilderness. Sherman was marching toward Atlanta, but the city still remained in rebel control. There were long silences when no one was quite sure of the progress of Sherman's campaign. Although Grant stood before Richmond, the reputation of Lee and his troops was still respected, if not feared. All the while, the casualties were mounting. By the early summer, casualty counts of two thousand a day were slackening the will to fight on.

With no major victories for more than a year now, weariness seemed to be winning out. Some Democrats began to press for a negotiated settlement to end the carnage. Even as the North was getting used to finding new generals to lead the war effort, some Republicans began to suggest it was time to find a new candidate for the presidential election coming in November 1864.

Lincoln was receiving pessimistic reports from his advisers about his prospects for re-election. Henry J. Raymond, founder of the New York Times and chairman of the Republican National Committee, convened the committee at the Astor House in New York on August 22. Raymond, a moderate Republican, had always been emphatic that the moral issue of slavery should be subordinated to the practical questions of political power. He admired Lincoln but had not been enthusiastic about the Emancipation Proclamation.

In early August 1864, after canvassing the situation with members representing all the states, he sat down to write the president. Raymond told Lincoln that even if an election were "to be held now in Illinois we should be beaten." Simon Cameron, a key Pennsylvania leader and Lincoln's former secretary of war, reported, "Pennsylvania is against us." Raymond in turn declared that New York "would go 50,000 against us tomorrow."

Why this dismal turn of events? Raymond, a friend and supporter of the president, wrote frankly about what he believed to be the problem: "the want of military successes, and the impression in some minds, the fear and suspicion in others, that we are not to have peace in any event under this Administration until Slavery is abandoned." Lincoln, for so long accused by abolitionists and radicals within his own party of going too slowly on slavery, was being indicted for holding his ground on the moral imperative of first restraining but now removing slavery. In sum, Raymond told Lincoln, "the tide is setting strongly against us."

Lincoln became resigned in early August 1864 to not being re-elected. On August 23, 1864, six days before the Demo-cratic convention would select his opponent, he wrote a private memorandum expressing his feelings. "This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to so cooperate with the President-elect as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such ground that he cannot possibly save it afterwards."

Lincoln brought his private memorandum to the Cabinet meeting that afternoon. He presented it to his colleagues, folded so that none of the text was visible, and asked each of them to sign the back of the document.

This mood of pessimism changed dramatically when news reached the North that Atlanta was evacuated on September l and that Sherman had led his troops into the city on September 2. A revival of Unionist fervor began to sweep through the North. Lincoln's spirits were buoyed. The change in the fortunes of battle helped Lincoln win the election against his Democratic opponent, General George McClellan, an overwhelming victory in electoral votes, 221 to 21 for McClellan. Lincoln received 2,203,831 votes to McClellan's 1,797,019 votes. He would approach his second inauguration vindicated personally, and expecting victory in the field.


Lincoln began his address in a subdued tone. In the highly charged atmosphere of wartime Washington, with soldiers everywhere, it is as if he wanted to lower anticipations. In the first, third, and fifth sentences of this first paragraph, Lincoln lowered them with the key words ""

He started more like an observer than the main actor. The language of the first paragraph is impersonal. Yes, he used the pronouns "I" and "myself," but the ethos of the paragraph was unemotional. Lincoln directed the focus of his remarks away from himself by speaking in a passive voice. Avoiding the active voice set up a paradigm that Lincoln followed throughout the address. After this first paragraph, he would use no more personal pronouns.

Lincoln dispensed one by one with the usual contents of such an address. In the first sentence he said that this was not the occasion for "an extended address." In the second sentence he reiterated why a detailed "statement" was proper four years before, but not today. In the third sentence he reminded the audience that on many other occasions they had heard "public declarations" on "every point and phase" of the war, implying that he would not make such a declaration on this occasion. The audience surely would have relished hearing the commander-in-chief give a report on "the progress of our arms," but he would not do that.

After Lincoln told the audience everything the speech would not be, he concluded the first paragraph by announcing he was offering "no prediction" about the end of the war. The problem, as Lincoln realized, was that predictions had been made all too often in the first years of the war. Predictions led to false optimism that had again and again led to disappointments.

There seems to be nothing in Lincoln's beginning paragraph that would arouse the passions of the audience. The opening, unlike either the First Inaugural or the Gettysburg Address, contains no creative stylistic flourishes. When we first hear or read the beginning words of Lincoln's Second Inaugural, they may even come upon us as awkward, if not ungraceful.

