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Lincoln’s Second Inaugural: A Historic Call to Charity | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | March 3, 2006

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"With malice toward none, with charity to all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right...." — Abraham Lincoln, March 4, 1865


My father was born in Pocahontas, Iowa, on March 4, 1904, the original and traditional day for the inauguration of an American president. In Franklin Roosevelt’s second term in 1937, the date was changed to what is, in effect, my birthday, January 20th. Family lore has never mentioned any causal connection in exchanging the date from my father’s birthday to mine! But thinking of this date, it never quite struck me before that my father was born only thirty-nine years after Lincoln’s famous Second Inaugural Address, given on March 4, 1865. It was presented during the rapidly ending Civil War – also called the "War between the States," the "War of Northern Aggression," or the "War for States Rights." Lincoln’s address was given exactly 141 years ago this year.

Shelby Foote, in the third volume of his Narrative History of the Civil War, tells us that immediately after this brief address – it fits on one typed single-spaced page – Lincoln was sworn in with his hand of an open Bible. After this oath, he patiently shook hands with some six thousand people. Foote tells us that a few people found this address "awkward," but the British press was moved by it, as were many others. Charles Francis Adams justly compared it to the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln himself was worried about how it was received. But by any standard it is a great speech, well worth memorizing in any era. Aristotle said that a man should be able to defend himself both with his arms and with his words. Unexpectedly for many who thought they were electing merely a gangly small town lawyer, the man from Springfield, Illinois, proved he could both fight and speak.

The address is brief, eloquent, solemn. Lincoln stated that he had been addressing the great issues of the war all along since his lengthier First Inaugural of four years previously. At this point, what needed to be said could be briefly stated. Lincoln did not think words or persuasion alone were sufficient in this endeavor. "The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself...." Lincoln did not piously say that "all force or violence is evil," or that all wars are bad or unnecessary, even if he did think that this war might have been avoided. But he always asked "at what cost?" He is different from too many people, pious and otherwise, who – even when clear principles are at stake – are "opposed" to war but themselves take no responsibility for the consequences of what happens when it is not fought and those principles are undermined.

Many, Lincoln among them, initially wanted to settle the matter without war. Lincoln’s main effort was to save the Union, a greater good in his eyes, not merely to avoid war. Some agents, to avoid fighting, wanted quickly "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...." Lincoln thus assigned blame through elaborating principle. Thus he added, "and the war came," but not outside of reason.

Lincoln did not deny that saving the Union was related to slavery. He could have accepted a status quo to save the Union, provided no extension of the practice took place. Even from the debates with Douglas in Illinois, Lincoln argued that slaves were men, not property. Most of the slaves, he acknowledged, were in the South. They constituted "a peculiar and powerful interest," an interest that "all knew" was somehow the "cause of the war."

No one expected a war of such proportions to ensue. The Civil War has rightly been called the first of the "modern" wars; it was the first war in which you could shoot a man without being up close to see him, this due to rifling and the perfection of guns. Both sides sought an easy way to finish off the war.


At this point, Lincoln became reflective, even meditative. Indeed, this address is in many ways a theological tractate. "Both (sides) read the Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other." What irony this was! This war was not a conflict of Protestants against Catholics, Muslims against Christians, Chinese against Hindus, or even cowboys against Indians. No reason could be given to doubt the piety of either opposing side. Still, no place is found either in the Bible or in tradition that indicates a promise that Christians will never go to war against other Christians.

Everyone, after all, knows the history of France and of the English civil wars. Any reader of Augustine on war will likewise recognize this possibility of brother fighting against brother. The effects of sin and the scope of pride not only are not eliminated by revelation but may even be strengthened among Christians. This eventuality does not prove that Christianity is not true. More likely it reaffirms that it is true, since it understands fallen human nature so well. We are a redeemed race, not a sinless one, even in our redemption. Nothing in the literature of redemption promises a world without war or its threat.

