Primary Sources in U.S. History, Volume II

Lead Author(s): Sara Eskridge, Andrew Wegmann

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A Top Hat Interactive Reader.


Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address - March 4, 1865

Figure 16.1: The crowd at President Abraham Lincoln’s second inauguration, March 4, 1865. [1]


Recap

Reconstruction was a process that:

A

Took place in battlefield states that were devastated by the Civil War, and refers to the physical rebuilding of infrastructure.

B

Was the process of “reconstructing” the northern population by increasing immigration due to the tremendous casualties incurred during the conflict.

C

The process of reforming southern society after the Civil War, driven by occupying Union forces.

D

The process of reforming northern society after the Civil War in order to ensure slavery as an institution would never reemerge in the north.


​Editor’s Introduction: 

On March 4, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln, reelected president of a nation now split in two, addressed what was left of the U.S. Congress. Before him sat representatives and senators from just 20 of the 36 states.  Four years of war had passed—a war Lincoln himself had described for the first time as “a great civil war” just two years prior, a conflict that pitted the southern states, now identified as the Confederate States of America, against the United States of America. Rooted in the southern states’ desire to maintain slavery and willingness to secede from the federal union in order to protect it, Lincoln came to see the conflict as a crisis over the very idea of liberal government, an existential threat to the nation itself, not just the existence of the North and South as a collective body. In his first election in 1860, he had received zero votes from the southern states and, indeed, seven of those states had used his election as a catalyst for the act of secession. In 1864, Lincoln won reelection without the southern states, though he still looked to them as members of the nation. This is this speech he gave to Congress following that victory, four years into a war that had destroyed the union for which he cared so deeply and taken the lives of more than 700,000 Americans. By the end of the following month, April 1865, Lincoln would be dead, struck down by an assassin’s bullet, and the war would be over, the union preserved.

​____________________

Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address

(March 4, 1865) 

Fellow-Countrymen: At this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office, there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first.[1] Then a statement, somewhat in detail, of a course to be pursued, seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention and engrosses the energies of the nation[2], little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself; and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all.[3] With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.

            On the occasion corresponding to this [his first inauguration] four years ago, all thoughts anxiously directed to an impending civil war.[4] All dreaded it—all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was delivered from this place[5], devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war—seeking to dissolve the Union, and divide effects, by negotiation. Both parties deprecated[6] war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish.[7] And the war came.

            One-eighth of the whole population were colored[8] slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the Southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest.[9] All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest 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 party[10]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. Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not, that we be not judged.[11] The prayer of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “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.”[12] 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.[13] 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 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.”[14]

            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.



Question 1

In Lincoln’s second inaugural address, he discusses the causes, progress, and moral nature of the Civil War. What is his overall tone, and what points does he emphasize the most?


Question 2

In Lincoln’s second inaugural address, he refers to the material causes of the Civil War – disputes over the extension of slavery, the proportion of enslaved persons in the south – while also using theological and moral language to justify the extension of the conflict. Does Lincoln’s address seem conciliatory, belligerent, or something in between? How would a Confederate interpret Lincoln’s speech differently than a Unionist?


Question 3

Lincoln’s address attempts to reconcile material, moral, and theological justifications for the pursuit of Northern victory in the civil war. Which do you interpret as the most significant element of his speech, which he emphasizes above others?




[1] Abraham Lincoln gave his first inaugural address on March 4, 1861.

[2] The American Civil War (1861−1865) covered in Chapter 15.

[3] This is an example of how the Civil War itself, or what Lincoln calls “the progress of our arms,” had become a struggle for the very existence of the United States in Lincoln’s mind. Indeed, he places a heavy weight on that “progress,” describing it boldly as that thing “upon which all else chiefly depends.” Without offering a “prediction in regard” to the war, Lincoln makes it clear that he sees no future for the nation if the Union army does not prevail.

