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"Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away."

March 4, 2008, 1:07 am

On this day in 1865, Abraham Lincoln delivered his Second Inaugural Address. Back on Lincoln’s birthday, I called the speech the “finest piece of political rhetoric in the nation’s history.” But I didn’t say more on the subject. I’d like to now.

First, though, Lincoln’s words:

Fellow Countrymen:

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.

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.

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 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.”

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.

A good part of the speech’s genius, it seems, is that it offers up the possibility of reconciliation, suggesting the nation can become whole again. And that the sections have more in common than not, especially their reverence for God.

As here:

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.

After four years of fighting over — among other things — which side could claim divine sanction for their cause, it was both generous and shrewd of Lincoln to allow that Northerners and Southerners had been praying all that time for the same victory. And that God had not yet chosen to hear the prayers of either side.

Then there’s this famous passage, often cited as evidence that Lincoln was ready to move beyond the horror of war, to forgive in service of reunion:

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 key here, I think, isn’t only the “charity for all” part, but also the injunction to “finish the work we are in.” Which meant not settling for an easy peace but instead fighting for “a just and lasting peace.” In sum, a second part of the speech’s genius stems from Lincoln’s unwillingness to sweep the conflict’s causes — the South’s intransigence over slavery — under the rug or to compromise on that issue.

See here:

These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of 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.

And here:

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.

And especially here:

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.”

As the shooting war staggered towards its final act, then, Lincoln, with his Second Inaugural Address, prepared for the memory fight that lay ahead, for the struggle over how the bloodshed would be recalled. And this was a third facet of the speech’s genius. But David Blight argues, in Race and Reunion, that after Lincoln’s assassination, no figure in the nation, not even Frederick Douglass, had the moral authority to force a reckoning over unresolved questions of racism and inequality. Most whites, meanwhile, whether in the North or the South, hoped to get back to the business of doing business rather than pondering the war’s root causes.

I’ve just finished Drew Faust’s This Republic of Suffering, a ghoulishly detailed look at death during the era of the Civil War. And I’m not quite sure what to make of it. It’s a very odd study: incredibly detailed, filled with fascinating nuggets of information, but never really clear about its intent. I’m pretty sure, though Faust doesn’t say as much, that it’s an anti-war book, an effort to divert readers away from glorious narratives of the Civil War and focus their attention on the tragedy, the carnage, the destruction that the loss of 600,000 lives represented. This is a worthy goal, I think, though not really something that we didn’t already know.

Still, I’m troubled by Faust’s uniformly bleak portraiture, which obscures the war’s causes and muddles its memory. On the subject of the Second Inaugural, for instance, Faust argues that Lincoln, “offer[ed] an explanation for wartime slaughter.” An explanation? For slaughter? No, I don’t think so. Lincoln offered more than that: a ringing statement about the justness and meaning of the war. Issues that apparently remain in doubt more than a century later. Personally, I don’t know if there can be a good war. Or a just war. But Lincoln, though often plagued by crippling doubts, didn’t waver on that issue in his best speech, the nation’s best speech, even as he grappled with the horror of war. Now, that’s worth remembering.

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