In these initial words Lincoln did not seem to build bridges to the aspirations of his Union audience. The audience was surely waiting to hear the re-elected president give voice to their feelings of victory, with the end of the war in sight. His supporters hoped he would speak of the personal vindication of being re-elected. Lincoln's beginning seems, at first glance, to undercut the grand opportunity of a second inaugural address. After thirty-two years during which no president had been elected for a second term, Lincoln could only muster: "At this second appearing."


The text of the Second Inaugural consists of 703 words. Lincoln arranged his words in twenty-five sentences in four paragraphs. Five hundred and five words in the address are of one syllable.

Lincoln's pattern was to read his addresses slowly. He usually spoke barely more than one hundred words per minute. At this rate, even incorporating applause, it probably took him only six or seven minutes to deliver the Second Inaugural Address.

We have the record of but a single voice reporting on the composition of the text. Francis B. Carpenter, an artist who spent six months in residence at the White House, related a conversation with Lincoln on the previous Sunday evening, February 26. Carpenter was sitting in Lincoln's office in the Executive Mansion with two men from New York and Ohio who had arrived for an appointment with the president. He reported that the president came in by a side passage, only recently constructed, "holding in his hand a roll of manuscripts." Upon encountering Carpenter, the president exclaimed, "Lots of wisdom in that document, I suspect. It is what will be called my second inaugural, containing about six hundred words. I will put it in my drawer until I want it." Then, seating himself by the fire, Lincoln spoke of the old days in Illinois.

The fact that Lincoln put the Second Inaugural in his drawer six days in advance of its delivery matches what we know about his writing. Lincoln took great pains in preparing his most important public addresses. Before his House Divided Speech (1858) and Cooper Union Address (1860), all his speeches were extemporaneous, sometimes aided by notes. As president, despite his reputation as an effective stump speaker, Lincoln did not trust himself in spontaneous situations where he was suddenly called upon to speak. More and more he declined these invitations. When he knew he was to present an important speech, he toiled far ahead.

In the Executive Mansion, Lincoln usually wrote his speeches first with pencil on stiff sheets of white pasteboard or boxboard. Noah Brooks tells of observing Lincoln writing in his armchair, his favorite position, with his legs crossed. He laid the sheets, which were five to six inches wide, on his knee. He crossed out words and edited until the text was ready to copy as the final version of the speech to be delivered.

Although comfortable in a solitary approach to writing, Lincoln was not above seeking the opinions and editing of others. In preparing the First Inaugural, he received the help of a number of colleagues, especially Secretary of State-Elect William Seward.

We do not know about any editors in the construction of the Second Inaugural. Given Lincoln's own estimate that the length of the address was six hundred words as of February 26, it may be that he continued to revise and add. We have no record of his continuing efforts.

The Second Inaugural Address was handwritten in two columns on what was called foolscap, a form of paper approximately thirteen and a half by seventeen inches in size. The handwritten text reveals that Lincoln made only three corrections to the original text (see appendix I). The draft of the address was then set in type, the galley proof clipped and pasted on white boards.

The word "text" comes from the Greek root teks, which means "to weave." "Text" suggests "textile," or a fabric woven with many strands. Behind the printed text is an intricate weaving of meaning. Even when we refer to Lincoln's pruning down his earlier, more bombastic speech to the plainer style of Gettysburg or the Second Inaugural, "plain" is not meant to connote simple. Lincoln was chided early on in his presidency as a "Simple Susan," suggesting that his plain talk and one-syllable words had little meaning. Yes, the text of the Second Inaugural is in mostly one-syllable words, but the brilliance of Lincoln's words is in the weaving.

Lincoln wrote primarily to be heard. He crafted his speeches as much for the ear as for the eye. Of course he expected his fellow citizens would read the address, often weeks or even months later, but this did not take away from his desire to craft a speech to be heard.

Before turning to an interpretation and analysis of the text, take the six to seven minutes required to read the address. Even better, speak it aloud, slowly, as Lincoln surely had done. Hear the way this weaving of meaning sounds to the ear.


As the audience was listening to the beginning paragraph, Lincoln saw his speech whole. In this first paragraph he was putting into place a pattern of organization for the full speech. He established an alignment divided into past, present, and future time. These three time tenses would become one of the organizing structures of the whole speech.

