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Last Updated on January 30, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 442

On the fourth day of March, 1865, the President of the United States stood on the east steps of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. to deliver his second inaugural address. Four years earlier, Abraham Lincoln delivered his first inaugural address as disaster loomed. The divided nation that sent him...

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On the fourth day of March, 1865, the President of the United States stood on the east steps of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. to deliver his second inaugural address. Four years earlier, Abraham Lincoln delivered his first inaugural address as disaster loomed. The divided nation that sent him to the White House after the divided election of 1860 was slowly but surely headed to war against itself. Now, four years and approximately 600,000 casualties later, Abraham Lincoln was taking the oath of office again. In a tradition established by President George Washington, Lincoln again addressed the American people.

Lincoln begins by observing that his second address need not be as lengthy as the first. For four years, the nation has focused intently on the Civil War. He has nothing new to offer, nor anything to say that hasn’t been said before. Lincoln expresses hope that the end of the carnage is within reach but declines to predict precisely when. He observes that everyone hoped to avoid the conflict, but he emphasizes that one side ultimately decided to take up arms against the Union.  

Lincoln turns to the topic that most occupies his speech: slavery, the core issue that led to war. The South preferred to fight rather that acquiesce to the federal government’s efforts to limit slavery’s expansion into the Western territories. It could not have been predicted, Lincoln says, that slavery would end prior to the end of the Civil War.

Lincoln introduces the idea that God has been fully present in the turmoil. He observes the irony that men on either side of the war pray to the same God for the wherewithal to destroy each other. He further notes that neither side has seen their prayers answered.

Lincoln alludes to God’s purposes, which he believes to be generally unknown to humankind. He suggests that perhaps “this terrible war” was visited upon the nation both as a penance for the sin of slavery and as a means to end slavery once and for all. While Lincoln hopes the war will end sooner rather than later, he believes that, were God to require further punishment for the riches accumulated by slave owners, such a punishment would be warranted.

Lincoln concludes by laying out the chief aim of his second term: merciful reconstruction of the nation. He expresses no intention to punish the South for what had transpired over the past four years. To the contrary, his vision for a peaceful union includes the care of veterans, widows, and orphans—Northern and Southern alike. This vision would not be realized; Lincoln was assassinated just five weeks later.

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