Lincoln is clearly pondering the theoretic implications of this upsetting fact that both sides pray to the same God. "It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged." The last phrase about "judging not," comes from Matthew 7:1. Lincoln uses this latter principle, not against the issue of war itself, but against his economic analysis that the injustice of slavery was constituted by the use of labor without paying for it.

Even here the phrase "sweat of the brow" is taken from the Genesis account of the consequences of the Fall. In that context, it did not apply specifically to slavery but to all "labor" or "work." All men, slave or free, would work by the "sweat of their brow." The context is Lincoln’s consideration what his projection of what a "just God" would do in such economic circumstances. This is what the Marxists called "exploitation." It seems "strange" to Lincoln that "a just God" would approve of this wrongful use of labor.

But, Lincoln cautiously adds, "judge not, lest you be judged." He hints at a Socratic caution at claiming to know what he does not know. It is conceivable that God, in His wisdom, could have purposes operative even midst the manifest sins of His rational creatures. In spite of our outraged "social justice," greater things were at stake than slavery. These truths needed to be learned before addressing effective this vexing issue. Economic or political slavery may not, in the eyes of a "just God," be the worst kind of slavery or the one most in need of attention.

We have all, no doubt, wondered about what happens to the prayers to a "just God" that come from opposite directions in a war. Lincoln speaks in the logic of our voice: "The prayers of both could not be answered." Not even God can do contradictory things. Both sides cannot win. Yet, we must be cautions. Man learns by suffering, a notion found in the Greeks and deepened by the Cross. Some things he may not be able to learn in any other way. Prayers are answered in ways we do not expect, sometimes only through suffering the consequences of evil. Quite often our prayers are answered even when we do not get what we pray for. As the old saying goes, "What happens when we get what we pray for, then find we do not want it?" Do we blame God?

Thus Lincoln recognizes that "the Almighty" has "His own purposes" to which he is not wholly privy. Lincoln does not yet know for sure on March 4 that the North will win. Though he assumes it is, he has no way of knowing for certain whether, in the long run, it is a good thing that his side wins. Other consequences, either good or evil, could also result if his side did not win.

The sober Aristotle had recognized that any change in regime, violent or peaceful, might make things worse, as well as better. This too was Chesterton’s worry about the Civil War, that what was at issue was not so much slavery but the whole mood of modernity and its principles of individual autonomy and vast state power, things we are dealing with daily in our time. Perhaps the war was not the best way to solve the issue of slavery, though it was one way. Thus Lincoln was humble enough to see that he did not know the purposes of the "just God." This uncertainty did not prevent him from acting in his own light on the basis of probable certitude, but he also was aware of a providence above the affairs of men.

To illustrate the just God’s purposes, Lincoln next cited a surprising passage from the Scriptures, the one having to do with giving scandal to little ones where, by comparison, it is better to have a millstone tied about us and be "tossed" into the sea. "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs to that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh" (Matthew 18:7). This passage is followed by one of the most blunt passages in the New Testament, "And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off...." "The prayers of "neither side has been answered fully." The application that Lincoln evidently makes of this principle is that "offenses" – presumably in this case the injustice of slavery – must and have come. They are a "woe" to the world, but they are an even greater "woe" to those through whom they come. Lincoln sees himself as seeking to stop these "offenses" and thinks he is on the side of the "just God" in doing so, but recognizes that the divine purpose takes place in ways he does not know even amid the "offenses."


Thus, Lincoln makes bold to "suppose" that "American slavery" is "one of those offenses, which, in the providence of God, must needs come." He merely "supposes" that he can legitimately relate the "woeful offenses" to slavery. He thinks it is fair to do so, but he knows it has an ancient history even under divine providence. Perhaps other things had to be established before this issue could be safely tackled. So God has "allowed" it to be "continued through His appointed time." "He now wills to remove" it. How? "He gives to both North and South this terrible war." What is this war theologically? It is nothing less than "a woe due to those by whom the offense came." Like most sin or woe, its consequences affect everyone, not just the guilty or their immediate victims. The scope of the consequences of freely chosen sin is one of the facts of our social life on this earth, one of the "realities" we must be aware of.

