As the day for Lincoln's second inauguration drew near, Americans wondered what their sixteenth president would say about the Civil War Would Lincoln guide the nation toward “Reconstruction”? What about the slaves? They had been emancipated, but what about the matter of suffrage?When Lincoln finally stood before his fellow countrymen on March and had onlywords to share, the American public was stunned The President had not offered the North a victory speech, nor did he excoriate the South for the sin of slavery Instead, he called the whole country guilty of the sin and pleaded for reconciliation and unity In this compelling account, noted historian Ronald C White Jr shows how Lincoln's speech was initially greeted with confusion and hostility by many in the Union; commended by the legions of African Americans in attendance, abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass among them; and ultimately appropriated by his assassin John Wilkes Booth fortyone days later Filled with all the facts and factors surrounding the Second Inaugural, Lincoln's Greatest Speech is both an important historical document and a thoughtful analysis of Lincoln's moral and rhetorical genius


10 thoughts on “Lincoln's Greatest Speech : The Second Inaugural

  1. Paul Haspel Paul Haspel says:

    Lincoln’s greatest speech? It’s got to be the Gettysburg Address, right? “Four score and seven years ago.” “The last full measure of devotion.” “Of the people, by the people, for the people.” Lincoln’s greatest speech simply has to be the Gettysburg Address, doesn’t it?

    Not according to historian Ronald C. White Jr. The very title of his book -- Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural -- makes clear that, as far as he is concerned, the greatest speech that the 16th president of the United States of America ever gave was not the cemetery address that he offered halfway through the war, but rather the inaugural address that he gave as the war was ending. With virtually the entire war experience fading into history (within five weeks, Robert E. Lee would be surrendering the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House), White argues that Lincoln would use his Second Inaugural Address to “ask his audience to think with him about the cause and meaning of the war” (p. 59).

    White is a professor of American intellectual and religious history at San Francisco Theological Seminary. Accordingly, it is not surprising that he focuses upon Lincoln’s direct references to religion in the Second Inaugural Address as one of the key ways in which the address differed from his prior speeches relating to slavery and the Civil War – and from earlier inaugural addresses by the 15 prior presidents. For instance, where references to God, or to Divine Providence, had generally been relatively vague in earlier inaugural speeches – “The Bible was quoted only once in those eighteen addresses” – Lincoln made a point of referencing and citing the Bible throughout the Second Inaugural. In White’s reading of the address, “The introduction of the Bible signaled Lincoln’s determination to think theologically as well as politically about the war” (pp. 101-02).

    It is a thought-provoking proposition, for a couple of reasons. The question of Lincoln’s religiosity, or lack thereof, is still hotly debated among historians; whenever I visit the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, Lincoln’s former house of worship in Washington, D.C., I think about the stories about Secretary of State William Seward urging Lincoln to attend church, and Lincoln agreeing not out of religious fervor, but rather because he thought it would be good for morale throughout the Union. Were these passages truly theological in their intent? Or were they more strictly political, the words of a master rhetor who knew what would appeal to a deeply religious American audience? Either way, these passages certainly resounded with their audience.

    White also holds that Lincoln wanted all Americans, North as well as South, to recognize that the evil of slavery had been a part of the nation’s very beginnings. In White’s reading, Lincoln knew that “Americans had always been uncomfortable facing up to their own malevolence”, and therefore “concentrated a discussion on the problem of evil, weighed on the scales of divine justice” (pp. 151). That determination on Lincoln’s part certainly seems to come through in passages like this one:

    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 bondman’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.”

    Interesting to wonder how Lincoln’s audience responded to those words on that raw March morning in 1865, isn’t it? As White points out, “Many in the North felt quite righteous in criticizing the South for rebellion and slavery” (p. 151). The crowd assembled before the Capitol no doubt listened with nods of righteous agreement when Lincoln noted that slavery was “not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the Southern part of it”; and by that late date, most Northerners would probably have been willing to agree with Lincoln’s statement that slavery “was, somehow, the cause of the war.” But then that following assertion that all that American blood that was shed, both Northern and Southern, might have been a bit of karmic payback for the institutionalized violence that was slavery? It might have been an uncomfortable thought for many in Lincoln’s audience, even cloaked in the reassuring invocation of Psalm 19 and God’s justice at the end.

