Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address was delivered in the waning days of the Civil War, and just 41 days before his assassination. The speech contained only 701 words, and it took Lincoln only six minutes to deliver it. Historians and politicians admire and study the Lincoln’s address today as an example of supreme oratorical skills. The President sought to forge lasting peace that would ensure the Union’s survival and prosperity, and he used his address to advance his strategy for it.
As portrayed in Spielberg’s Lincoln, the President faced a substantial resistance from the Radical Republican faction of the government, which wanted to get emancipation from slavery, thus to have full rights of citizens. Representative Thaddeus Stevens was a radical Republican who wanted to grant immediate freedom and voting rights to African Americans in the USA and disagreed with President Lincoln’s plans. Many politicians such as Stevens wished for a punitive reconstruction model that would replenish the federal government’s coffers for the cost of the war. Lincoln had to satisfy the demands of these politicians and like-minded citizens, while implementing his vision for the next stage of America’s development.
Lincoln required a motto to use as a political and social rallying point. He envisioned the “Second American Revolution” that would characterize the bloody Civil War as a necessary sacrifice to ensure the vision of the nation’s forefathers and provide liberty and justice for all. The Second Inaugural Address was the method he used to frame his bid to end slavery through the 13th Constitutional amendment, and to formulate a compassionate Reconstruction to take place in the South.
Lincoln delivered a speech intended to persuade the nation to accept his ideas for ending slavery and post-war strategy. He was supposed to prevent anger and discouragement faced by many opposing forces. He used his rhetorical skills to accomplish this both by establishing his vision and engendering compassion and forgiveness that could replace the feeling of anger.
Ronald White recalls the feeling of anger that is evident in the letters written by citizens who attended the address. It means that anger should have been replaced with a forgiving attitude. Lincoln used several rhetorical methods which helped him to accomplish the goal of persuading citizens of the country to accept his ideas and overall vision.
Lincoln first sought to deemphasize his personal achievements and to use inclusive language. White notes that Lincoln used personal pronouns only twice in the address, but not in connection with any of his accomplishments. Lincoln also avoided explicitly blaming the South for the war, using the generic term “one of them” when identifying it, and saying “American slavery” rather than “Southern slavery.” By refusing to use the occasion to grandstand and adopting the tone that was neither celebratory nor triumphant, Lincoln framed the post-war mindset as healing, rather than punishing. It was his plan to bind up the nation’s wounds.
Lincoln continued to focus on his inclusivity when he attributed noble behavior to the secessionists saying “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”. Lincoln pointed out the similarities between the two opposing factions, both in expectation and in hope for divine support. He tried to describe the Confederacy as human as possible by saying that they read the same Bible as the Union.
Lincoln’s words that began the closing paragraph of the address continued this theme. Lincoln said “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.” Lincoln explicitly asked for forgiveness for the South, and reminded his audience that both sides thought that they were right, and struggled with noble effort. He also pointed out that winning the war did not conclude the work that should have been done, and thus, told of the importance of creating lasting peace that presupposed freeing the slaves.
White Notes that Lincoln quoted the Bible 4 times, invoked prayer 3 times, and mentioned God 14 times in his address. It should be noted that in the previous 18 inaugural addresses to that point only John Quincy Adams had quoted the Bible. God was mentioned only in the last paragraph of any of the other inaugural addresses. Lincoln purposely used a religious tone in his speech to appeal to his audience. The Bible was very widely read in Lincoln’s time, and was the most recognized moral compass. By using such imagery, Lincoln sought to foster reconciliation in order to bring the warring North and South together.
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Lincoln used other rhetorical means to persuade his audience. His speech was very short, and he spoke very slowly, emphasizing his words. The way in which he delivered them was also important. White describes the pause before he spoke “and the war came”, emphasizing the gravity and terrible nature of the conflict that the country had endured. Basler describes Lincoln’s delivery: “In his emotive, lyrical passages balance becomes most striking, as it enriches his melancholy reflections or his fervent appeals to the hearts of his audience” (171). Lincoln understood the importance of his word choice and knew the way to speak in order to deliver them with utmost impact.
