Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address

by Abraham Lincoln

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How effectively did Abraham Lincoln use "ethos" in his second inaugural address?

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President Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address uses the rhetorical appeal to “ethos” effectively and often. The Encyclopedia Britannica defines “ethos,” in rhetoric, as

the character or emotions of a speaker or writer that are expressed in the attempt to persuade an audience. It is distinguished from pathos, which is the emotion the speaker or writer hopes toinduce in the audience.

Lincoln expresses or implies his own character in a number of ways in this speech, including the following:

  • He opens by addressing his listeners as “Fellow countrymen,” thereby implying that he considers himself, first and foremost, a citizen of the United States rather than its lofty leader.
  • By using the phrase “I trust” in the opening paragraph, he implies that he is wise enough to give his listeners credit for being wise and knowledgeable.
  • Lincoln shows his generosity by saying about the Civil War that “All dreaded it—all sought to avert it.” Presumably he means even persons of good will in the South, although he then quickly indicates that some in the South “would make war rather than let the nation survive.”
  • Lincoln presents his own aims (and thus his own personality) as modest and reasonable: all the government sought to do, he claims, was to restrict the spread of slavery.
  • Lincoln occasionally taunts defenders of slavery, but in general he is surprisingly restrained in his assessment of the South, as when he says, “but let us judge not, that we be not judged.” He thus shows his thoughtfulness, his religious convictions, and his wisdom.
  • By praying for the end of war while also indicating his firm intention to wage war until the North triumphs, Lincoln indicates his strength of character and his steely determination.
  • Perhaps the most famous lines of the speech are its closing sentences:

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 shall 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.

These lines show Lincoln exhibiting his “ethos” or moral character in numerous ways. “With malice toward none” implies his lack of anger and hate; “with charity for all” implies his willingness to love everyone as Christians are taught to love; and “with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right” implies his conviction but also his humility. The word “work” implies Lincoln’s recognition of the sheer diligence, effort, and commitment needed to finish the war, but it also implies that he does not glorify the war.  He does not call it “the holy crusade of liberation.” He does not speak of magnificant triumphs. He does not vow vengeance or promise punishment. Instead, he speaks with moderation and modesty. In the remainder of the sentence he implies his compassion, his special concern for the soldiers (presumably those on both sides), and his thoughtfulness about the sufferings of non-combatants (again, presumably those on both sides). Finally, he shows that he is a man of peace who is also a man committed to justice – a man who will not settle for peace at any price. Lincoln's address may talk mainly about the war, but it also paints a very attractive picture of Lincoln's own character or ethos.

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