A Busy Week for Abraham Lincoln

Vinnie Reams statue - US CapitolAnd what a week it was. March 4th marked the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s second inauguration and there were several events in Washington DC and elsewhere to commemorate the occasion. And several cool opportunities to hang out with Lincoln scholars, famous actors, and distinguished members of the Supreme Court (not real) and the press (real).

The evening of March 4th brought me to Statuary Hall in the Capitol. Now filled with statues of famous historical figures – two commissioned by each state of the Union – the Hall was actually the House of Representatives during Lincoln’s one and only term as a U.S. Congressman from 1847-1849. Long before anyone in the capital city had heard of him, Lincoln was a back bencher in the House; literally.

Lincoln desk location

Way in the back of the room is a marker on the floor where Lincoln’s desk once stood. Behind it is a room that once was the post office, and where Lincoln used to hang out between votes to tell stories. The room is now part of current Majority Whip Steve Scalice’s office suite, but I was given a private look by Congressman Rodney L. Davis before he took the podium to speak at the event.

Statuary Hall

The event itself included remarks by Davis, Congresswoman Cheri Bustos, Senator Mark Kirk, and former Secretary of Transportation and Congressman Ray LaHood, all Illinois natives. Lincoln experts Harold Holzer and Frank Williams gave historical perspectives, as did Howard University Professor Edna Greene Medford channeling Frederick Douglass. Actor Stephen Lang (Avatar, Gettysburg) gave a wonderful reading of the 2nd Inaugural Address.

Handwritten 2nd Inaugural Address

But that was just the beginning. The Library of Congress, directly across the street from the Capitol, had a once in a life-time display of the entire 2nd Inaugural Address handwritten by Abraham Lincoln (long before there were speechwriters and teleprompters). Normally they only bring out the last page for public viewing, but as you can see in the photo, exposure to light has yellowed the page. So seeing the entire document on display is treat (it was on display for only four days and is now back in the vault). Also shown was the typeset copy he read from on that occasion. Even more of a treat, Library of Congress Lincoln and Civil War expert Michelle Krowl was on hand to explain the background.

Lincoln 2nd Inaugural

Last, but certainly not least, was the Lincoln Group of DC’s very own 2nd Inaugural events, beginning Saturday morning, March 7th, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. On hand were Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, Meet the Press moderator Chuck Todd, Dr. Lucas Morel of Washington and Lee University, the aforementioned Dr. Edna Greene Medford of Howard University, musical entertainment by Bobby Horton and the Children of Gospel Choir, Lincoln Group of DC President Karen Needles, Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase (splendidly played by Lincoln Group VP John O’Brien), and of course, Mr. and Mrs. Abraham Lincoln (Michael Krebs and Debra Ann Miller).

Lincoln raising hat

I’ll have more on the 2nd Inaugural events later, but the morning went off perfectly with bright sunshine and tons of civilian guests invited to hear Abraham Lincoln take the oath of office. And here’s something that couldn’t have happened 150 years ago – Abraham Lincoln took selfies with hundreds of people on the steps of the Memorial after the event!

Lincoln Selfies

If you couldn’t be with us, you’re in luck – CSPAN broadcast the event live but you can watch the entire ceremony here:

CSPAN Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural

After the swearing in we retired to the historic Willard Hotel, where Lincoln stayed upon his arrival in Washington prior to moving into the “big White House.” Following a delicious luncheon, Drs. Morel and Medford provided a few additional words and Bobby Horton sung for us some of Lincoln’s favorite tunes (including “Dixie,” which the North had duly won back from the South). The day was capped with an evening concert by Horton at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church (“Lincoln’s Church”).

Check out the Lincoln Group of DC web page for more information on upcoming events (and there are many)!

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.

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Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address – His Greatest Speech

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.

Lincoln 2nd inauguration

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.

March 7 Inauguration Events

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.

“Like” me on my Facebook author’s page and share the news with your friends using the buttons below. Also check me out on Goodreads.

Lincoln to King to Obama: President Obama’s Second Inaugural Address Continues the Push Toward a More Perfect Union

As President Obama was sworn in for his second term he channeled both Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King. In his inaugural address he sought to keep us on a path toward a more perfect Union, walking in the footsteps of these other two great men of history. This is Part Three of my series on inaugural speeches. It is best to first read Part One and Part Two to put this part into context. [I’ll wait again]

Inaugural emcee Senator Chuck Schumer primed us to think about Abraham Lincoln in his introduction of the President. Schumer noted that when Lincoln was first being sworn in the Capitol Dome was only half built. Lincoln insisted that construction continue through the brutal war to follow, and on the occasion of his second inaugural the dome stood gloriously the proceedings, a sign that “the Union shall go on.”LincolnInauguration1861aObama did not mention Lincoln by name during his inaugural address. He did not have to. At least some of Lincoln’s words and deeds are known to most and understood by all. In the most recognizable homage to Lincoln, Obama noted that the Founders of this country “gave to us a Republic, a government of, and by, and for the people, entrusting each generation to keep safe our founding creed.” Shades of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in which he extolled that the nation would have a “new birth of freedom” and that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Obama goes on to remind us that for more than two hundred years we have done so, though often with struggles against our own demons. Again channeling Lincoln, this time his own second inaugural and his “House Divided” speech, Obama noted that “through blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword, we learned that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half-slave and half-free. We made ourselves anew, and vowed to move forward together.”

