"Lincoln's Greatest Speech" Offers Lessons for Today

March 4, 2020 marked the 155th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. Although the Gettysburg Address is better known, I think the Second Inaugural is rightly called, as Ronald C White Junior did in his book of the same name, Lincoln’s Greatest Speech. The short speech is worth reading in full.[1] The speech serves as a North Star to a nation seeking to navigate its way past its current division and confusion.

The concluding paragraph of the speech is its most famous part: “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.”

It is hard to sufficiently underscore how truly remarkable these words are. We who live in a politically polarized nation find it very hard to be charitable to those on the other side of the red/blue divide. But that seems like nothing compared to the state of the nation when Lincoln spoke those words, torn apart by a brutal Civil War that had left 600,000 young men dead. Under these circumstances, how could Lincoln talk about charity and the absence of malice?

The answer can be found in the speech as a whole, which is a meditation on the purpose of the war. Slavery was the cause of the war: “To strengthen, perpetuate and extend” slavery “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 side expected that the abolition of slavery itself would be a result of the war. “Each looked for easier triumph, a result less fundamental and astounding.” But “[t]he Almighty has his own purposes.” And as the speech proceeds, Lincoln’s belief that the course of the Civil War was guided by divine providence comes into clearer focus. He quotes Matthew 18:7: “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!” Lincoln sees “American slavery” as the offense which, “in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove,” and He “gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came.” Although Lincoln expresses his hope that “this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away,” it may be that God “wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s 250 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 . . . .”

Far from believing that God was on the side of the Union, Lincoln makes clear that both the North and South were implicated in the sin of slavery. Though he doesn't spell out how, it is clear that New England textile manufacturers, New York merchants and all those economically interconnected with them benefited from the slaves’ “unrequited toil.” Set against this shared guilt was Lincoln’s belief in a just God that acts in history, a belief not unlike Martin Luther King’s conviction that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

And so, from a strong sense of righteousness tempered by deep humility, Lincoln was able to embrace two ideas that for most of us seem at odds. He asserts the need to act with “firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right,” which his audience would have naturally understood to mean the vigorous prosecution of the war, sufficiently destroying the enemy so as to bring about their surrender. At the same time he contemplates a fundamental reconciliation with the enemy. The war was not to be fought and finished out of retribution or hatred, but only with such measures as were necessary to preserve a nation that was at the time the world’s sole major democracy — as Lincoln elsewhere said, “the last, best hope of earth” — and to finally abolish the evil of slavery that had blighted that nation. How Lincoln would have balanced reconciliation with former Confederates with the protection of the rights and interests of former slaves we’ll never know he was assassinated a little more than a month after giving the speech.

For those who don’t believe in a providential God, Lincoln’s words may be hard to hear. But we can all relate to the reality that the world in its totality is far vaster and more complex than our limited conceptions, plans, and expectations. Contemplating our own limitations, and the ways in which we are implicated in contemporary evils, may give rise in our own day to the same deep humility that Lincoln’s speech invokes. At the same time, many of us perceive the critical need for moral and political action. For me that means taking on a leader who flagrantly abuses his power, and even worse, a party that enables such abuse: a party that serves primarily the interests of its wealthy donors and denies the threat of climate change that is humanity’s most urgent danger. I see no choice but to fight and attempt to defeat that party. For others, the call to action will be different. Most of us are a long way from being able to engage in the political fight “with malice toward none, with charity for all.” But our effort to at least strive for the standard set by Lincoln in the Second Inaugural may well be key to reaching a higher ground from which we can uplift a nation fallen into fractiousness and corruption.

                                                                                            Robert Katz

Robert Katz served as a staff attorney and supervising attorney at the California Supreme Court from 1993-2018. Before that he was in private practice representing public agencies, and worked as a newspaper reporter covering local government in Santa Cruz County. He has a Master’s Degree in Political Science from UC Santa Barbara and a JD degree from Stanford Law School.

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