Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address

by Abraham Lincoln

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How do Abraham Lincoln's First and Second Inaugurals compare and contrast?

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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...

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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.

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In Lincoln's first inaugural address, delivered in March of 1861, he sought to reassure the southern states that he had no intention of interfering with slavery where it existed. He defended the sanctity of the union and stated that no one state could decide to leave the union. While he sought to avoid bloodshed, he stated that he would consider the act of leaving the union an insurrection. At the end of the speech, he again called for the states to be friends and called on "the better angels of our nature." 

By Lincoln's second inaugural address, delivered in March of 1865, the country had long been embroiled in the Civil War, and he stated that there was less need for a long address than there had been in his first inauguration. His second inaugural address was much shorter than the first, and, in it, he admitted the ties between the north and south that he had hoped would stay firm had been broken. He then discussed slavery directly and stated that God "now wills to remove" the institution of slavery. While he sought to protect slavery in his first address, he came to believe that God was on the side of the Union in abolishing slavery. However, as in his first address, he hoped for continued bonds between the different parts of the union and ended his address with a call for "malice toward none, with charity for all." Many historians believe this was a call for reabsorbing the Confederacy into the Union with leniency—a task that fell to Lincoln's successors after his assassination in 1865.

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The main difference between the First and Second Inaugural Address of Abraham Lincoln was the different contexts in which they were given. In the First Inaugural, Lincoln was in a precarious position. He had received less than 40 percent of the popular vote, and the nation was divided, with 7 states having seceded and the country on the verge of civil war. In this context, Lincoln's focus was not so much on slavery per se, but on national unity and the mandates of the Constitution with respect to the relationship of state and federal governments. The tone of the address is legalistic, focused on specific details of the rule of law, including reassuring southerners that he did not see the Constitution as justifying federal interference in internal arrangements of the Southern states (i.e. slavery) and that he would enforce the Fugitive Slave Act. Although Lincoln was personally opposed to slavery, he saw his position as President as committed above all to the enforcement of the rule of law and his priority as national unity.

In his Second Inaugural Address, the North had almost won the Civil War, and Lincoln's concerns were quite different. No longer needing to accept slavery as the price of national unity, he was focused on making the wartime Emancipation Proclamation the grounds of permanent abolition of slavery. His next major concern was reconciliation, as exemplified in his phrase "with malice toward none; with charity for all." His second speech is much less legalistic and contains fewer specific details, but has a more idealistic moral tone.

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