Lincoln's Birth a Good Time to Remember a Great Leader
Abraham Lincoln's birthday is an occasion to remember just how majestic a
leader he was. During the late winter of 1865, the Confederacy found
itself besieged on all sides. Defeat was in the air. While Confederate
forces made their last stands, Lincoln prepared for his second term as
president after a hotly contested election. He was the first president
since Andrew Jackson to have been reelected. The weary commander in
chief had weathered constant criticism during his first term, but with
the war nearing its end, Lincoln now garnered deserved praise. The Chicago Tribune
observed that the president "has slowly and steadily risen in the respect, confidence, and admiration of the people."
March 4, 1865, amid rumors of a Confederate attempt to abduct or
assassinate the president, the six-foot-four-inch, rawboned Lincoln,
dressed in a black suit and stovepipe hat, his face weathered by prairie
wind and political worry, delivered his brief but eloquent second
inaugural address on the East Portico of the Capitol. Not a hundred feet
away, looking down on Lincoln from the Capitol porch, was a
twenty-six-year-old actor named John Wilkes Booth, who five weeks later
would kill the president in a desperate attempt to do something "heroic"
for his beloved South.
Union capital had long before become an armed camp and a massive
military hospital. Sick and wounded soldiers were scattered everywhere:
in hotels, warehouses, schools, businesses, and private homes. Thousands
of Confederate deserters roamed the streets. After a morning of
torrential rains, the sun broke through the clouds just as Lincoln began
to speak to the mud-spattered audience of some 35,000, half of whom
were African Americans. While managing a terrible civil war, the
president had experienced personal tragedy (the loss of a second child
and a wife plagued by mental instability) and chronic depression. What
kept him from unraveling was a principled pragmatism and godly
foundation that endowed his life with purpose.
second inaugural address was more a sermon than a speech, the
reflections of a somber statesman still struggling to understand the
relation between divine will and human endeavor. Rather than detailing
the progress of the war effort or indulging in self-congratulatory
celebration, Lincoln focused on the origins and paradoxes of the war.
Slavery, he said, had "somehow" caused the war, and everyone bore some
guilt for the national shame of racial injustice and its bloody
expiation. Both sides had known before the fighting began that war was
to be avoided at all costs, but "one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish."
weary but resolute commander in chief longed for peace. "Fondly do we
hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily
pass away." He wondered aloud why the war had lasted so long and had
been so brutal. "The Almighty," he acknowledged, "has His own purposes."
Lincoln noted the paradoxical irony of both sides in this civil war
reading the same Bible, praying to the same God, and appealing for
divine support in its fight against the other. The God of Judgment,
however, would not be misled or denied. If God willed that the war
continue until "every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid
with another drawn by the sword, as was said three thousand years ago,
so still it must be said 'the judgments of the Lord are true and
righteous altogether.'" After four years of escalating combat, the war
had grown "incomprehensible" in its scope and horrors. Now the
president, looking gaunt and tired, urged the Union forces "to finish
the work we are in," bolstered with "firmness in the right insofar as
God gives us to see the right."
Lincoln looked ahead to the end of the fighting and a "just and lasting
peace," he stressed the need to "bind up the nation's wounds" by
exercising the Christian virtues of forgiveness and mercy. Vengeance
must be avoided at all costs. Reconciliation must be pursued "with
malice toward none; with charity for all." Those eight words marvelously
captured Lincoln's hopes for a restored union. His simple but powerful
and profound speech, only 700 words long, endures because it manifests
the extraordinary humility and complex faith of a president too humane
to be vengeful or partisan. Redemption was his goal; victory was less
important than peace. The sublime majesty of Lincoln's brief speech
revealed how the rigors of war had transformed and elevated him from the
obscure congressman who had entered the White House in 1861. The
abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass proclaimed Lincoln's second
inaugural address "a sacred effort."
-- David Shi is a historian, writer and president of Furman University