Those who memorized the Gettysburg Address or trudged through the logic of the Cooper Union speech may offer some argument, but many scholars consider Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address to have been his greatest speech. He gave it 150 years ago today, March 4, 1865.
Much more concise and philosophical than his first inaugural address, this second inaugural came at a critical time in the Civil War. The previous November Lincoln had pulled out a resounding victory in the the presidential elections that only a few months before appeared to be an impossible dream. Sherman’s march to the sea and gift of the city of Savannah to Lincoln for Christmas helped shine light on what would be the end of the war just weeks after Lincoln took his oath of office for the second time.
The speech is somber even as it anticipates the successful ending of the war that had ravaged the land for four years. Then, while all “dreaded” the impending war, and “sought to avert it,” still, “the war came.” Now, the speech’s biblical references delve deep into the morality of the war, of slavery, and of the future.
He used alliteration to plead for the war to end.
“Fondly do we hope–fervently do we pray–that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.”
It’s final passage is perhaps the greatest call for humanity ever written:
“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.“
Of course, no one knew that Lincoln had only weeks left to live. Or that his assassin was on the balcony above him as Lincoln delivered his inaugural address.
Much has been written about the speech and its call for re-union of the country. Tonight I’ll be in the famed Statuary Hall of the U.S. Capitol attending a commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the second inaugural. Chaired by historian Harold Holzer and attended by Senators, Congressman, and Lincoln historians, the inaugural address will be read by the well-known actor Stephen Lang.
Then on Saturday, March 7th, the Lincoln Group of DC hosts three amazing events. We start with a reenactment of the address on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, followed by a banquet at the Willard Hotel and an evening concert at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. There is still time to join us – see the details here.
David J. Kent is a lifelong Lincolnophile and is currently working on a book about Abraham Lincoln’s interest in science and technology. He is also the author of Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity and an ebook Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time. His next book is about Thomas Edison.