[4] It was relatively late in the war that Lincoln, as well as a good many journalists and writers, actually began referring to it as a “civil war.” Most observers hoped the conflict would not reach the level of a full-scale war; instead, long insisting that it was but a short-lived “conflagration” that would quickly smooth over. Here and notably in the famed “Gettysburg Address” (see Chapter 15), Lincoln explicitly and intentionally refers to a “civil war” rather than a “conflagration” or “regional conflict.”

[5] The Senate Chambers of the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C.

[6] Denounced

[7] Here Lincoln is clearly drawing fault lines in the Civil War; the former clearly describing the South, and the latter clearly describing the North. It is important to note that Lincoln sincerely held that he and the Union states did not ever seek out or cause war. Instead, as he notes, they proved more willing to “accept war than let [the nation] perish.”

[8] Though uncommon today, the term “colored” was a standard word for all African-American people throughout the nineteenth century as well as much of the twentieth century. In some places, such as Gulf South and the Caribbean, the term tended to describe people of mixed African and European descent. 

[9] Many commentators across the United States, and indeed across the globe, often referred to slavery as the South’s “peculiar institution” in the early nineteenth century.

[10] The Democratic Party, rooted mainly in the South, and the Republican Party, rooted mainly in the North and West.

[11] Matthew 7:1−3 (King James Bible): “Judge not, that ye be not judged.”

[12] Matthew 18:7 (KJB).

[13] The American Civil War effectively came to an end at Appomattox, Virginia, on April 9, 1865, just over a month after Lincoln gave this speech. On that day, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia to Union General Ulysses S. Grant, crippling the Confederate army and halting the organized fighting of the war. Lincoln’s successor, President Andrew Johnson, announced the official end of the war a month later on May 9, 1865.

[14] Psalm 19:8 (KJB).



Image Credits

[1] Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division in the Public Domain.

Abraham Lincoln gave his first inaugural address on March 4, 1861.
The American Civil War (1861−1865) covered in Chapter 15.
This is an example of how the Civil War itself, or what Lincoln calls “the progress of our arms,” had become a struggle for the very existence of the United States in Lincoln’s mind. Indeed, he places a heavy weight on that “progress,” describing it boldly as that thing “upon which all else chiefly depends.” Without offering a “prediction in regard” to the war, Lincoln makes it clear that he sees no future for the nation if the Union army does not prevail.
It was relatively late in the war that Lincoln, as well as a good many journalists and writers, actually began referring to it as a “civil war.” Most observers hoped the conflict would not reach the level of a full-scale war; instead, long insisting that it was but a short-lived “conflagration” that would quickly smooth over. Here and notably in the famed “Gettysburg Address” (see Chapter 15), Lincoln explicitly and intentionally refers to a “civil war” rather than a “conflagration” or “regional conflict.”
The Senate Chambers of the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C.
Denounced
Here Lincoln is clearly drawing fault lines in the Civil War; the former clearly describing the South, and the latter clearly describing the North. It is important to note that Lincoln sincerely held that he and the Union states did not ever seek out or cause war. Instead, as he notes, they proved more willing to “accept war than let [the nation] perish.”
Though uncommon today, the term “colored” was a standard word for all African-American people throughout the nineteenth century as well as much of the twentieth century. In some places, such as Gulf South and the Caribbean, the term tended to describe people of mixed African and European descent.
Many commentators across the United States, and indeed across the globe, often referred to slavery as the South’s “peculiar institution” in the early nineteenth century.
The Democratic Party, rooted mainly in the South, and the Republican Party, rooted mainly in the North and West.
Matthew 7:1−3 (King James Bible): “Judge not, that ye be not judged.”
Matthew 18:7 (KJB).
The American Civil War effectively came to an end at Appomattox, Virginia, on April 9, 1865, just over a month after Lincoln gave this speech. On that day, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia to Union General Ulysses S. Grant, crippling the Confederate army and halting the organized fighting of the war. Lincoln’s successor, President Andrew Johnson, announced the official end of the war a month later on May 9, 1865.
Psalm 19:8 (KJB).