Lincoln’s speaking skills derived in some degree from his appreciation for Shakespeare’s acting. Schmitz states that “One day Lincoln, sitting for Francis B. Carpenter, who was doing his portrait, the two men chatting about Shakespeare, admiring Claudius’ speech, Lincoln, so Carpenter recalled, suddenly decided to do the soliloquy, enact it, and, “throwing himself into the very spirit of this scene” brilliantly delivered it (107). This demonstrated proficiency in theatrical performance, which without any doubts influenced his address. The use of this technique does not diminish his intent or purpose, but it is the manner in which he worked to accomplish it. Lincoln used his acting ability to persuade the audience that his plan was the path the nation should follow.
According to White, Lincoln wanted to characterize the Civil War as a second American Revolution. He believed that the Founding Fathers had passed on the issue of slavery, and that it could no longer be ignored. He called for this need by saying “we must think anew”. By describing the principles upon which the country had been founded, he depoliticized the war and made it a collective problem to be addressed, rather than the sole fault of the South, who must be punished for their sins.
Media reaction to the second inaugural address was not accepted positively at once, even in the North. The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education wrote “The Daily Illinois State Register,” published in Lincoln’s home town of Springfield, said that Lincoln’s speech ‘was not a very felicitous or nor satisfactory performance’” (46). The New York World editorial said, “The pity of it that a divided nation should neither be sustained in this crisis of agony by words of wisdom nor cheered with words of hope” (46). Even The New York Times, which was generally supportive of the president, was not impressed with the speech. The editorial in the abovementioned newspaper stated, “He makes no boasts of what he has done, or promises of what he will do. All that he does is simply advert to the cause of the war” (46).
Lincoln knew that he could easily deliver a speech that would receive universal (at least in the North) praise and pride amongst the victorious Union. He chose not to do so because he knew that delivering such a polished speech would only deepen the division between the North and South. The President did not want to prolong the reconciliation process or to punish the South. He wished to heal the nation, but not create new wounds or exacerbate existing ones. Lincoln used rhetoric in his address to convince a wounded nation that his course of action should be undertaken.
Lincoln told his audience of slavery: “All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war”. He also freed the slaves through the issue of the Emancipation Proclamation and championed the 13th amendment. Abraham Lincoln is considered to be a true hero of civil and human rights.
However, the question arises whether that view is the most accurate description of the President. In response to Horace Greeley’s Prayer of Twenty Millions, Lincoln wrote, “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery” (Basler 168). This contrasts sharply with the staunch support for emancipation that he emoted in his second inaugural address, and contradicts his strong support for emancipation that occurred later.
Perhaps even more damning, Lincoln also supported the Fugitive Slave Act (Winger 51). Thus, the questions arise on how these discrepancies in Lincoln’s actions can be resolved; whether Lincoln had a radical shift in philosophy toward slavery and slave’s rights or he simply tried to achieve political goals, independent of any moral beliefs.
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The reality is that Lincoln was acting upon his personal belief. Sexton said, “The answer is, in truth, really quite straightforward: Lincoln believed what he said. He believed that the Constitution guaranteed certain rights to slaveholders, and this included the right to have fugitive slaves returned” (On Lincoln’s “Pragmatism”). He also was an opponent of slavery, and felt that it must end for the country to move forward after the Civil War.
Lincoln knew the political reality of societal changes. This was the reason why he opposed the radical Republican strategy; he felt it would be too divisive, and would harm the country and prevent its true reunification. For lasting peace to be created, the necessary changes must not be abusive to any particular group. Lincoln sought to find a compromise that would best meet his moral belief in slavery’s evil nature and the more practical considerations concerning Reconstruction and reconciliation.
Just as Lincoln sought a middle ground neither comfortable to all nor retaliatory to any in his speech, he tried to find political solutions that would advance his agenda without causing too much pain. Sexton describes Lincoln as a pragmatist, and this description is accurate. Lincoln knew that he could not realistically please everyone; thus, he sought to do the greatest good while offending the fewest number of people in his political practices.
Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address was and remains unique for its humility and singularity of the purpose. He steadfastly avoided mentioning of either personal or military accomplishments throughout his speech; instead, he sought to point out commonality and promote forgiveness. In this historic speech, Lincoln persuaded the nation to accept his vision for a unified nation, and to accept the emancipation of the slaves. He did so through the use of rhetoric, and his words were chosen carefully to support his intent; this speech will live forever as an example of an excellent persuasive writing.