The first and second inaugural speeches of Abraham Lincoln are framed by their historical contexts. At the time of the first inaugural speech, which Lincoln delivered on March 4, 1861, seven states from the Deep South had seceded from the Union and the Civil War was about to begin. At...
the time of the second inaugural speech on March 4, 1865, the Civil War was all but over and Reconstruction was about to begin.
In his first inaugural speech, as the threat of war was palpable, Lincoln issued a warning to the South that the federal government would protect its property—by which he referred to enclaves such as Fort Sumter in South Carolina, which would soon afterwards be attacked. He emphasized that the Constitution was written to form a more perfect Union and that Union could not be abolished without an agreement between all the states. He would see to it that federal laws were obeyed even in the South. If the South attempted to take up arms against the North, they would meet with a firm response. Lincoln also reassured the South that he would not interfere with the institution of slavery where it already existed. At the close of the speech, he pleads with the South not to initiate war:
In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to "preserve, protect, and defend it."
At the time of the second inaugural address, there was no more threat of war. Instead, Lincoln had the task of binding the wounds of a nation ripped apart by bloody conflict. His speech reflected this. He acknowledged that at the time of his first speech "all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war." He also affirmed that the issue of slavery was the main cause of the war:
These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war.
This contrasted with the first speech, in which Lincoln tolerated slavery for the sake of keeping the Union together. Lincoln clarified that slavery was an offense against God, and that the war was divine retribution. Also in contrast to the first speech, there were no threats in the second. Instead, Lincoln called for unity:
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, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who should have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.