Perhaps fewer in the crowd were aware of another reference to our 16th President. Early in his state legislative career Lincoln was a big proponent of “internal improvements,” the building of railways, canals, roads and other large capital intensive projects. As President he signed into law the Pacific Railroad Act, which effectively created the first transcontinental railroad. During his inaugural address President Obama acknowledged Lincoln’s contributions when he said “Together, we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce; schools and colleges to train our workers.”

The “schools and colleges” part is also a reference to Lincoln, who in 1862 signed into law the Morrill Land-Grant Act, which allowed the creation of land-grant colleges.

obama inauguration 2013

While Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation that began the process ending slavery and inequality for African-Americans, that process was slow and painful. One hundred years after the Civil War it took the strength of conviction of another man, Martin Luther King, to bring us closer to equality in basic civil rights. President Obama paid homage to King by being sworn in on his bible, along with Lincoln’s, on the day we honored the birthday of the civil rights leader. In a larger sense, the very presence of an African-American man “with a funny name” was taking not only his first, but his second, oath of office as President of the United States is testament to how important Lincoln and King are to our history. Obama captured the spirit of both men and the continuing struggles to achieve that “more perfect Union” as he bound together the common goals of equal rights for all men, all women, and all peoples:

We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.

As both Lincoln and King asked us to withhold malice and work together, so too did Obama end with a call for us all to embrace our lasting birthright: “With common effort and common purpose, with passion and dedication, let us answer the call of history, and carry into an uncertain future that precious light of freedom.”

If you missed them, here are Part One and Part Two.

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Obama and Lincoln – Second Inauguration Addresses

Abraham LincolnThis is Part Two of a series about inauguration speeches, in particular that of Abraham Lincoln, whose bible was used by President Barack Obama for both his first and second inaugurations. It is best to read Part One here first, then come back here. [I’ll wait].

Okay, welcome back. As I noted in the previous article, Lincoln’s first inaugural address was methodical and logical. And long. Lofty inspiration it wasn’t, but that changed in his concluding peroration in which he invoked the depth of the emotion of the moment, a pleading for all men to abandon the path to civil war:

I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

Four years later Lincoln’s second inaugural address was the antithesis to his first – brief, introspective, war-weary. As we have seen in the movie Lincoln with Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln was hard at work trying to get the 13th Amendment to the Constitution passed, an act that would effectively codify the war-time Emancipation Proclamation. In his first address he was “devoted altogether to saving the Union without war.” But still the war came. Now, at his second inauguration, Lincoln lamented that while “both parties deprecated war,” one of them “would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish.”

The sadness in his words captured the painful knowledge that over 600,000 men died during the war nearing its end, though not yet over. Lincoln ruminated over the possibility that God was allowing the war to continue as penance for the offense of slavery. While he exclaimed that “fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away,” he worried that:

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 with 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.”

Finally, with many in the North calling for punishment of the South during the coming reconstruction after the war, Lincoln ends with a call for constraint and compassion.

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.

Unfortunately for the South and North alike, Lincoln’s life was taken and a period of turmoil enveloped the nation. A period that extended at least 100 years until the efforts of Martin Luther King raised again the issues of inequality to the national discourse. And here again, on this day in which President Obama took the oath of office for his second term as President on both the King bible and the Lincoln bible, the insights of Lincoln rise once again to the forefront of the discussion. In the next part of this series I will have more on President Obama’s second inauguration speech and his references to Lincoln.

If you missed it, please take a moment to read Part 1.

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President Obama, Martin Luther King, and Abraham Lincoln’s Inauguration Addresses

Abraham LincolnBarack Obama, our first African-American President, took his oath of office in 2013 on the day we celebrated the birthday of the great civil rights leader, Martin Luther King. Obama was sworn in using both the King bible and the bible used by the man whose Emancipation Proclamation set the stage for freedom and equal rights for all, Abraham Lincoln. The symbolism of the confluence of these three men is palpable. Second inauguration addresses are commonly less inspiring than the first, though perhaps Lincoln offers a wonderful exception to that rule.

When Lincoln gave his first inaugural address we were on the brink of civil war. Several southern states had already seceded, and more were to follow. Lincoln faced the prospect of the Union ending before he even got into office and his first speech to the American people was an attempt to avert that occurrence. It was long. Very long. And like his very long Cooper Union speech of a year before, was eminently logical in structure and tone.

Lincoln first sought to soothe the South’s “apprehension” that the government was  coming for their slaves.  While he personally thought “if slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong,” he acknowledged that the Constitution protected both the states’ right “to order and control its own domestic institutions according to its own judgment exclusively” and that fugitive slaves shall “be delivered up” should they escape to the North [Article IV, Section 2]. Essentially, his hands were tied and the South’s fears that he would end slavery was unfounded. Lincoln said:

I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.

Lincoln was making it clear that the Constitution prevented him from acting on slavery where it existed. That “the only substantial dispute” was the question of the spread of slavery.

One section of our country believes slavery is right and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong and ought not to be extended.

He also argued that secession was illegal and unconstitutional, a view that was affirmed by subsequent Supreme Court decisions. So the onus was on the South for the war. And Lincoln made it clear that it was his duty as President to prevent a rebellion.

In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The Government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to “preserve, protect, and defend it.”

After such a long and analytical discourse, Lincoln brought his first inaugural address to a close by shifting to an eloquent call for compassion. I’ll continue with that and his second inaugural address in my next post.

This is Part 1 of a three part series. See Part 2 and Part 3.

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