lincoln's prescription for national healing -- 7/16/18

Today's selection -- from Lincoln's Melancholy by Joshua Wolf Shenk. On March 4, 1865, Abraham Lincoln began his second term as president of the United States. With victory in the Civil War almost at hand, Lincoln gave his immortal second inaugural address. This speech, which could have proclaimed this triumph, instead spoke to the need for charity and healing:

"In early September, General Sherman captured Atlanta, and overnight everything changed. Suddenly the end of the war seemed in sight and Lincoln had a commanding political position. In the election, Lincoln won fifty-five percent of the popular vote and captured all but three of the loyal states. Afterward, the military struggle took on the air of a de­nouement. Grant chased the southern armies to the point of near sur­render. Sherman, who had said that the moment the war stopped he would do his enemies any personal kindness, began his punishing march to the sea, intended to make southern civilians feel the pinch of war.

"By March 4, Lincoln's second inauguration, northern victory could be expected. The president had ample reason to boast about the success. In­stead, in his address he quickly passed over the 'progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends' and steered straight into the storm that had engaged his attention for so long: the role of God in the Civil War. He spelled out the argument of the 'Meditation on the Divine Will,' that with both sides claiming God's favor, one must be wrong, and both might be wrong. When the fighting began, he said, '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.'

This image of Lincoln delivering his second inaugural address is the most famous photograph of the event. Lincoln stands in the center, with papers in his hand.

"The question was, what should be made of the fundamental and as­tounding conflict? What was its common lesson? Lincoln ventured an answer, which he framed rhetorically to make it both an argument and a question. He began by quoting the Book of Matthew: '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.' In other words, it is inev­itable that people will do wrong, but wrongdoers can expect to be pun­ished. He continued:

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 by 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.'

"Both North and South were responsible for 'American slavery,' Lin­coln argued. Justice would be served if both sides were punished for it. And the scales of justice might be righted only with something ap­proaching a national apocalypse. It was a stark case, but why did Lincoln make it? His purpose was surely not narrowly political. When Thurlow Weed complimented Lincoln on the speech, calling it 'the most pregnant and effective use to which the English Language was ever put,' Lincoln thanked him and said he expected the speech to 'wear as well as -- per­haps better than -- any thing I have produced; but I believe it is not im­mediately popular. 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. It is a truth which I thought needed to be told; and as whatever of humiliation there is in it, falls most directly on myself, I thought others might afford for me to tell it.'

"The key word was humiliation. Lincoln knew the tendency of victors in a grueling conflict was to seek vengeance, and of the vanquished to turn bitter. He argued that both sides should bear in mind their shared wrong and see their common opportunity. He concluded: '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.'

"These words were a peroration, not just to the speech but to Lincoln's whole career. The cause worth struggling for went beyond any partisan or temporal sense of right or wrong. There was a supreme right that all people should work for, regardless of what agony or joy it brought in the short term. Hindrances to that goal might be frustrating or excruciating, but the goal could be defeated only if the people forsook it. Moreover, while achievements could bring the country closer to the goal, they would forever fall short of its full realization. Mortal works were imper­fect, but were dignified insofar as they reached, worked, and suffered for perfection.

" 'Malice toward none' was hardly a popular slogan. Consider the words of Henry Ward Beecher, as popular and influential in his day as Billy Graham has been in his. 'I charge the whole guilt of this war,' Beecher said in 1864, 'upon the ambitious, educated, plotting political leaders of the South ... A day will come when God will reveal judgment, and arraign at his bar these mighty miscreants.' Beecher looked forward to the day when 'these most accursed and detested of all criminals' would be 'caught up in black clouds full of voices of vengeance and lurid with punishment' and 'plunged downward forever in an endless retri­bution.' 'Endless retribution' -- now there was a phrase that people would rally behind. What Lincoln sought to forestall would in fact come to pass. A vengeful reconstruction policy, the backlash it provoked, and the failure to provide adequately for the well-being of four million freed slaves had ramifications that would last to the present day."



Joshua Wolf Shenk


Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness


Houghton Mifflin Company


Copyright 2005 by Joshua Wolf Shenk


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