    How apt, therefore, that Lincoln concludes his speech by writing the words, “With malice toward none, with charity for all…” White refers to these words as “a timeless promise of reconciliation” (p. 164); and once again, Lincoln’s humility comes through in the way he asks his audience, “With firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in…”

    No victory dance, no blood and thunder, no calls for vengeance – just a good man reminding his audience that, as they near the end of a bloody and terrible war, the best thing they can possibly do is move forward together in a spirit of mercy and forbearance. President Lincoln, on that day, said exactly what needed to be said.

    White concludes by stating very clearly why he feels that the circumstances of President Lincoln’s untimely death added to the power and resonance of the Second Inaugural Address:

    “Abraham Lincoln considered his Second Inaugural Address to be his greatest speech! With his death, the words of the Second Inaugural quickly took on new meaning. It now represented the central part of Lincoln’s unfinished legacy. As people looked back to that brisk March day, Lincoln’s words were understood as his last will and testament to America. The religious cast of the Second Inaugural gave it a power and authority that were singular….His concluding words, “With malice toward none, with charity for all,” usually disembodied from the speech as a whole, came to characterize Lincoln for all time.” (pp. 200-01)

    Some readers, I recognize, will disagree with White’s central claim; for them, the Gettysburg Address will always represent the height of Lincoln’s eloquence on behalf of American democracy. For my part, I would not want to have to choose between the two. I will simply observe that, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., Daniel Chester French’s dignified and powerful statue of Lincoln is framed by two of Lincoln’s published addresses, on opposite walls of the monument. On one side is the Gettysburg Address; on the other, the Second Inaugural. That, I would submit, is as it should be. The two speeches sit side by side as exceptionally important elements of Lincoln’s legacy; and if the second of these speeches has sometimes been overlooked, then White has certainly done much to correct that in Lincoln’s Greatest Speech.


  2. robin friedman robin friedman says:

    Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address

    Several outstanding books have examined in detail a single address by Abraham Lincoln. These books have the overall goal of explaining Lincoln's presidency, the meaning and significance of the Civil War, and the continued impact of the issues raised in this conflict upon today's United States. These books include Gary Wills's study of the Gettysburg Address, the books by John Corry and Harold Holzer on Lincoln's Cooper Union speech, Allen Guelzo's study of the Emancipation Proclmation, and, the book I will discuss here, Lincoln's Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural (2002) by Ronald C. White, Jr.

    Ronald White is a professor of American Religious History at the San Francisco Theological Seminary. Given his background as a scholar of religion, it is unsurprising that Professor White focuses on President Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address and on the religious vision he finds Lincoln set forth in that great speech.

    The book begins with a chapter setting the stage on the cold and rainy March 4, 1865, in Washington D.C. when Lincoln delivered his brief 703-word address. Union arms were close to victory, and the large audience undoubtedly expected a paean to the might of the Union Army together with tones of triumph.

    President Lincoln delivered a speech entirely different. In short compass, he delivered a meditation on the origin of the War, its cost in human life, its origin in the institution of slavery, a call to forbearance and charity, and, most importantly for Professor White, a religious understanding of the meaning of the War.

    Professor White explores the speech on a paragraph-by-paragraph, line-by-line basis. He discusses closely the words of Lincoln's text, and he places the text in context of events in the War and of mid-19th Century America. He offers illuminating insights on the Second Inaugural by discussing a short letter Lincoln wrote on April 4, 1864, to the Governor of Kentucky in which Lincoln explained his reasons for issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. He also relies heavily on a short passage of jottings Lincoln prepared for himself in September, 1862, captioned Meditation on the Divine Will.

    The Second Inaugural as Professor White expounds it sets forth a complex religious message. The War, as Professor White reads Lincoln, was the will of a living and ethical God and was a recompense for the sin of slavery. This sin was nation-wide in scope and could not be imputed only to the rebelling Confederates. During the course of the conflict, Lincoln had moved from the agnosticism and determinism of his youth to a concept of a personal God. His God was nondenominational and nontribal rather that the God of any particular creed (Lincoln never joined a church) or of factions, including the North or the South. The scourge of slavery had brought on the War, but the end of the War opened the opportunity for forgiveness, reconciliation, and justice, with malice toward none with charity for all; with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right.

    It is an impressive and theologically-complex vision. Professor White writes with a purpose of encouraging meditation among his readers on the role of religion (not denominationalism) in our public life and on the continuing struggle in our country to eliminate the vestiges of slavery and racism. He writes (p. 202):

    The Lincoln that is available to us comes with no simple answers. The chasm of race, which undergirded the legal structure of slavery, continues even though the Civil Rights movement, a hundred years after the Civil War, spearheaded political and legal action intended to right ancient wrongs. Martin Luther King, Jr. chose to speak with the imposing statue of Lincoln as the background when he offered his dream for America.

