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Jerry Costello

Lincoln’s Thoughts of Reconciliation and Hope
February 8, 2015

                He is the man generally recognized as our greatest president, and when he sat down to write out his thoughts for his second inaugural—during the closing days of February, 1865, exactly 150 years ago this month—events would follow with dizzying speed. It was just five weeks later that Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered his army, ending the country’s Civil War, and only a week after that that Abraham Lincoln, the president himself, was assassinated. 

   Now those anniversaries provide a special time to read in full the address he wrote, for, as we shall see, he felt it was his best. The assignment is an easy one; the speech zips by in a mere 703 words. But those words form an incredible whole, in which Lincoln reviewed the suffering brought on by the War and offered thoughts of reconciliation and hope to all whose lives it had touched.
                Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address isn’t hard to find; it has been reproduced hundreds of times. I came across my copy recently in Caroline Kennedy’s A Patriot’s Handbook, a compendium in which she referred to its rooting “in his religious beliefs” and discussed the way he had woven together the past, present and future.
                It’s no trick for a reader to zero in on Lincoln’s religious beliefs. They permeate the address with an immediacy that helps to define his presidency. For Lincoln, God took a direct role in the affairs of men and women, this nation and its warring sons among them. He wove that role into a general discussion of the war with a plain matter-of-factness that was his trademark.
                Four years before, he explained, both sides could think of nothing but the War each sought to avoid. But the subjugation of the slaves that lived in the South—“one-eighth of the whole population,” Lincoln pointed out—became the cause of the conflict it was willing to risk. Both sides read the same Bible and both pray to the same God, he said, and each invokes divine aid against the other. While offering no prediction as to the War’s outcome, the president said, he held “high hope for the future” and referred to “the providence of God,” “a living God,” and the will of God.     
                “The Almighty has his own purposes,” Lincoln solemnly intoned, and it is difficult to imagine a contemporary president referring so directly to the presence of God in human affairs.
                In the final paragraph of his Second Inaugural, Abraham Lincoln soars to a magnificent cadenza, one that provides a fitting capstone to the speech:
                “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive 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 lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
                Lincoln regarded the address simply as the finest one he had ever delivered. “Over time,” as Caroline Kennedy writes, “many have come to agree.”

For a free copy of the Christopher News Note, LISTENING WHEN GOD SPEAKS, write: The Christophers, 5 Hanover Square, New York, NY 10004; or e-mail: mail@christophers.org