Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address
An Evangelical Interpretation of the Civil War: On March 4, 1865, when Abraham Lincoln took the Oath of Office for the second time, the Civil War was drawing to a close. U.S. Grant was driving Robert E. Lee back toward Richmond, Sherman had cut through Georgia to the sea. The North stood on the brink of victory. And Lincoln gave perhaps the most remarkable speech in American history. In it he sought to explain the meaning of the war and to establish a basis for restoring the Union. Lincoln found a way of expressing that meaning and that basis for reconciliation in the evangelical worldview. What follows is a close reading of the text.
Both North and South read the same Bible and pray to the same God, Lincoln observed. "The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully." This was because: "The Almighty has his own purposes." Lincoln's text was from Matthew, chapter 18, verse 7: "Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!" Lincoln then proceeded to open the text, to use the traditional ministerial expression, that is, to explain its significance to the nation's situation.
All Americans knew that slavery "was, somehow, the cause of the war." What "if we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences" that must come, he continued. His use of the conditional is important. Lincoln gave his explanation of the meaning of the war in the form of a question. "If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences," the question begins. And if we also suppose that "having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove" slavery, then "this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came," is an example of Divine justice meted out to both North and South. As Lincoln phrased it, "shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him?" If we admit that slavery is a sin, in other words, and if we admit that it is a national sin, that the North was involved in the slave trade from the first, that the North did not emancipate its own slaves until a few decades before the War began, that northern finance made the Cotton Kingdom possible, that northern factories required that cotton, then we can understand the War as retribution. The abolitionists are right in holding that slavery is a sin, but slaveholders are not the only sinners. So they are not the only ones punished. This insistence upon northern culpability is one of the remarkable aspects of the speech.
We all hope that the war will end quickly, Lincoln went on. And then he turned to another biblical quotation. Once again he began with a conditional phrase: " if God wills that [the war] continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man'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." This is from the Book of Psalms, chapter 19, verse 9: "The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring for ever: the judgments of the LORD are true and righteous altogether." The War is a judgment. Its horror is in proportion to the offense. What believer in a Living God can discern in this "any departure from those divine attributes" which they "always ascribe to Him?"
Leaders of nations at the moment of triumph do not usually accept responsibility for the terrible losses that war brings. Instead they blame the vanquished. They caused the war. And now they are suffering the defeat they so richly deserve. Lincoln, however, said that slavery caused the war, that sin caused the war, and that Northerners were also guilty of that sin and so must bear their share of the punishment. It was an explanation white Southerners would not accept but that white Northerners could. It was essential that they should, if national reconciliation were to happen.
Did Lincoln himself accept the explanation that the War was a Divine judgment? He was a very private person, and historians have long argued whether Lincoln was a believer and, if so, of what sort. His law partner described Lincoln as very excited by the ideas of Charles Darwin. And, unlike the vast majority of politicians of his era, Lincoln did not proclaim his own faith, not even in this extraordinary appeal to the faith of others. His "opening" of the text from the Gospel of Matthew takes the form of a question. It is a lawyer's question. If you believe A and you believe B, do you not have to believe C? And what is C? It is that A and B do not disclose "any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always subscribe to Him." So too with the conditional beginning of his quotation of the Psalm. If God wills the war to continue "until all the wealth piled by the bond-man'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," what was said three thousand years ago must still be said, that "the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether." It is an argument for a believer. It may or may not be a statement of a believer.