Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address

by Abraham Lincoln

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What are the rhetorical and literary strategies and devices in Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address?

Lincoln's literary strategies and devices in the Second Inaugural Address are based largely on his Scriptural allusions, the use of repetition, and a tone which, though it has an awesome gravity in it, also conveys an essential humility. Rather than fix blame or boast of triumph, he focuses upon the need to heal, to rebuild, and to forgive.

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In the opinion of many, the Second Inaugural is Lincoln's greatest speech. It is relatively brief, but it conveys a range of emotions and ideas that capture the essence of not only what the war was about, but what the peace should be about.

It's significant that Lincoln quotes several biblical texts and thereby connects the meaning of the war with history and with spiritual matters. Lincoln was evidently a freethinker but believed in a Divinity and felt that he was endowed by the Creator with a moral mission. Rather than skirt or mitigate the issue of slavery, as had been done in some of his earlier speeches, Lincoln identifies it as an absolute evil that could only have been destroyed by war. Yet he sees the entire nation, in some sense, as having been guilty of this sin.

The emphasis is on an equation of the two sides: "Both read the same Bible, both pray to the same God." His own phraseology often seems derived from the style of the King James Bible, from which he quotes both the Old and New Testaments. War is seen as a necessary punishment to the nation, and he repeatedly alludes directly and graphically to the oppression and cruelty directed against the enslaved people. But at the same time he declines to do so in a self-righteous or vindictive way:

It may seem strange that any men should dare 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.

It is significant that Lincoln views the evil that afflicted the country as a cumulative one, dating back 250 years to the very first enslaved people brought to North America. Here, he again uses repetition and parallelism to reinforce the point—in a phrase which, like so many from this address, has echoed through the ages. The war will, and should, continue until each "drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn by the sword."

The conclusion of the speech has become an iconic reference point for the spirit of generosity and forgiveness through which Lincoln wished to heal the country.

With malice toward none, with charity for all...

In the very last words, Lincoln contextualizes the America struggle as having universal and timeless significance, in wishing "a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations." The war has therefore not been merely a local conflict, but one that will, he hopes, lead to a cosmic transformation for humanity.

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