Lincoln's major addresses, including the House Divided Speech, the Cooper Union Address, and the Gettysburg Address, all possess what rhetorician Michael Leff calls "temporal markers." This same design is present in the Second Inaugural. Lincoln's use of time directs the rhetorical movement of each of these speeches.

One of the problems in analyzing any of these speeches has been the tendency to focus upon only one unit or passage, to the neglect of the artistic whole. This tendency has only increased as television coverage has focused on only one passage or even only one sentence. The House Divided Speech in 1858 actually invoked the ire of many Republicans, who believed Lincoln was predicting a civil war. Lincoln was upset that they had not read the whole speech. The remembrance of the Second Inaugural has tended to emphasize two sections. The quotation used most frequently is the opening words of the last paragraph: "with malice toward none; with charity for all." Since the 1960s, the civil-rights struggle has focused more attention on the issue of slavery. Thus, in recent years, the forceful sentence from the third paragraph that begins, "If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences," has been emphasized.

The problem with an analysis that focuses on one or two passages in a speech is that the framework of the whole is ignored. Most often the last paragraph of the Second Inaugural is quoted without reference to the whole, or the first and second paragraphs are ignored. We need to understand Lincoln's strategy for the complete speech.


We may ask, what were the expectations of second inaugural addresses? Granting the distinctiveness of March 4, 1865, how do Lincoln's words compare with the beginning paragraphs of other second inaugurals?

George Washington, in 1793, delivered the shortest second inaugural, 135 words. Washington did not deliver a speech. He simply acknowledged his re-election.

Thomas Jefferson, in 1805, began his Second Inaugural Address in an upbeat manner: "It is my duty to express the deep sense I entertain of this new proof of confidence from my fellow-citizens at large, and the zeal with which it inspires me to conduct." Jefferson struck a note of confidence, surely a motif that Lincoln could lift up at the beginning of his Second Inaugural.

James Madison, in 1813, sounded two notes that would become commonplace in most succeeding second inaugural addresses: the confidence of the electorate in the re-elected president, and the importance of the times in which the president serves. Madison thanked the people for the "evidence that my faithful endeavors to discharge my arduous duties have been favorably estimated," and pointed to "the momentous period at which the trust has been renewed."

James Monroe, in 1821, glowed with self-assurance as he began his Second Inaugural Address. "I shall not attempt to describe the grateful emotions which the new and very distinguished proof of the confidence of my fellow-citizens evinced in my re-election to this high trust, has excited in my bosom." The irony of Monroe's gratitude is that he won re-election in a period when there was only one party in American politics. In this "Era of Good Feelings," the vote in the electoral college was 231 for Monroe, 1 vote for John Quincy Adams, and 3 who did not vote.

The closest historical comparison for the audience would be the last president before Lincoln to be re-elected. Andrew Jackson used the first paragraph of his Second Inaugural to thank the American people "for their approbation of my public conduct through a period which has not been without its difficulties." He went on to add, "I am at a loss for terms adequate to the expression of my gratitude." Obviously, Jackson's literary humility can just as easily be seen as a way of magnifying himself and his own accomplishments.

Franklin D. Roosevelt is judged by many to be the greatest president to follow Lincoln. Roosevelt's presidency became known first for doing battle with the greatest economic depression in the nation's history. He began his Second Inaugural in 1937 by offering a recapitulation of the problem and a progress report on the pathway to victory.

When four years ago we met to inaugurate a President, the Republic, single-minded in anxiety, stood in spirit here. We dedicated ourselves to the fulfillment of a vision — to speed the time when there would be for all the people that security and peace essential to the pursuit of happiness. We of the Republic pledged ourselves to drive from the temple of our ancient faith those who had profaned it; to end by action, tireless and unafraid, the stagnation and despair of that day. We did those things first.

Although the language is an inclusive "we," Roosevelt steeps his words in a strong sense of personal triumph.

Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Jackson, and Roosevelt insert themselves immediately into the structure of their second inaugural addresses. There is a marked contrast between the use of the personal pronoun by these five presidents and Lincoln. Jefferson works with the motif of the confidence of the people, but he is plainly saying that his leadership has justified their confidence. In the second sentence of their second inaugurals, Madison and Jackson emphasized that the electorate had lauded their efforts. Roosevelt, the commander-in-chief in a great domestic battle, assumed to himself a spirit of victory and vindication.

