Abraham Lincoln’s writing style is intriguing, poetic, and concise. On the occasion of his Second Inauguration, in the thick of the Civil War, he delivered a speech that retains its poignancy even today. When spoken aloud, it couldn’t have taken more than a few minutes to deliver.
Understanding this President’s perspective on the nation’s state is key to understanding his rhetorical construction in this particular speech. In the shadow of the most significant war since the Revolution, Lincoln sees his inauguration as an insignificant moment but still a nation entrusting its very survival to him. One can only imagine the great weight Lincoln felt as he delivered this speech. Much of the speech is a meditation on the cause of the war, and the terrible remedy which Lincoln sees as divine atonement for that cause.
Indeed, Lincoln perceives the will of God as putting upon the Nation and its insurgents this great and terrible War to atone for the great sin of slavery. He comes right out and says it:
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 the 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.
Have you ever heard such a succinct description of the Civil War? One could attempt argue this boils down to “States’ Rights,” but one must admit that chief among the “Rights” would be that right which allows the state to determine for itself whether it would allow the enslavement of human beings within its borders.
Much of the third stanza is devoted to describing the War’s divine roots:
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 Godʼs assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other menʼs 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 bondsmanʼs 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.”
By ascribing the war to divine intervention, Lincoln manages to remove fault from all people. From the slave owners to those complicit in accepting the benefit of slave labor, they are simply pawns in God’s plan. One is thus released from the past and able to take a stand that day against the insurgents and their demands.