Absence of Malice

In a new book, Historian Ronald C. White, Jr., explains why Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, given just weeks before he died, was his greatest speech

Lincoln's second inauguration speech
President Abraham Lincoln delivering his second inauguration speech. Library of Congress

"For too long," says Ronald C. White, Jr., "Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address has lived under the shadow of the Gettysburg Address. And yet Lincoln thought this was his best effort." White does too. In his new book, San Francisco Theological Seminary sees the speech as key to understanding Lincoln’s greatness.

White’s fascination with the 16th President was sparked at a 1993 seminar. "He was the average American, with only one year of education, a man who was really quite ugly in a certain sense—could he ever have campaigned today?—tall, awkward, gawky, clothes ill-fitting, with a tenor voice, almost a falsetto, and yet he was a huge man for his day, 6 feet 4 inches tall. Everything about him was against his being a powerful speaker. But once he began to speak, what people sensed was his integrity. He was not playing a role. And the audience of that day picked it up." More than 130 years after Lincoln’s assassination, that quality still moves people powerfully. "He had the knack of asking these simple but very profound questions. In every crisis, whether it’s September 11 or World War II, it is amazing how people return to Lincoln."

By March 1865 (until 1937, Presidents were generally inaugurated in March), America had been flayed by four years of a war that had lasted longer than anyone thought it would, but whose end, at last, seemed in sight. Not since Andrew Jackson, 32 years before, had any President been elected for a second term, and, says White, "there had been no expectation of it. There had been a series of one-term Presidents with not much to commend them." Nor did those gathered to hear Lincoln that rainy day—fans and detractors, newspaper reporters, Confederate deserters, black troops, plainclothes detectives fearful that Lincoln was going to be abducted—expect the 703-word speech the President delivered. What they heard was neither a recitation of achievement nor a statement of policy, but a sermon in which, White says, "Lincoln would ask his audience to think with him about the cause and meaning of the war."

In the six-minute address, Lincoln used repetition and alliteration to give his sentences a cadence White likens to poetry. Five hundred of the words are of a single syllable, "but that doesn’t mean it’s simple." An understated sentence such as "And the war came," says White, lifts the conflict from human event to something with a life of its own "independent of Presidents, generals and soldiers."

Now inscribed on the limestone walls of the Lincoln Memorial, the Second Inaugural Address can be understood, White believes, as a "culmination of Lincoln’s own struggle over the meaning of America, the meaning of the war, and his own struggle with slavery."

And, he adds, as a blueprint for tolerance. "Lincoln hoped that this speech was laying the groundwork for a reconstruction of compassion and reconciliation."

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