“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.

Abraham Lincoln’s birthday seems like a good time to consider the context of his second inaugural address.  Lincoln was re-elected in November 1864 during the only U.S. presidential election contested during a civil war.  The Democrats had nominated George B. McClellan, the former commander of the Union Army of the Potomac, and Lincoln’s re-election was by no means guaranteed.  On August 23rd, he wrote what became known as the blind memorandum because it was signed by his Cabinet without being read:

“This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected.  Then it will be my duty to so co-operate with the President-elect as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such ground that he can not possibly save it afterwards.”

This provides a stunning recognition of the transitions that are a part of American politics and an indefatigable determination by Lincoln to end the Civil War.  Yet in the fall of 1864, the stalemate of war began turning in favor of the Union, with General Sherman taking control of Atlanta.  Of course, the Confederate states did not participate in this election, but Lincoln won handily, including winning the majority of votes from Union soldiers.

He did not devote time in his address to discussing the war effort, instead acknowledging the public was aware of the “progress of our arms.”  He did, however, assert slavery as a causal factor in the war, contrary to the battle cry of states’ rights that so many put forth.  He recognized that both the Union and Confederate sides believed God to be on their side and quoted from Matthew 18:7,

“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.”

Lincoln made it clear slavery was the offense but also intimated Northerners could claim no moral high ground over Southerners, alluding to Matthew 7:1, “Judge not, that ye be not judged.”  Sticking with the theme of judgment, he quoted from Psalm 19:9, “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

The conclusion of the speech is the excerpt with which I began — and which provided a clear indication of how President Lincoln intended to handle the period of reconstruction after the Civil War.  He did not provide many details because he had already done so in his December 1863 Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction, which was appended to his annual message to Congress.  Unfortunately, we were never able to see his vision fully realized because he was assassinated within six weeks of his second inauguration.