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Lincoln's Inaugural Addresses

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Originally aired on March 03, 1995 - In part 27 of our Civil War series, Virginia Tech history professor James Robertson says that Abraham Lincoln’s two inaugural addresses were unforgettable, unlike those of many of his predecessors.

#27 – Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address

A presidential inaugural address is one of the more forgettable speeches in American politics. It is usually an exercise in verbiage, possessed of a catchy phrase or two, short on ideas, and lacking in substance. A week after the inauguration, few people can remember anything the chief executive said.

Such is not the case with Abraham Lincoln. His two inaugural addresses, along with the “few appropriate remarks” he gave at Gettysburg, have become part of what one would term an American bible. It is not difficult to visualize a time when what we know of the Civil War will come in the main from Lincoln’s speeches. They are the finest commentary and interpretation we have of that war.

It may be a bitter pill for professional and amateur historians to swallow, but it is clear that rhetoric has time and again outlived the facts that inspired it. Lincoln’s great utterances are more like the speeches in tragic drama than like tradition oratory; and the longer the magic of Lincoln’s words is studied, the fuller his works become masterpieces that cannot be catalogued or classified.

No words spoken in the course of Lincoln’s 56 years on earth have more emotionalism and meaning than the closing statements in his Second Inaugural. The deep moving cadences and high imagination of that address have never been equaled – and are never likely to be. It was March 4, 1865, a blustery, cold Saturday. Lincoln was not well as he stood on the east portico of the Capitol to be sworn into office for a second term. Four years of seeking to make the Union whole again had borne heavily on the President. Soldier-deaths were in the hundreds of thousands; much of the southern portion of America had been destroyed; suffering covered the whole nation.

Thousands of people North as well as South held Lincoln responsible for it all. He was painfully aware on that inauguration day that a goodly percentage of his audience was anything but sympathetic to his efforts. Nevertheless, in the short inaugural that he gave, Lincoln used the final 160 words to convey what poet Carl Sandburg later called “steel and velvet”.

First from Lincoln came the thunder of drums and the blast of trumpets signaling, if necessary, Armageddon. “Fondly do we hope,” he said, “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.’”

Then, as those mighty phrases echoed across the Potomac River, Lincoln ended his address with softness and gentleness – with a statement of one man’s compassion for all Americans. It was so typically Lincoln that he looked above the Civil War and beyond the present to a hope somewhere in the future. Gazing at the sea of faces before him, Lincoln then expressed that hope:

“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 a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

Six weeks later, they killed Abraham Lincoln. Yet the hope lives on.

Dr. James I. "Bud" Robertson, Jr., is a noted scholar on the American Civil War and Alumni Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Virginia Tech.