The end of the Civil War was five days away when Abraham Lincoln gave his second inaugural address on March 4, 1865. Yet in his speech, delivered 150 years ago today, Lincoln did not gloat about the impending victory, choosing instead to use the occasion to bring both sides of the conflict together.
As Matthew S. Holland says, the speech reminds us that we must resist the poisonous temptation to see those with whom we disagree as bitter enemies even as we vigorously defend the moral truths that ought to guide our public life:
By the time of his Second Inaugural, Lincoln’s belief in a great human sameness took on an even deeper and theological dimension. Over many years, Lincoln’s early Enlightenment-inspired skepticism and rationalism increasingly gave room to a biblical, if non-denominational, religiosity as intense as any occupant the White House has ever had. By his extensive reading of scripture and long reflection, Lincoln came to conclude that God was both in control of human affairs and ultimately inscrutable by mere mortals. The view that all human beings were plagued with self-interested partialities and limited cognitive horizons produced in Lincoln a generosity toward even his most implacable foes. This also explains why, in such a short speech, and in a context that so lent itself to a Manichean narrative of good versus evil and us versus them, Lincoln employed sixteen references (“all,” “both,” “neither”) that cast the North and the South in almost exactly the same light.
In making his argument argument for mercy and humility, Lincoln’s speech was steeped in biblical language. He was not the first President to consider the place of providence in the life of the nation, notes Daniel Dreisbach, but his speech was “a more nuanced and searching reflection on the role of providence in the affairs of nations.”