Abraham 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.
As 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?