“What did you think of it?” President Abraham Lincoln asked friends after delivering his second Inaugural Address. Like an indie movie director, he was confident in his creation but nervous about public tastes. “I believe it is not immediately popular,” he wrote.
Of course, he needn’t have worried. The second-shortest Inaugural Address became one of the most widely quoted. It helped usher in the modern age of political communication. Its final paragraph is a touchstone of American compassion and leadership.
It was also a failure.
President Lincoln had a job to do when he spoke to the mud-spattered, war-shattered spectators that day. He had to manifest the progress of the Civil War, which was drawing to a close. He had to lay down markers for reunion and Reconstruction. He had to rally Americans toward his vision of a post-slavery America.
He did none of those things.
“The progress of our arms,” he said, “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.”
Glad to clear that up! Moving on, item two.
President Lincoln’s perfunctory description was the first missed opportunity. The war’s encouraging progress had encouraged intrigue in the capital, as representatives for the Confederacy sought a negotiated peace on favorable terms.
Lincoln was having none of it. He made his position plain the previous summer: “We accepted this war for an object, a worthy object, and the war will end when that object is attained. Under God, I hope it never will until that time.”
That powerful sentiment was not conveyed by the second Inaugural Address. Instead, Lincoln portrayed the war as a force of nature, an act of God, out of his hands — and his generals’.
A more serious misfire was the speech’s theme. Months earlier, the administration had batted down a malignant proposal from Confederate President Jefferson Davis “to secure peace to the two Countries.” “There are not two countries,” argued War Secretary Edwin Stanton, and Lincoln concurred.
But the second Inaugural Address could fairly have been titled “Two Americas.” “Both parties deprecated war,” Lincoln said. “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.”
That passage was followed by a long lesson about slavery. “All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war,” Lincoln said. He chided the South for seeking “to strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest.” After his judgment, he added a passive-aggressive coda: “Let us judge not, that we be not judged.”
Lincoln’s words were historically justifiable. They would have been apt validation for the Emancipation Proclamation, signed two years earlier.
Now, however, the President faced a more delicate task. Congress had passed the 13th Amendment ending slavery, but it had yet to be ratified. The war was ending, but there was no process for welcoming seceded States back into the Union. What was needed was a vision of the future, not a history lesson.
President Lincoln knew the perils of Reconstruction. He was wary of both his friends and enemies. The year before, he had pocket-vetoed a Republican-passed bill that set high hurdles to reunification and denied voting rights to Confederate civil and military officers.
By contrast, he held out his arms to emerging pro-reunion forces in the Southern states. If “we recognize and sustain the new government,” he said of Louisiana, “…we encourage the hearts, and nerve the arms…[to] fight for it, and feed it, and grow it, and ripen it to a complete success.”
Alas, those words came a month after the second Inaugural Address, which was utterly silent on Reconstruction.
The great disappointment of the Address is not what it was, but what it could have been. President Lincoln had mastered a modern conversational style that gave his words feeling and reach. And he grounded them in principles that gave them weight and authority.
“I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence…,” Lincoln said in 1861. “It was that which gave promise that in due time the weight would be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance.”
Lincoln called the Declaration the “apple of gold” and the Constitution the “picture of silver, subsequently framed around it. The picture was made, not to conceal, or destroy the apple; but to adorn, and preserve it.”
This was a rebuke and a warning to those who would invoke the Constitution to deny unalienable rights. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney’s 1857 ruling in Dred Scott v. Sandford, which denied citizenship even to free Northern blacks, was a prime example.
The post-war Court would be equally susceptible to mischief. Lincoln’s own appointee, Justice Samuel Freeman Miller, gave a majority opinion (Slaughter-House Cases, 1873) and a majority vote (Civil Rights Cases, 1883) that helped set the stage for decades of Jim Crow discrimination.
The President’s assassination turned missed opportunity into tragedy. Neither his successor, Andrew Johnson, nor his allies in Congress and the courts possessed that special blend of magnanimity and resolve needed to guide the nation toward true equality, liberty, freedom, and fairness.
Lincoln used those words often. Just not in the second Inaugural Address.
John K. Herr is a Washington D.C.-based speechwriter and standup comedian (stage name “Herricane”). He has written for three governors and four Cabinet secretaries, and wrote jokes for President George W. Bush. He can be reached by email (firstname.lastname@example.org), or follow him on Twitter (@jherricane).
NOTE: Two books were used as sources for portions of this op-ed: The Civil War: A Narrative, From Red River to Appomattox, Shelby Foote, pp. 809-810, 814; Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin, pp. 639, 691