Jefferson, Madison, Jackson, and Roosevelt began their second inaugurals in personal and forceful prose that was clearly intended to raise expectations. Lincoln chose to be silent about thanking the voters for returning him to office. The "difficulties" that Jackson had been called upon to face seem pallid compared to Lincoln's four years of travail.


"At this second appearing," we pause to ask, how did Lincoln actually appear?

Recent debates over how to portray Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the monument to him in Washington, D.C., reveal how his paralysis was shielded from public view for the more than twelve years of his presidency. Many Americans did not know that the man who exuded such strength and energy struggled every day of his presidency merely to stand up.

Lincoln was impossible to shield. Six feet four inches tall, he stood out above any crowd. From the beginning of his political career, Lincoln's appearance was a topic of conversation among both friends and enemies. His political handlers sought to make much of his appearance in his run for the presidency. His opponents used his appearance to deride him. George B. McClellan, Union general and Lincoln's opponent in the 1864 presidential election, called Lincoln "the Gorilla." Lincoln had been called worse.

Ken Burns's 1990 documentary on the Civil War helped reintroduce Lincoln to more than twenty million television viewers. In the first war to be photographed, the photographs and images of Lincoln, although often in the background, were nonetheless pivotal among the countless images of soldiers and death.

Throughout Lincoln's life, one reason for the public's initial low expectations of him was its first glance at his form and features. More than a century later, when our image of Lincoln is through photographers who formalized him, we don't forget the remarkable appearance of the sixteenth president of the United States. Hailed after his death as the American everyman, he was the object of frequent ridicule during his political life.

Lincoln's public persona elicited comment even across the Atlantic. An English magazine reported in 1862: "To say he is ugly is nothing; to add that his figure is grotesque is to convey no adequate impression. Fancy a man almost six feet high, and thin in proportion, with long bony arms and legs which somehow always seem to be in the way." The writer then zeroes in on Lincoln's head and face. "Add to this figure a head, cocanut [sic] shaped, and somewhat too small for such a stature, covered with rough, uncombed hair, that stands out in every direction at once; a face, furrowed, wrinkled, and indented as though it had been scarred by vitriol."


Lincoln's law partner, Billy Herndon, made it his mission in life to tell the story of the real Lincoln. Herndon, aghast at biographers who painted an idealized portrait of a Lincoln he never knew, wanted to set the record straight. Part of the real Lincoln for Herndon was his physical appearance. Herndon went into grand detail in describing him. "He was thin, wiry, sinewy, raw-boned; standing, he leaned forward — was what may be called stoop-shouldered, inclining to the consumptive by build." Herndon described Lincoln's face from the long association of viewing his associate in their law offices in Springfield. "His head ran backwards, his forehead rising as it ran back at a low angle. His hair was dark, almost black, and lay floating where his fingers or the winds left it, piled up and random." And again, "His ears were large, and ran out almost at right angles from his head, caused partly by heavy hats and partly by nature."

Herndon's earthy language went beyond physical description. "His structure was loose and leathery; his body was shrunk and shriveled; he had dark skin, dark hair, and looked woe-struck." For Herndon the physical was linked to the mental. What better way to grasp Lincoln's deliberate nature than to hear Herndon say: "The whole man, body and mind, worked slowly, as if it needed oiling"? What did all of this add up to for Herndon? "He was not a pretty man by any means, nor was he an ugly one; he was a homely man, careless of his looks, plain-looking and plain-acting." Herndon's Lincoln was a rough-hewn product of the Western frontier.


Walt Whitman approached Lincoln from a different angle of vision. Whitman, who was just becoming known in the 1850s for the first editions of Leaves of Grass, branded the three presidents before Lincoln — Fillmore, Pierce, and Buchanan — "our topmost warning and shame." In 1856, Whitman wrote a tract entitled "The Eighteenth Presidency" that railed against the powers in political office. Read today, the language appears emotional and violent. Early on, Whitman asks where these politicians come from. He answers in epithets. "From the President's house, the jail, the venereal hospital...from the tumors and abscesses of the land; from the skeletons and skulls in the vaults of federal almshouses, from the running sores of the great cities." Whitman completed the pamphlet, set it in type, and offered proof sheets to editors and "rich persons" for publication. He had no takers. For more than seventy years, the yellowing proof sheets remained unpublished and forgotten.

