Whether this speech or the Gettysburg Address is the better speech is something I've pondered more than once. I cannot say I have ever decided either way. I did like Ronald White's book Lincoln's Greatest Speech about this inaugural and accepted that viewpoint, but further readings of the few appropriate comments in Pennsylvania have made me less certain. It's a tough call, perhaps one I'll try again to make someday, but this post is just about the 1865 speech, which is definitely worth another reading and some additional thought.
I have underlined a few phrases that I especially like and added some comments. I am sure my choices and thoughts are not uncommon, but I wish to point them out anyway, at least to exercise my own mind.There is just a lot of very good writing in this speech.
At this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement somewhat in detail of a course to be pursued seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.
(It would have been easy - and justifiable - for Lincoln to emphasize a highly positive view of the military situation, but this more conservative approach is very effective. It sets the tone for the rest of the speech as a series of mainly logical thoughts and comments, including some optimism, instead of a standard political rally. Perhaps more examples of the approach he chose would be nice to see today.)
On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the Inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war--seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.
(The compare and contrast strategy impresses me here. He does not specify which party did what, but it s still clear what he means. The final four words, -"and the war came" - are all only one syllable and this phrasing strikes me as simple, yet very powerful. In fact, my first attempt at a blog was called "And the Blog Came.")
One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it.
(His beliefs on this subject are certainly clear.)
Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. 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. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?
(Again, the comparing and contrasting of the opposing sides and their goals stands out and noting that that it was impossible to satisfy both sides, that neither might be totally happy and that punishment was given to both impresses me as good observations. It seems obvious once he mentions it, but how many recognized it before he did, especially publicly? It also goes back to his undated "Meditation on the Divine Will" fragment which shows this was not a new line of thinking for him.
I also believe that while he states "judge not, that we be not judged," that the words immediately preceding to it actually lead the reader to a judgement. That is pretty strong writing, though perhaps it could be called "manipulative.")
Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with 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."
(The grammatical structure, with the adverbs starting the sentences, and the subjects following the verbs, plus the repetition of words and sounds make this sentence so memorable. I find "mighty scourge of war" to be an excellent description, especially the harsh "c," "r," "g" and "w" sounds. "Scourge" may be the perfect word here or for any description of war.)
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, 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.
(This conclusion may be my favorite piece of Lincoln's, or anyone's, writing. When I gave a presentation about Lincoln last year, it included discussion of events in early 1865, and I concluded it with this sentence, though I added the word "amen" to the end, as these lines strike me as a "mini-prayer." (I have seen at least one website refer to "Lincoln's prayer" starting with "fondly do we hope" but I think this final section truly fits that description.)
This is a truly great ending to a speech, so I "borrowed" it to end my presentation (though deciding which words and phrases to emphasize was not easy.) This speech ended on a high moral note, a "call to arms" for the citizens of the nation.)
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