Lincoln Memorial

On the eve of President Obama’s second inaugural address, I am reminded of Abraham Lincoln’s, delivered on the eve of both the end of the Civil War and his own assassination. Lincoln packed more into four paragraphs than others can deliver in forty pages, and every president since him dreams of trying to get even close to his eloquence. The last paragraph of that speech gets enormous attention — as it should — but if one doesn’t see what Lincoln does in the first three, that last immortal paragraph is robbed of its full power.

The first paragraph sets the stage, in straightforward and direct language:

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.

Shorter Abe: “You all can read the papers, you’ve argued and debated every last detail of my presidency, and you are well aware of the current situation. So let’s move on.”

But in moving on, he immediately looks back:

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.

While he doesn’t names, Lincoln is not at all shy in publicly laying blame for the war at the feet of those responsible, and contrasting the approaches of the two parties four years earlier in addressing their differences. Lincoln may have “high hope for the future,” but he does not want anyone to forget how the country came to be in the situation of that moment.

And that situation was ugly. Damned ugly.

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 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.”

Lincoln does not sugar coat war, nor does he pussyfoot about what slavery entails. He can’t. It was an ugly war with a terrible cost. Exact figures are hard to come by, but the number of deaths in the war were enormous by any account, perhaps around 1 in 12 white men of fighting age (1 in 16 in the North and 1 in 6 in the South).

But do you see what else Lincoln did here? Even as he calls out his opponents as the ones who forced the nation into this bloody conflict, he refuses to demonize them. Look again at the middle of that paragraph:

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.

Lincoln does not apologize for fighting the war, nor for the side he chose. But he is not about to let impending victory blind him — or the nation — to the humanity shared by those who fought on either side and by the slaves over which they fought.

Most powerfully, though, he takes aim at those who purport to enlist God on their side and their side alone. To claim divine approval for the shedding of blood on such a scale is something Lincoln cannot condone; indeed, says Lincoln, if God is active in this war, it is perhaps a judgment on us all. If God is a God of justice, we as a nation have a lot to answer for. Save your pious victory speeches for some other occasion. There is no glory in this bloody and brutal and life-sucking war.

And then comes that famous conclusion. Instead of pious and self-righteous victors crowing over the vanquishing of their demonic enemies, Lincoln offers a powerful vision of an alternative future:

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.

The guns are still firing, the deaths are still mounting, the injured are still crying out, the sick are still in agony, the farms are still in disarray, the cities are still in upheaval, and Lincoln says “with malice toward none, with charity for all.” This war will not end, he says, so long as the nation holds onto malice and reserves its charity only for some. He gives one last skewer to those who claim to perfectly understand the will of God (God’s on my side, you know), and instead paints a picture of wounds tended, the dead buried and the survivors carrying on in a manner much different from the previous four years of death and destruction. He looks for peace not just between the armies of North and South, not just between the people of the North and South, but a vision of peace that goes beyond this nation to embrace the world.

That’s it. Just four paragraphs, and that was enough.

Looking out today, it is clear that Lincoln was right. The voices that claim to speak with perfect clarity on God’s behalf are still speaking (I’m looking at you and your brothers, Cardinal Dolan), and those who would demonize their opponents continue to do so as well. State attempts to revive the failed doctrine of nullification are still being proposed today. Claims of the sub-humanity of some based on race have largely (but not at all completely) receded, but battles over equality based on gender and sexual orientation continue, not just unabated but at a higher pitch.

Today, the guns are still firing, the deaths are still mounting, the injured are still crying out, the sick are still in agony, the farms are still in disarray, the cities are still in upheaval, and too much of this nation still holds onto malice and reserves its charity only for some.

Enough already. But until the political leaders in DC remember *all* of Lincoln’s second inaugural address, the vision of the future he painted in that final paragraph will remain just that: a vision of the future.

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Photo h/t to me, because I took it, and it is used here because I said I could