But if the "just God" chooses to remove this "woe" of slavery by a "terrible war," Lincoln goes on, "shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?" Of course not. Lincoln does not think that the Lord who spoke of "wars and rumors of war" (Matthew 24:6), even to the end time, does not include in His "divine attributes" (in this case his providence) the reality of war out of which this purpose is still intact. Lincoln hopes "fondly" and prays "fervently" that this "mighty scourge of war" might disappear "speedily."

But Lincoln is not sure that it will pass "speedily," as he is not sure of the depth of its disorder or, once it is gone, how to repair the order. "Two hundred and fifty years of unrequited labor" may indeed have to be paid for justly, that is, it demands (i.e., God may "will it") that "every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword." There may be a kind of "eye for eye" demanded, though Lincoln was himself more of a New than an Old Testament prophet.

As proof of the possibility that this extreme case may be yet required of us, Lincoln cites something from "three thousand years ago," namely, Psalm 19:9: "The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether." When one reads these lines, he is amused by the notion that somehow someone can understand America without understanding the Bible and the theological reflections that stem from it.

If the Second Inaugural Address ended here, it would still be a great address. It would have been basically a treatise on providence and justice, on the place of war in the pursuit of order, on the need for a Union before anything else can be politically resolved, including slavery. But there are still some four more, most famous and reflective lines in the Address. Lincoln finally looks forward to what is ahead of him. How are we to treat the defeated? How are we to deal with those who "have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan?"

Lincoln’s first principle in approaching the defeated is, again something that has biblical origins, "with malice toward none." One of the remarkable things about the Civil War, a war fought with men, the leadership of whom had mostly studied together at West Point or elsewhere, was that, as I believe Grant insisted, Lee and the Southern Generals were not to be executed, nor was Jefferson Davis. The vindictiveness that arises in later more totalitarian centuries and wars is not the spirit of Lincoln, though he did not remain alive to enforce his approach during the Reconstruction of the South. He has just elaborated why, because he understands the dimensions of the "just God," and our relation to them.

Thus we proceed "with charity for all," not primarily with justice, though not without it. This is the spirit of Deus Caritas Est. We proceed "with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right." We need grace even to "see what is right." The war is to be "finished," the "wounds" are to be "bound." Why do we do all these things? We "do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations." Lincoln evidently realizes that a civil war such as this one does not involve solely the nation fighting it among its own citizens. Principles are at stake for all men, something that we likewise grasp by reflecting on Lincoln’s own Gettysburg Address, which itself recalls the Declaration of Independence, and both Addresses in various ways go back as far as Pericles’ Funeral Oration.

In the end, it is not without significance that the last two words of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address of March 4, 1865, near the end of our poignant Civil War and his own assassination, were "all nations." Is it perhaps not inappropriate to add here, after reading this justly famous Address so filled with theological overtones, that among the last words of Christ before His Ascension were precisely to "teach all nations" (Matthew, 28:19).

Nor would Plato have been surprised that Lincoln also understood that before we can have a "just and lasting peace" with "all nations," we too must have this spirit first within ourselves. In all these things, including war, we are to proceed "with malice toward none, and with charity toward all." That we understand these principles is not merely the reason why we are Americans, but the only reason why we can become and remain Americans. To do this, we can do nothing better than read and re-read the Second Inaugural Address given in Congress by Abraham Lincoln on March 4, 1865, 141 years before our time.

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles:

"Written In Courage": An Analysis of the 2006 State of the Union Address | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Author page for Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., with listing of all IgnatiusInsight.com articles

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing, and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning.

Read more of his essays on his website.

Visit the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies, and news in the Church!


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