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Lincoln’s Second Inaugural

In reflecting on the recent focus on race relations in the country, I thought it might be useful to revisit the words of our sixteenth President on the occasion of his Second Inaugural.

It was gray and raining in Washington, D.C. on that March morning, 1865. Yet, crowds thronged around the Capitol Building waiting for the speech. Inside the building, because of the weather, the ceremony had already begun. One of the speakers, Vice President Johnson, was suffering from a cold and, as an antidote, had taken 3 glasses of whiskey to alleviate his symptoms. His speech had not gone well. President Lincoln whispered to a Senator–“Do not let Johnson speak outside.”

The skies finally lifted, the sun came out and the ceremonies were shifted outside, to the east side of the Capitol for the President’s speech and oath-taking.

Many in the crowd expected Lincoln to brag about recent Union advances in the Civil War–“We have taken Atlanta, Savannah, Charleston and now Columbia, South Carolina. Grant has surrounded Lee’s forces at Richmond. God has given us victory after victory!” That is what some thought he would say.

But, he disappointed. Instead, he spoke of his own spiritual struggle during the War. How could a good God have willed such a thing? How could two sections of the country who both believed in the same God and read the same Bible come to such different conclusions? “The prayers of both could not be answered–that of neither has been answered fully.”

God had allowed slavery to be, but the matter of the continuance of the scourge would be left for mankind to decide by war: “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.”

Lincoln was speaking to a people who had been raised in church and Sunday school. He, as President, had struggled with the theological and spiritual dimensions of slavery and the war, listening to sermons almost weekly from a pew in a Presbyterian Church in Washington.

Now, near the end of this awful war where one out of every 11 men of service age had been killed, Lincoln would not gloat or celebrate a Union victory in the traditional sense. He, instead, walked his people through his own thoughts, doubts and spiritual struggles. How could this terrible war be explained or rationalized? The speech would be a reminder that many of the questions related to the war still remained unanswered and unresolved in the minds of many Americans.

Then, at the end of this brief 6-7 minute speech, he pivoted from remonstrating about the past to the challenges lying ahead with these words of hope for his listeners and his countrymen: “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 orphan–to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” With that sentence, the speech ended.

We could use such words today.

Rolland Kidder is a Stow resident.

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