President Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, 1865

A primary source by Abraham Lincoln

The Inaugural address of President Abraham Lincoln delivered at the National Capitol, March 4, 1865. (Gilder Lehrman Collection)Just 701 words long, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address took only six or seven minutes to deliver, yet contains many of the most memorable phrases in American political oratory. The speech contained neither gloating nor rejoicing. Rather, it offered Lincoln’s most profound reflections on the causes and meaning of the war. The “scourge of war,” he explained, was best understood as divine punishment for the sin of slavery, a sin in which all Americans, North as well as South, were complicit. It describes a national moral debt that had been created by the “bondsmen’s 250 years of unrequited toil,” and ends with a call for compassion and reconciliation.

With its biblical allusions, alliteration, repetition, and parallel structure, and its reliance on one-syllable words, the address has the power of a sermon. It incorporates many of the themes of the religious revivals: sin, sacrifice, and redemption. At a White House reception, President Lincoln encountered Frederick Douglass. “I saw you in the crowd today, listening to my inaugural address,” the president remarked. “How did you like it?” “Mr. Lincoln,” Douglass answered, “that was a sacred effort.”

In this printing of the Second Inaugural, the blue ink is a significant design detail. After Lincoln’s death on April 15, 1865, all copies were printed in black ink appropriate to a national mood of mourning. In the days before Lincoln’s assassination, readers were focused primarily on the tone of reconciliation that on March 4 had moved his audience to tears.

A full transcript is available.

Excerpt

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.

Questions for Discussion

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