Lincolns Second Inaugural: A Historic Call to Charity | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | March 3, 2006
"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 Roosevelts 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 fathers birthday to mine! But thinking of this date, it never quite struck me before that my father was born only thirty-nine years after Lincolns 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." Lincolns 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. Lincolns 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 mens 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 Lincolns 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?
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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.
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