White analyzes Christian ethic within Lincoln’s second inaugural address

Mary Desmond | Staff Writer


Michelle Kanaar | Staff Photographer
Professor and presidential biographer Ronald White Jr. speaks on Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address in the Hall of Philosophy on Monday.

Abraham Lincoln was a Christian president, and he embedded Christian ethics of inclusivity, humility and reconciliation within his speeches, writings and presidency, said Ronald C. White Jr., the author of A. Lincoln: A Biography and Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural. White presented Monday’s 2 p.m. Interfaith Lecture in the Hall of Philosophy.

White opened this season’s Week Nine religion lecture theme, “The Ethics of Presidential Power,” with a lecture titled “Abraham Lincoln’s Sermon on the Mount: the Second Inaugural Address.”

White began his lecture with a reading of the 701-word document, which only took Lincoln six minutes to read to an audience of 25,000 to 30,000 people on March 4, 1865. At the time the president delivered the speech, the crowd was full of soldiers who had lost limbs during the Civil War, family members who had lost sons and brothers, White said. The atmosphere was turbulent, and already there were threats of Lincoln’s assassination or abduction. Nearby rooftops were strewn with sharpshooters, White said.

“Within this 701 words, to the surprise of almost everyone in the audience, Lincoln mentions God 14 times, quotes the Bible four times and invokes prayer three times,” White said.

The speech left many listeners angry. They had arrived anticipating a denouncement of the South, a list of recommendations for how to deal with the Confederacy, how to separate the innocent from the guilty. In the letters and diaries written by those who attended the speech, there is an overwhelming sense of disappointment about Lincoln’s words, White said.

“He offered an address so different, so surprising, there were only four occasions of applause. People were not sure immediately how to understand what he was saying,” White said.

White provided an in-depth, textual analysis of the speech.

“I suggest in the first paragraph that Lincoln breaks all the rules, of modern leadership studies,” he said.

Modern leaders give speeches rife with promises and grandiose assertions. Lincoln’s strategy was quite the opposite. In the first sentence of the speech, he said, “there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first.” A few lines later: “little that is new could be presented,” and “no prediction in regard to it is measured.”

During his research, White discovered that not only did most of Lincoln’s predecessors only use the word “God,” or a form of God in the last paragraph of their inaugural addresses, but they used another word over and over: “I.” In Lincoln’s second inaugural address, there are only two personal pronouns used.

The first Christian ethic that appears in the speech is inclusivity.

“He wants to include everyone in that address: the people of the South as well as the people of the North,” White said.

In the second paragraph of the speech, Lincoln blames the war on both the North and South and explains that neither saw it as the best option. He said things such as, “all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war,” and “All dreaded it — all sought to avert it.” The paragraph continues to explain, “Both parties deprecated war.”

“Do you see what he is doing? He is positing to the people of the South the best possible motivation,” White said. “They did not want this war anymore than people in the North.”

Though in the second paragraph, Lincoln did say, “But one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish.” It is important to note what was left unsaid, White said. Lincoln could have instigated the anti-South crowd into a fury using words for the South such as “rebels,” “Confederates” and “tyrants,” White said.

“I believe that self-consciously he chose to lower his voice and use the generic ‘but one of them.’ His purpose was not to raise animosity anymore after four years of war,” White said.

Lincoln was born in 1809. He only received one year of formal education and did not read his first book on grammar until he was 23 years old. A half of the book focused on declamation, which involves recitation of classic works such as the Bible and Shakespeare. Declamation prepared students for public reading and speaking.

“Lincoln became a public reader, and he had a variety of tools in his arsenal,” White said.

One of those tools was alliteration. In the second paragraph of the speech, Lincoln used the alliterative sound of the consonant “d” eight times. Lincoln understood words and the thought sound inspires. He utilized alliteration to bind concepts together, to concentrate his audience’s thoughts, White said.

White
Photo by Michelle Kanaar.

“Only using 701 words, Lincoln also had a second quiver in his arsenal, and that was the repetition of the same word,” White said.

In the speech’s second paragraph, Lincoln used the word “war” in every sentence. However, war goes from being the direct object to the subject as the speech continues.

“Lincoln had discovered something we have not discovered: The North started out believing they would win this war very quickly,” White said. “But this war spun out of control.”

