The Lincoln Memorial anchors the West end of the National Mall in West Potomac Park of downtown Washington, DC. Inside the Greek-style Temple with Doric columns is, of course, the famous sculpture of Abraham Lincoln carved by famed American sculptor Daniel Chester French. Inside the temple are two of Abraham Lincoln’s speeches, on the north and south walls, respectively. As I like to describe them, one of the speeches is the greatest speech in American History, the other is the Gettysburg Address.
That “greatest speech in American History,” is, of course, Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural Address. Indeed, it is a remarkable testament to Lincoln’s brilliance that he would have not just delivered not one, but two of the speeches in the canon of all-time greats in American History, but that both of them would also be short enough that they could be carved in their entirety into the walls of a Memorial.
Perhaps even more amazing is that the only other real contender, in my mind, with these two speeches for the title of “all-time greatest speech in American History” was delivered on the steps of this very Memorial. This is, of course, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963, a speech which begins by directly referencing Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and echoing the famous opening of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation“.
All that is definiately fitting because as far as I’m concerned, the list of greatest-speeches in American History would have to have these three speeches, Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural, King’s “I Have a Dream,” and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address as 1, 2, and 3 in some order – and you really can’t go wrong with whatever order you choose. Yes, there are some other notable speeches in American History, such as John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address – “ask not what your country can do for you,” Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1st Inaugural Address – “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” Lou Gehrig’s Farewell – “today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth,” and Ronald Reagan’s Speech at the Brandenburg Gate – “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall”; but in my view these four are all in a second tier below the first three.
Top honors, for me, however, go to Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural Address – the 150th Anniversary of which is being marked this week. Back in the 19th Century, Presidential Inaugurations were held on March 4th each year (unless it was Sunday), before being moved to the present date of January 20th (unless its a Sunday) in the 1930’s.
Back in 1865, when Lincoln was delivering this speech, the Civil War had raged for nearly four years since the first shots had been fired on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. What everyone thought would be a short war at the 1st Battle of Manassas had proven to be anything but. By this point, some 700,00 soldiers on both sides lay dead, with many more civilian casualties on top of that. All of this in a Nation that had numbered just 31.5 million in the 1860 Census, including nearly 4 million enslaved African-Americans.
Over the years of warfare, as technology advanced and war-fighting tactics improved, a new kind of total warfare had developed. By the time that Lincoln was delivering his Second Inaugural Address it was clear that the end was imminently near. Indeed, Lee would surrender at Appomattox Courhouse just one month later, on April 9th. At this time, though, General Ulysses S. Grant was entering the 10th month of his siege campaign to surround the Conferederate capital of Richmond, and its adjacent railroad hub of Petersburg. This was an intense trench warfare campaign of the sort that would prefigure the terrible trench warfare of the First World War that would come some 50 years later.
With the Nation having suffered so much, Lincoln chose this occasion to try and make some sense of the sensless carnage which had ravaged the country and to try and give some meaning to all the suffering the Nation had endured. One year into the war, in April 1862, Lincoln famously wrote in a letter to New York City newpaperman Horace Greeley “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it.” Now, nearly three years later, Lincoln uses this occasion to articulate that a war which had been begun to save the Union, was now definitively also about the higher purpose of ending the institution of slavery. And although there is not really any evidence that Lincoln was himself a religious man, he finds in allusions to Biblical texts that would have been well known by his audience, some semblance ofan answer as to why this war had lasted so long and caused so much suffering.
Lincoln then ends the speech with his famous closing lines, “with malice towards none, and charity towards all,” articulating a vision for how the Nation should be reunited, and directly rebuking those in the North who wanted to inflict punitive retribution on the South. In a way, this is Lincoln articulating his own dream, a dream that would ultimately not be realized. His Vice President that day was Andrew Johnson, unusually, a Democrat (Lincoln was, of course, a Republican), and a Southerner, from Tennessee. With the election of 1864 being conducted during wartime, and with half the country in open rebellion, Lincoln had sought to run on a “national unity” ticket. As such, he had dropped his Vice President from his first term, the Republican Hannibal Hamlin from Maine, and replaced him with Andrew Johnson, who had been a Senator from Tennessee, and whom Lincoln had apointed as military governor of Tennessee when the Union Army had largely recaptured the State.
Unfortunately, Abraham Lincoln’s dream would largely die with him after being shot at Ford’s Theatre. Less than two months after Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural Address, Andrew Johnson would find himself President of the United States. As the ultimate outsider, however, a Southern Democrat who had largely been elected by Northern Republicans, he would quickly find himself largely unable to execute Lincoln’s vision for Reconstruction. In that sense, Lincoln’s unfulfilled dream prefigures the more profound unfilfilled dream of a country where “all men are created equal,” and a country where his “four little children… will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” that would be echoed some 98 years later on August 28, 1963.
Indeed, those connections still echo today. As I write this post on March 7th, earlier today the National Park Service held a commemorative program marking the 150th Anniversary (plus two days) of Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural Address, on the same day that so many people gathered in Selma, Alabama to mark the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights March to Montgomery back in 1965.
So with all that being said, here are the words of Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural Address, some 150 years later:
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 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. 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 offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!”
If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences 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 offence 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 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.”
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 a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.
— Michael Beschloss (@BeschlossDC) March 7, 2015
Share this Parkasaurus post: