Compare the tone of Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address to Hughes' tone in "As I Grew Older."

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I sense that in both works there is a reflective tone that permeates the writing.  Both works' tone is reflective for a dream. The shared reflective tone in each reflects how the dream in both was essential.  Yet, there are aspects of this reflection that shows how this dream has come at a price.  In this, the tone of each shows the resolute commitment to a dream, one that incorporates cost of its pursuit and validating of its cause.

In Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, there is a reflective tone about the dream of keeping the Union together.  The exposition of the address illuminates this tone, suggesting that the dream of keeping the Union intact was the primary animating spirit in the commencement of Lincoln's Presidency then and remains now:

While the inaugural address [four years ago] 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 tone in this passage, the attitude that Lincoln has towards the dream of keeping the Union together, is forceful.  Lincoln believes in this address as he did in the first of the need to keep together the nation.  War has not changed his dream, but he goes on to reflect about the cost that such a dream has exacted from both he and the nation: " still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."  In the invocation of the divine, Lincoln understands the righteous nature of his dream.  For Lincoln, there has been a toll that the war has taken, but the tone that is intrinsic here is that the Lincoln would not change his dream.  This is where the reflection about the dream is evident.  It was a dream that came at a cost, but there is little to indicate that Lincoln would do anything different.  In this tone, one sees both an understanding of the price that was paid for a dream, but an equally compelling understanding that the price needed to be paid.

Lincoln's tone of resoluteness and reflection is something that Hughes embodies in the attitude towards his own dream.  In "As I Grew Older," Hughes examines his dream of transcending racism as an older man.  Hughes' poem reflects a bit more struggle than Lincoln's Inaugural Address.  This makes sense.  Hughes recognizes that the person of color seeking to be free finds more challenges than the elected leader of a nation.  The shared tone of resolute commitment to the dream is evident in the poem in lines such as "Break through the wall" and "Find my dream."  The tone in lines like "Help me to shatter this shadow" and "To smash this night" is similar to Lincoln's commitment to his own dream.  Age might have taken its toll on the speaker, but the pursuit of the dream is something validated in the ending of the poem.  This is where the tone becomes most evident.  It is one that displays reflection about the cost, but is resolute in its commitment.  Whereas Lincoln incorporates the reflection about how much of a cost has been taken  in the war, Hughes echoes the same sentiments in his age.  As the speaker has aged, there has been a cost in the pursuit of their dreams.  The reflective tone reflects both how the dream of self- definition is challenging, yet essential.

carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In his poem “As I Grow Older, Langston Hughes wrote of his dreams for his fellow black man. When he was younger, these dreams were never far from his thoughts. 

As the poem progressed, so did the power of the speaker.  His attitude strengthened; and he determined to find his dream again.  The dark of night will become the lightness of day and the thousand whirling dreams are metaphorically the black men who struggled to achieve their goals.  He also spoke of the dreams that never come to fruition. His vocabulary changed to a more aggressive tone:

  • smash the night
  • break the shadow
  • shatter the darkness

A wall encircled him [all black men] and kept him from his dreams of freedom and equality. 

He applied a simile to express that once the dream was bright as the sun.  With his black hands, he broke through the wall.  The last part of the poem addressed God and thanked him for his understanding and help.

Help me to shatter this darkness,
To smash this night,
To break this shadow
Into a thousand lights of sun,
Into a thousand whirling dreams
Of sun!

The poet knew that he could not find the light again without the help of God. 

In his  2nd inaugural address,  Lincoln reminds his audience that both sides of the war pray to the same God and read the same Bible.  The President states that man commits certain crimes that offend God. 

Trying to take a middle ground, Lincoln does not say that the south is wrong and will be punished.  Rather, he states that if one assumes that slavery is one of the offenses against God, it will take God’s providence  to stop the war that comes from this offense. 

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 war will end when God says that it should.

Lincoln prays that God will end the war soon; however, if God wills that the fighting continue to avenge the beatings and the hard work performed by the black man for the white man, then the fight will continue.


Hughes began his poem with a tone of sadness. He finds it hard to forgive himself for not pursuing his dream as avidly as he had in his youth. A wall has been built to restrict and contain the black people; however, with his own hands, he began to tear down the wall.

The President’s tone was serious, forgiving, and compassionate.  His dream was to end the war and get on with the business of everyone living in freedom and equality. His hope was that God would intervene and end the war