Losing Touch with the Words of Lincoln’s Greatness

MaliceCharity-LincolnMem-smAbraham Lincoln’s best-known words, delivered on a November afternoon at the new Soldiers National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, laid out a call to action at a specific moment in the American Civil War. Attendees at the dedication, he said, must rededicate themselves to victory. He knew the newspapers would reprint the speech, so he aimed his comments at more than just the assembled crowd. It was a call to all Americans at that moment. 

Perhaps disingenuously, he predicted “the world will little note nor long remember” his words. It’s become almost obligatory to point out the irony of Lincoln’s comment considering the number of school kids who’ve had to memorize the Gettysburg Address.

For me, the real irony—a deeply disappointing one—centers on those words of Lincoln’s we did forget: the far more ambitious vision of his Second Inaugural Address.

LincolnMemorialAs an example of excellent writing, the Second Inaugural has historically been seen on par with the Gettysburg Address. Both speeches are inscribed on the inner walls of the Lincoln Memorial. Perhaps because of the Second Inaugural’s length, though–700 words versus the Gettysburg Address’s 272 words–generations of school kids have not been forced to memorize it, so it’s not as widely known to today’s general public.

Like the Gettysburg Address, the Second Inaugural was a product of its moment. Lincoln could not have written that speech to years earlier. But by early 1865, military momentum had shifted inexorably in his favor, and the recent passage of the 13th Amendment, although controversial, had bolstered his political clout.

Speaking from a position of such strength, Lincoln demonstrated his true greatness. He set a tone not of retribution but reconciliation—compassion, not revenge: “With charity for all, with malice toward none….”

Like the Gettysburg Address, the Second Inaugural was a specific call to action. But whereas the soaring rhetoric at Gettysburg asked people to strengthen their resolve—an abstract calling at its core—the Second Inaugural challenged listeners to a frame of mind and a mode of action: act with charity and avoid malice.

Specifically, the speech previewed Lincoln’s Reconstruction philosophy—one that would need to be carried out in the weeks and months and years and even generations ahead. People’s memories, Lincoln knew, would last a long time (as indeed they have).

Lincoln’s magnanimity guided surrender negotiations not only at Appomattox but over the two months that followed. Ulysses S. Grant, as general in chief, served as an important steward of Lincoln’s vision even as public sentiment began to sour into harshness in the wake of Lincoln’s assassination. Radical Republicans, eager to stamp their own harsher vision on the South, suffered from willful amnesia regarding the late president’s charity. They and Lincoln had been, at best, uncomfortable bedfellows during Lincoln’s administration, and his martyrdom gave them the excuse they needed for a less charitable path forward.

America continues to suffer the affects of their shortsightedness: racial inequality, economic disparity between North and South, and ongoing culture wars.

On the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural address, I invite you to consider his vision. They do not have to be just beautiful words chiseled in granite. They can still be a call to action: charity for all malice toward none.

What do those words mean to you? How do you put Lincoln’s vision into action?

8 Responses to Losing Touch with the Words of Lincoln’s Greatness

  1. Chris-

    You make an intriguing point concerning the Radical Republicans and their contribution to modern ills, and I’m interested to learn how you arrived at it. Many historians, most notably David Blight, have argued that it is precisely the move towards reconciliation between North and South at the turn of the century that allowed ex-Confederates to reclaim their identities and values. This, in turn, led directly to rampant, legalized racial inequality and the propagation of the mythology of the Lost Cause, a key component (and instigator) in modern ‘culture wars.’

    1. I think it happens well before the turn of the century, Bryan. The onset of Jim Crow, the awarding of government contracts to corrupt but politically connected “carpetbaggers,” and no clear mandate for the Freeman’s Bureau all tie in. I think postwar America’s fascination with developing the West–rather than redeveloping the South–also played into it.

      1. Totally agree on the economic point. I think it’s a bit disingenuous to blame Jim Crow and its associated racial inequality on Radical Republicans, though, when their direct cause was the failure of Radical Reconstruction and the willingness of the rest of the nation to reconcile with the South at the cost of African Americans’ rights.

      2. One reason Jim Crow evolved, though, is because of deferred anger and resentment at occupying forces–“transferred oppression” is the psychological term. Federal soldiers, acting out the Radical Republican agenda, cracked down on Southerners who, in turn, cracked down harder on free blacks.

  2. It’s one of the most important speeches in American history and deserves its place on the interior of the north wall at the Lincoln Memorial. The inscription in the stone was another one of those weird twist of fate related to Abraham Lincoln, the only error in carving of the letters into the stone of the memorial was the letter F of the word “future” in the first paragraph. Maybe this mistake foretold of the impending reconstruction which turned out with errors abound. The other weird twist of fates occurred at the Second Inaugural where Lincoln gave that famous speech on the east steps of US Capitol. Where who else but John Wilkes Booth was in the audience. Visible in the historical picture about fourteen feet off to the left of the President as he gave the speech. Proclaiming later to his friends that he should have shot the President then. Only to fulfill that prophecy a month later at Fords Theatre. The occurrence happened while Lincoln gave the speech itself. It was a cloudy, rainy day and before the President spoke the clouds parted and the sun shone through. Almost spiritually the way it happen since instead of a revengeful speech it was reconcile speech. Like you stated one of the first time a victorious country would offer terms so lenient terms. Its disappointing that the speech doesn’t get the recognition it deserve but maybe that’s the biggest twist of fate of all.

  3. Unfortunately, you’re echoing a school of thought that developed in the late 19th century, was strengthened by D. W. Griffith’s notorious “The Birth of a Nation,” and which has been largely discredited by Reconstruction historians for over 25 years: blaming Jim Crow and its legacy on the Radicals and the occupying troops rather than the white Southerners who actually implemented the Black Codes and led deadly attacks on African Americans and their allies.

    If William Dunning and his students were alive today, they would surely be pleased to see that their convoluted, inaccurate theory survives.

    1. Actually, I’m not letting White Southerners off the hook at all, Will. See my note to Brian, above, about transferred oppression.

      I do know Reconstruction is more convoluted and nuanced than I’ve gotten into here, and I also admit it is not my area of expertise, but I do know enough about it to identify the Radical Republicans as partially culpable for the racial problems.

  4. I agree with Meg. Reconstruction is complex and less fun than the 150 year celebrations of battles we have enjoyed now for 5 glorious years. Can we celebrate 151, 152, 153 and 4, rather than study Reconstruction?

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