In his tract, Whitman saw in the distance rays of hope residing in the people. The eighteenth president would be a man of the people. He would right the moral and political wrongs of the nation. Whitman dared to hope for some "healthy-bodied, middle-aged, beard-faced American blacksmith or boatman" who would "come down from the West across the Alleghenies, and walk into the Presidency."

Whitman experienced an epiphany on first seeing Lincoln in February 1861. The president-elect was on a circuitous twelve-day itinerary to Washington, D.C., for his inauguration. Threats were present everywhere along the route. He arrived on February 18 in New York City, a city where less than 35 percent had voted for him. Whitman was certain that, in the crowd of thirty thousand, "many an assassin's knife and pistol lurk'd in hip or breast-pocket there, ready, as soon as break and riot came." Lincoln arrived by hack at the Astor House Hotel. From the top of a stalled omnibus, Whitman marveled at the sight of this tall and ungraceful man in a black suit and a stovepipe hat. "I had, I say, a capital view of it all...his look and gait — his perfect composure and coolness — his unusual and uncouth height."

After Whitman moved to Washington, D.C., in 1863, he observed Lincoln many times. He wrote in his notebook on August 12, 1863, "I see the President almost every day." Although Whitman never met Lincoln, "we have got so that we exchange bows, and very cordial ones." From these close encounters Whitman began to study Lincoln with great care and appreciation.


Photography and Lincoln were made for each other. The face of Lincoln, photographed by Mathew Brady and his pupil Alexander Gardner, brought the American public closer to their president than ever before. We know Washington and Jefferson only through stylized art based on European forms. The pre-presidential photography of Lincoln reveals the more homespun Western man whose clothes never quite seemed to fit.

Modern exhibits on Lincoln invariably display photographs that depict his unusual face and features. Especially poignant is the striking way Lincoln's face changes through the Civil War years. He came to describe himself as an old man by the time he left Springfield for Washington on the day before his fifty-second birthday. Photography allows us to see this remarkable aging process in Lincoln.

From Whitman's repeated sightings of Lincoln, he concluded that, in this new age of photography, "none of the artists or pictures has caught the deep though subtle and indirect expression of this man's face." Yes, Brady and Gardner were the best of their trade, but even their photographs of Lincoln did not fully capture the deep interior soul of his being. Whitman, after his initial enthusiasm with photography, quickly realized that this new visual art did not equal reality either. Whitman recognized that Lincoln, the Western man, was not like other politicians. Unfortunately, in the hands of photographers Brady and Gardner, Lincoln was dressed and posed like any other politician.

In a letter from Washington in 1863, Whitman attempted to describe the citizen president. "I see very plainly ABRAHAM LINCOLN'S dark brown face, with deep-cut lines, the eyes, always to me with a deep latent sadness in their expression." On another occasion, after viewing Lincoln, Whitman wrote of Lincoln's face, "Of technical beauty it had nothing — but to the eye of a great artist it furnished a rare study, a feast, and fascination."

Whitman's eye was becoming more practiced as he worked as a nurse in the hospitals of Washington. He struggled to find a comparison to Lincoln's face. So filled with care and sorrow, Lincoln's face was a paradox. At last, Whitman wrote, "He has a face like a hoosier Michel Angelo, so awful ugly it becomes beautiful."


In the first paragraph of his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln mentioned everything he would not say. This approach must have been preparing us for something that was not yet obvious. Lincoln was opening the door to a very different kind of address from what was usual on such occasions.

Lincoln's apparently flat recital of chronology was actually preparing the ground for a profound conversation about historical causation. He had been carrying on this conversation in private musings, in interviews at the White House, and in letters, but never before in any extended way in a public address. Beginning with a recital of temporal signposts, as he had earlier at Cooper Union and at Gettysburg, Lincoln would ask his audience to think with him about the cause and meaning of the war.

Copyright © 2002 by Ronald C. White Jr.

Table of Contents


Handwritten Text of the Second Inaugural

Printed Text of the Second Inaugural

  1. Inauguration Day
  2. "At this second appearing..."
  3. "And the war came."
  4. "...somehow, the cause of the war..."
  5. "Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God..."
  6. "The Almighty has His own purposes."
  7. "...every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword..."
  8. "With malice toward none; with charity for all..."
  9. "...better than anything I have produced, is not immediately popular."



The Text of the Second Inaugural Address


Lincoln's "Little Speech":

Letter to Albert G. Hodges


Abraham Lincoln: "Meditation on the Divine Will"






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