In 1865 as President Abraham Lincoln was preparing to deliver his second inauguration address the Civil War was winding down. After four long years of bloodshed the reelected President now had the task of reuniting a broken country. In his Second Inaugural Address Lincoln addresses the issues of war and how the division between the North and South had and would affect the unity of the country.
In the beginning of his speech Lincoln places the power of the events outside the sphere of humanity when he says “And the war came” (Cummings 305). Giving the power to the unseen hand of war places blame neither on the North or South for starting or wanting the war but now it is merely something that just happened. Next, he goes one to acknowledge that both sides had the same expectations concerning the conflict:
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 (Cummings 305).
Lincoln is attempting to show that both sides have common ground to build on as they attempt to repair the Union. He points out that both sides have suffered in a longer war than anticipated while praying to God for deliverance from their enemy. Lincoln goes to say:
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. (Cummings 305-306).
Lincoln now places the war in the realm of God. He attributes slavery to God, who allowed it to happen. The Civil War is the misery visited upon the North and South as a consequence of the practice. Although Lincoln delivered a rousing and inspiring speech, his reasoning his flawed. Slavery was not an institution that was thrust upon white Americans without their consent. The slave trade was a prosperous and viable part of the economy since before the founding of the nation. And the issue of slavery had been a hotly debated topic for decades; there were many times that legislation could have been enacted that would have given African-Americans their freedom.
Q: So, what do you think? Was this a really great example of a politically motivated speech to unify a nation? Or did Lincoln really believe that God was punishing the nation because of slavery?
Q: Do we still hear talk about God punishing America for the sins of the people?
Cummings, Michael S. “Second Inaugural Address (1865)”. American Political Thought. 7th ed. Los Angeles: Sage, 2015. 305-306. Print.