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March 4, 1865 - Lincoln's Second Inaugeration


Lincoln As He Looked In His Early Presidential Years


It had been bleak and rainy most of the days for a couple of successive weeks at the American capitol.  The streets of Washington D.C. were mud, mire, and puddles, and there was no relief from that weather on this day of Abraham Lincoln's second inaugeration.  Re-elected as President, he was to speak today, and the speech was much anticipated; the American Civil War which had cost about 600,000 men their lives, and many more the destruction of their property and their previous way of living, seemed likely to end very soon.  What would come next?  What were the plans of the soon to be victorious North - the Union?  Both Southerners and Northerners had much at stake.  And the newly freed slaves - what form or face would this freedom take?  Perhaps this inaugeral speech would hold some hint.

  Many hated Lincoln, of course.  If you are a central figure in a war that kills the sons, husbands, and brothers and fathers of millions of people, suffice it to say that you will have enemies.  In fact, in only 41 days Mr. Lincoln would lay dying from a gun shot wound to the back of his head, received at Ford's Theatre where he would be attending a play with his wife Mary on that date.  The man who would shoot him - John Wilkes Booth - was seated in a rather prominent seat in the audience of those who were gathered to hear Mr. Lincoln's second inaugeral address.  So were a handful of Booth's co-conspirators.

  Earlier on Inaugeration Day the Presidential carriage had been driven through the heavy mud past cheering crowds who lined the streets hoping to get a glimpse of President Lincoln.  Sadly for them, Lincoln wasn't even in the carriage.  He had gone in early to the White House to sign papers. But his wife Mary was inside the carriage, and she must have had fun pretending that the roars and cheers of the crowd were for her.  And they were, in a way.  When you marry, the two of you become one.  And hadn't she been there through all of the dark grim days her husband had faced - hadn't she also weathered the fair and unfair criticisms, and hadn't his hurts been her's as well?  So, if today she got to enjoy some adulation - though perhaps given by accident - who could begrudge the First Lady that incidentally gained pleasure?  And we now know what she could not have then known: days of sadness were coming to her very soon - days of grief and widowhood.

  The event finally began, and, considering the weather, the crowd could not have minded.  It is no fun waiting around in miserable weather for an event to commence.  But finally the President rose to begin.  He was a tall somber figure, much wearied by the terrible demands of his turbulent presidency, the terrible cost of decisions that his best judgment had compelled him to make.  Yet there were certainly some hints remaining of the young man that he had once been.  He had once been counted by some who knew him in his early 20's as the strongest man in the state of Illinois.  He was accounted as almost impossible to defeat in a frontier wrestling match. 

  The endless hard manual labor that his forest clearing, rail splitting father had assigned him in his growing up years had produced a young man that was 6' 4" tall and about 215 pounds in weight.  Quotes survive from his contemporaries saying that when young Lincoln stripped off his shirt they had never seen a man with a physique so much like an Adonis or an Apollo (to use the false gods' names that they used.)  There are serious reports that he could wrap large wooden crates holding over 1,000 pounds of stones with ropes, and then lift such crates off of the ground.  He was a colossus of sorts in those days, a tall handsome yet grave and somber mystery of a young man, but much liked and admired.  But those days were gone, and today it was the weight of the Presidency which he carried, and the strain was apparent, though the dignity and presence of the man was as well.   

  But as Mr. Lincoln came forward to speak that day a remarkable thing happened.  The miserable weather suddenly changed.  Even as he walked forward to speak, there was a parting of the clouds above, and blue sky appeared above them.  And it was a particularly fortunate portion of the sky which so suddenly cleared, because it was between the President and the brightly shining sun, so that as he walked forward, both he and the chilly crowd of attendees were suddenly bathed in the sun's welcome warmth, and this scene of grey, dismal gloom was suddenly a scene of glorious and spirit lifting brightness. 

  So sudden and unexpected was this transformation that many who later wrote of the occasion mentioned it as a remarkable thing which brought a sense of awe to the crowd.  It seemed as if the hand of God had done it, some said.  And they very well might have been right.  This young nation, so nearly torn asunder, was a land dedicated to God from its earliest beginnings.  Could God ever wish to see a nation dedicated to him endure such violence, pain, and tragedy as cannot be avoided in so fierce a conflict as the American Civil War?

