‘With malice toward none …’


Was Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address the greatest in our nation’s history?

The commentator Robert Schlesinger ranks it among the top five. In his list, he also included Thomas Jefferson’s first (1801), Franklin Roosevelt’s first and second (1933, 1937) and John Kennedy’s (1961). Another writer, James Lindsay, places Lincoln’s first (1861) and second (1865) in his list of best inaugurals. Other addresses he included were by Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt (1905), Franklin Roosevelt’s first, John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan (1981). The journalist Jeff D’Alessio ranks Lincoln’s second inaugural as first in his top five. He included in his collection Thomas Jefferson’s first, Abraham Lincoln’s first, Franklin Roosevelt’s first and John Kennedy’s.

We observe a general agreement among writers as they include many of the identical addresses. But while the same names appear, there is also consensus that Lincoln’s second inaugural was the greatest.

Why would that be?

Since George Washington gave the first such address, on April 30, 1789, there have been a total of 59 inaugural addresses. Many were given at troubling times in our nation’s history. Washington gave his in 1789, our nation’s first, at the dawning of a new constitutional republic. He noted the “shared responsibility of the President and Congress to preserve the sacred fire of liberty and a republican form of government.” Jefferson gave his during the first peaceful transfer of power between different parties, in 1801. “But every difference of opinion,” he stated, “is not a difference of principle.” John Kennedy’s inaugural was given at the height of the Cold War, when he famously called upon fellow Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

Although all of the orations were delivered at times of grave peril, it is Lincoln’s second inaugural, delivered March 4, 1865, that has attracted the highest regard. It offered solace and inspiration for a wounded and divided nation in the midst of its bloodiest war.

With the Union forces victorious, the slaves freed and the Civil War coming to an end (April 9, 1865), Lincoln was not triumphalist but conciliatory. He sought healing and unity not retribution or punishment. He sought divine providence and guidance, quoting from the Bible four times, invoking God’s name 14 times and summoning prayer three times.

“Woe unto the world because of offenses,” he said, acknowledging the wickedness of slavery and the punishment of war. In some 700 words, he comforted the nation, including his fellow countrymen in the South. “But let us judge not, that we be not judged,” he said, seeking not to condemn the South but to offer friendship instead. He called for his countrymen “to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan.”

At a time of profound suffering and devastation, he sought healing when he appealed to all to “bind the nation’s wounds.” Again, using biblical reference, poetic language and metaphor, Lincoln strove in this speech to unite the country at a time of immense tragedy.

Inscribed in the Lincoln Memorial along with the Gettysburg Address for all generations to ponder, the inaugural is a reminder of the eloquence and compassion of this historic figure whose life was taken only five weeks later (April 15,1865) as the result of an assassination.

It is well argued that no speech has had greater impact.

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