    Those readers interested in exploring further the complicated question of Lincoln's philosophical and religious beliefs may wish to read Allen Guelzo's biography Redeemer President together with his more recent study of the Emancipation Proclamation.

    Robin Friedman


  3. Barry Barry says:

    In this book White unpacks the layered meaning, and expertly analyzes the wisdom and lyricism of Lincoln’s brief Second Inaugural address.

    Lincoln gave this speech when Union victory was all but assured, 6 weeks before his assassination, so his words have lived on as a sort of last will and testament.

    Lincoln had apparently come to regard the Civil War as God’s judgment for the evil of slavery that was to be borne by both the North and the South. In this final address he sought not revenge nor retribution, but instead healing and reconciliation.

    As a reminder, here is the final of the only five paragraph speech:

    ”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 for his orphan – to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

    It is a remarkable speech by a truly remarkable man.


  4. Gary Hoggatt Gary Hoggatt says:

    An entire book about a 703 word speech? Yes, and it's an excellent one. In Ronald C. White, Jr.'s 2002 effort Lincoln's Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural, White delves into the background of the speech, the context of the times, the resonance of its themes, and the origins of Abraham Lincoln's ideas. I already appreciated Lincoln's magnificent speech, and that appreciation has grown immensely with reading White's illuminating volume.

    White begins with setting the stage of Inauguration Day, March 4th, 1865, describing the events of the day leading up to the inauguration ceremony, the parade, the composition of the crowd. It finitely helps to put the reader in the moment. The majority of the book, however, is a breakdown of the speech itself, and that is handled very well.

    Breaking the speech into portions, White looks at every facet of Lincoln's words. My favorite sections are White's comparisons of the Second Inaugural to previous speeches and writings from Lincoln. The path of Lincoln's thought over the course of the war becomes clearer as White presents earlier speeches and private and public letters, several of which foreshadow arguments, ideas, and phrases used later in the Second Inaugural.

    A major area White examines to explain critical portions of the speech includes religious thought. This is critical, given the several biblical quotes Lincoln uses in the Inaugural. In addition, White - showing his background as a religious scholar - explains how Lincoln's religious background, the style of sermons of the day, differences in meaning of words like charity and offense between the 19th century and now, bible distribution among soldiers, and even the content of specific sermons Lincoln is recorded as having attended, influenced the ideas and presentation of the Second Inaugural.

    The other primary angle White looks at the speech from is the action of the war itself. Specific battles, and the response from Lincoln and the public, are shown to have guided Lincoln is adopting his conciliatory attitude and his unwillingness to boast of impending victory or call for harsh measures against the South.

    White concludes with a section detailing reactions to the speech, from the North, South, and abroad. Given it's place in Lincoln's canon today, hearing what those of the time - who did not yet know it would be a farewell speech - thought of it is interesting. As Lincoln himself wrote, I believe it is not immediately popular. Men are not flattered by being shown that there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them.

    I listened to the audio version of Lincoln's Greatest Speech, as read by Raymond Todd. Todd delivered an excellent performance, giving the multiple readings of the speech, in whole or in parts, definite gravitas, and keeping the explanatory portions of the book brisk and flowing.

    I highly recommend Lincoln's Greatest Speech to anyone interested in Lincoln, the Civil War, or speech writing. The book definitely has a narrow focus, but it hits its goal perfectly. I look forward to reading White's single volume biography A. Lincoln, and plan to read some of the other books focusing on specific Lincoln speeches such as the Gettysburg Address and the Cooper Union speech.


  5. Michael Austin Michael Austin says:

    Lincoln's Greatest Speech suffers from exactly the same malady as two similar books: Harold Holzer's Lincoln at Cooper Union and Gary Wills Pulitzer Prizewinning Lincoln at Gettysburg. All three books would have been wonderful and remarkable fifty-page chapters or stand-alone articles, but none of them really have enough material for a 200-page book. But stand-alone articles don't become bestsellers; books do, so, in all three cases, books were made.