  And there, bathed in this freshly provided radiance, was their gravely somber President.  It was an older looking Lincoln.  He was bespectacled and as mentioned plainly bore the heavy responsibility of his office, despite the sunshine.  In his hands he held the pages of his speech, which he began to read.  

   It was only about 700 words.  In it, he had chosen to frame almost everything concerning the Civil War in terms of the perspective of God Almighty, and he spoke not at all as a boastful victor, but with genuine gravity and humility, as one would speak about a painfully felt rift in a well loved family.  He did not apologize for the side he had taken, but he acknowledged something of its cost. 

  It is good to recall these following Bible verses from the King James Bible to more fully enjoy the flavor or this speech.  Mr. Lincoln used them in part for an audience widely familiar with them in their whole.

  God, speaking to Adam, just after they were evicted from the Garden of Eden.  Genesis 3:19  "In the sweat of thy face shall thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken:  for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return."  

  Jesus speaking.  Matthew 7:1  "Judge not, that ye not be judged."

  Jesus speaking.  Matthew 18:7  "Woe to the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to the man by whom the offenses come."

  Psalm 19:9 "The Judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether." 

  So, here are the words of Lincoln's Second Inaugeral address.  Men of his time described his voice as thin and reedy, but counted him as a delightful and skilled story teller and a moving speaker.  Yet, it is his words and not his speaking skills which have helped him to claim a place among the great speakers of the recent age.  Though often brief, Lincoln wrote a good number of his speeches with extreme wisdom and clarity.  Maybe that was Abraham Lincoln's chief power for rallying a nation:  the thoughts, wisdom, and principals of God were found pervasively throughout many of his most famous speeches.  So, here is his second inaugeral address:         

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. 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, 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. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.

On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago, all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it-- all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, 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 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. And the war came.

One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the Southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. 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 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. The prayers 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." 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. 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 by 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."

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.

  Speech over, Mr. Lincoln then went to Chief Justice Salmon Chase, took his oath, and kissed the Bible on which his hand had been placed. 

  Writers said that the speech, which couldn't have lasted more than about 5 to 10 minutes I would think, was mainly listened to in a sort of profound silence, with outbursts of cheering and applause at several appropriate junctures.

  One source I read noted that overseas, after Mr. Lincoln's death, the London Spectator newspaper had this to say when they read Lincoln's Second Inaugeral speech:

  "We cannot read it without a renewed conviction that it is the noblest political document known to history, and should have for the nation and the statesmen he left behind something of a sacred and almost prophetic character."  

  Though that's probably enough said concerning that day for this particular account, I think that Lincoln had a vein of thought in his mind that might also be worth our while, this 145 years later, to hear and consider.  This writing that follows was Lincoln's, and belonged to a writing he titled "Meditations On The Divine Will" :

   "The will of God prevails.  In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God.  Both may be wrong, and one must be wrong.  God cannot be for, and against the same thing at the same time.  In the present civil war it is quite possible that God's purpose is somewhat different from the purpose of either party - and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are the best adaptation to affect this."  End Quote

  To me, that's a pretty good description of things.  We work, plan, dream, maybe scheme, make war, find love, raise families, living out our lives imagining that we are up to something.  But we are only a swirling mist, brief puffs of smoke passed through or emitted by the plans of God as they advance and come to pass.  We honestly can't ever be anything much more. 

  That is just part of the futility of human planning.  Of course we will plan things, we will try things, we will even accomplish some of our plans - we are built to want to accomplish things; it's part of being human.  But...there is already a bigger plan, a real and mighty plan which is in play and having affect.  It is God's plan, and it will come to pass without doubt or unplanned delay.  He is just that mighty!  To such a Holy Father we all belong, by such a Holy Father we all were made, and through Jesus of Nazareth who is God's Son, our given King and our only possible Savior, we can all return to and be united with that Great and Holy Father.  Asking God's assistance, let's hold that as our highest hope, and try to live and work accordingly. 

©2017 Daniel Curry & 'Deeds of God' Website