Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address by Abraham Lincoln

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Only George Washington’s second inaugural address is shorter than the one Abraham Lincoln delivered as the Civil War drew to a close. The brevity, however, is deceiving. In fewer than 1000 words, Lincoln lays the groundwork for peace by shaping a narrative that will help Americans come to terms with the purpose and meaning of the war. Moreover, he does so in a way that will help the South save face, render the North complicit in the war’s carnage, and introduce mercy as the fundamental characteristic of the Reconstruction era.

The tone of this address, far from victorious or self-congratulatory, is subdued, conciliatory, even sad. In the first paragraph, Lincoln declines any overt appeal to ethos, minimizing the importance of the occasion and barely acknowledging his presence in the White House during the previous four years. He observes that in his first inauguration, with war on the horizon, it was necessary to share his plans for the nation. However, he now comments that “public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest[...] little that is new could be presented.” He ends the first paragraph by expressing his hopes for an end to the war, but he stops short of predicting when such an end might occur and omits any speculation about the probable victor. His use of the word “contest” is emblematic of the word choice he will use as his speech continues. His diction on the topic of the war is neutral, even vague, with purposeful avoidance of language that might suggest wrongdoing by the South.

In the second paragraph, Lincoln briefly summarizes the events that led to the war. “All dreaded it—all sought to avert it,” he comments in the first of several effective uses of parallel structure. The closest he comes to ascribing blame can be found here, as he briefly alludes to the “insurgent agents” in Washington, D.C., the first time he took the oath. Lincoln was likely referring to a faction of the Democratic Party that would continue to complicate his political life. Sometimes called “Peace Democrats” or “Copperheads,” these politicians attempted to broker a peace treaty with the Confederacy.

Lincoln refers to the Union and Confederacy as one entity whenever possible, using the collective noun “all.” When it is necessary to delineate between the two, he switches to the term “parties,” as in his statement that “both parties deprecated war.” The sharpest word he uses for the South is “insurgent.” 

In the third paragraph, Lincoln downplays the national division once more, referring to slaves as being “localized in the Southern part” of the United States. He quickly returns to a stance of collectivity as he approaches his thesis, stating that “All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war.” Here Lincoln brings back the term “insurgent” as he suggests that the war was the result of simple cause and effect: the war was fought because the insurgents wished to expand slavery’s reach, whereas the federal government tried to limit slavery. The purposeful juxtaposition of the terms “insurgent” and “government” points to the idea that informed Lincoln’s policy toward the South from the beginning: that the war was a sectional rebellion and that the Union never truly split in two.


(The entire section is 844 words.)