    Like the other books, Lincoln's Greatest Speech has some really good analysis of the speech in question--in this case, Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, which, at only 703 words, provides only a limited amount of grist for even a really good reading. But it also contains a lot of filler information. For example, one of the lines in the speech declares that both the North and the South both read the same Bible and pray to the same God. White uses this as an excuse for a long digression on this history of Bibles in the United States, including the activities of the American Bible Society to print Bibles for every home in the nation. This is interesting information, but it relates so tangentially to the actual speech that it becomes a distraction.

    The book is organized around paragraphs of the speech, with four chapters devoted to the lengthy third paragraph and one chapter to each of the other three. This is a defensible organization, but it also sets up all of the departures from the speech into stray biographical observations, snippets of history, vaguely related details from other points in American history, and personal reflections on the meaning of the Civil War generally. White keeps bouncing from serious textual analysis to textually inspired reflections on all sorts of things.

    When White does read the text closely, he does a good job, balancing rhetorical and contextual analysis. As a theologian, he is well positioned to grapple with a speech that is essentially a modern version of a biblical prophecy: a Jeremiad that conceives of the war as a punishment by God on the entire, and united, United States of America. I think that he gets Lincoln's religious intentions in the speech more or less correct.

    The flaws in the book are not the fault of the author, but of the constraints of a publishing environment that gives almost all of its rewards to books of a certain length and heft. Billy Joel once lamented, If you want to have a hit, you've got to make it fit, so they cut it down to 3:05. In this case, they pumped it up to 203. But the essential motivations were the same.


  6. Erin Erin says:

    An abundance of insight. Well written and enjoyable. I read and audiobooked this selection. The time it took me to read this is not a reflection of the book.


  7. Howard Cincotta Howard Cincotta says:

    This is a fine book but the title is wrong: for reasons of language, occasion and political importance, the Gettysburg Address must hold first position. But White is correct in identifying the Second Inaugural as the strangest of Inaugural Addresses ever, as it focused more on the concept of Original Sin than the political situation at the time.

    White paints a skilled and sadly accurate account of Washington in 1865, full of wounded veterans, freed slaves, and an exhausted bureaucracy -- generally, a city that had waited a long time for the good news that turned the war around: the capture of Atlanta and Sherman’s march through the Carolinas and Grant’s siege of Richmond.

    But the Second Inaugural doesn’t dwell on this success as much as the terrible judgment that God has made against not simply the slave owner, but all those associated with the buying and selling of human beings. Only at the end does Lincoln, with customary literary grace, return to the theme of Americans in the present day (“with malice toward none and charity for all”) and the need to bind up the nation’s wounds and work for a better future.


  8. Elaine Elaine says:

    Fabulous! Anyone who is interested in writing per se will find his analysis of Lincoln's rhetoric both on target and fascinating. Indeed, if I were teaching a writing course, I would use this as a text to illustrate how to write effectively, how to grab an audience, and how to write memorable prose. Beyond that, White's analyses of how Lincoln's thinking changed during his Presidency, which are based upon Lincoln's own notes, are a revelation, as is White's discussion of Lincoln's religious views and how they changed as the Civil War progressed. White shows how intensely religous Lincoln was and how deep was his faith in a living God. Of course, anyone with any familiarity with the Bible and with Lincoln's writings can see how influenced he was both by preachers and the Bible. The fact that he never formally joined any church does not belie this, as Lincoln was a faithful church-goer who read the Bible daily.


  9. Steve Steve says:

    Of the writing of books about Lincoln there is no end, but I haven't been bored yet! What makes this book interesting to me is its focus on the second inaugural, so the rhetorical and contextual analysis of this great speech appeals to me as a writing teacher. But there's also some history that provides background to various aspects of the speech and its delivery, so there are good stories scattered throughout. White explores Lincoln's theology in a persuasive way. I was just at the Lincoln Memorial at the end of May, where I read the Second Inaugural, every word of it. (Not surprisingly, many US newspapers at the time, including the NY Times, panned the speech, but some people saw then that it would be long remembered and admired.) The speech is really Lincoln's sermon to his congregation, the American people.


  10. Kipi Kipi says:

    The depth of meaning in the deceptively simple words of Lincoln's second inaugural address is probably missed by most modern readers. It was missed by many of those who listened to him at the inauguration and by many critics of the day. Professor White goes through the speech paragraph by paragraph and line by line and exposes the beauty of Lincoln's carefully constructed prose. His listeners expected to hear words of personal vindication and wanted to hear how southern rebels would be punished. Instead, they heard words of reconciliation. How different our country might have been had this great man lived!

    Humble servant leaders like Lincoln don't exist in our government any more...and our country is poorer because of it.