Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address

by Abraham Lincoln

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How would you interpret this passage from Lincoln's second inaugural address (1865)?

“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.”

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In Lincoln's second inaugural address, he makes an appeal for social and political unity among the people of the U.S., while firmly stating that this political reunification, through the conclusion of the Civil War, would indeed occur. Lincoln was making an appeal to humanity while remaining firm on his position in the war. Of course, Lincoln was less interested in the liberation of black people as he was in the political and economic stability of his country. Lincoln refused to free the slaves of the north during the Civil War as he did not want to anger the northern state slave owners and lose their loyalty during the war. The war was a political battle to maintain the strength of America and through ending slavery, shift the economy towards more modern industrialization.

However, Lincoln was a political strategist who understood the social and moral struggles that his nation was engaged in, and understood that he needed to construct his reasonings for the Civil War as a moral fight against the evils of slavery. And, of course, slavery was an incredible evil that needed to be abolished. This quote from the second inaugural address reinforces Lincoln's strategy of framing the Civil War as a moral battle and as a battle for unification. Rather than appear hostile towards the southern states, Lincoln framed this address as the need for true equality that must be achieved through the Union's winning of the Civil War.

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Abraham Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address in March of 1865 about a month before his assassination. The Civil War was winding down, and Lincoln used the language of reconciliation to describe his hopes and intentions for reunification of the nation. "With malice toward none" means that there is no intention to do harm to anyone. "With charity for all" means that anyone in need of help will receive it. This also alludes to the future efforts of Reconstruction. "With firmness in the right"...expresses his faith in his fellow man to act with the morality that God teaches mankind to know is right. "To finish the work that we are in" refers to the restoration of a single nation instead of a Union and Confederacy. Along with the rhetoric of reconciliation and reunification, Lincoln was alluding to the end of slavery, which his 1863 Emancipation Proclamation guaranteed.

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This passage is clearly meant as Lincoln's expression of how he thinks that the Union should move toward the ending of the Civil War and the Reconstruction of the South.

When Lincoln delivered this speech, the Civil War was about a month from begin over.  It was clear that the Union would win.  The North, then, had to decide how to treat the South after the war.  Lincoln was giving his basic view on how to do this.

He was saying that the North needed to remain "firm."  This meant that they could not give up on the purpose of the war, which was to preserve the Union and, by this point, to end slavery.  At the same time, however, he did not want to be harsh in dealing with the South. This is why he talks about acting with a charity and without malice.

Lincoln is proposing, then, a fairly lenient attitude towards the South so long as it is compatible with achieving the goals of the war.


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