The change of “war” from direct object to subject evidences that Lincoln understood that no matter how much people think they control war or can start and maneuver war — war is a beast unto its own, White said.

In the third paragraph of the speech, Lincoln summarized the meaning of the war. It was started to save the Union, but Lincoln knew it was really started to end slavery, White said.

“The Founders, for a variety of reasons, passed on the issue of slavery. Lincoln decided we could pass no longer,” he said.

The speech began to change when Lincoln said, “Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.”

In the first two lines of the phrase, Lincoln affirms the similarities between the two sides — Confederates read the same Bible. The semicolon serves a specific purpose in setting apart the last line of the phrase; the last line is not an affirmation of similarity but rather an admonishment to all.

“Lincoln is really saying how dare each side invoke His aid against the other. Do we worship a tribal god?” White said.

Most speeches stem from antecedents, but the precursors to the speech were difficult to track down, White said. The next line of the speech — “It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces” — came from a conversation Lincoln had with two Southern women whose husbands were jailed in the North. The women told Lincoln their husbands were religious men, and after three days of discussion, Lincoln confronted them with that verse from the Bible.

“You see, for Lincoln, the Bible was not back there and then, it was here and now,” White said. “And he used this verse to say to them, ‘your husbands are involved in slavery,’ and then to these two startled women, he said, ‘And I don’t think that’s the way to get to heaven.’ ”

He used the same verse in his speech, but he followed it with a line from the Sermon on the Mount, “Let us judge not that we be not judged.”

“Right in the heart of the New Testament is Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, in which he offers for all of us who would follow him a new ethic not based in judgment, but based in grace and forgiveness; and this is the heart of this address,” White said.

The speech continues on: “The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.”

Calling God the Almighty was Lincoln’s favorite way of speaking about God, White said. When Lincoln used to pray in church, he would stand up. A journalist covering the president once asked Lincoln why he stood. He responded, “I stood in prayer, because God is the Almighty; my standing is a mark of my respect to who is God,” White said.

When Lincoln said, “Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!” he references the Bible once more. The line is another detour from the accepted inaugural address rhetoric. Generally, inaugural addresses are celebratory and congratulatory. With that line, Lincoln is saying that the nation is filled with a great evil. Lincoln says what the evil is with the line, “If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences.”

“If Lincoln would have said, ‘If we shall suppose that slavery is one of those offences,’ I believe the crowd would have exploded in applause, because he’s pointing his finger at the South,’ White said. “But Lincoln very self-consciously uses this term ‘American Slavery’ — we are all involved.”

The punishment for American slavery was metered for both the North and the South, Lincoln said.

He continued in his speech to say, “Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.”

According to an article in The Times of London, at the moment that was said, the African-American contingent in attendance began to chant “Bless the Lord, bless the Lord,” White said.

“They understood exactly what Abraham Lincoln was talking about,” White said.

Nineteenth-century sermons were organized in a way that the first portion was indicative, but then toward the end, the speaker includes an “imperative ethic,” White said.

“He’s asking himself a question I think we need to ask today in our deeply divided nation, ‘Is it possible in the midst of so much polarization, so much division, to reach out to each other in forgiveness and reconciliation?” White said.

“Just imagine that divided nation,” he said, “and Lincoln dared to ask those people to reach out in reconciliation, ‘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 a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.’ ”

In his speech, Lincoln’s ethics of inclusivity, where people respect others despite differences, also include the second ethic of humility, White said. In the address, there are only two personal pronouns. The final ethic is reconciliation.

White concluded his speech by addressing many of the questions that arise when people attend his lecture about Lincoln’s second inaugural address. The first “indictment” is that Lincoln may have been religious, but no more religious than his predecessors. The second is that Lincoln was a shrewd politician who was merely speaking the language of the voters.

Forty days after the address, Lincoln was assassinated. When his secretary, John Hay, was looking through Lincoln’s things, he found a drawer in the White House with a collection of Lincoln’s ideas.

White read what Hay found on one of the slips of paper: “The will of God prevails — each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party — and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are the best adaptation to effect His purpose.

“I’m almost ready to say this is probably true — that God wills this contest, and wills it shall not end yet. By his mere quiet power, on the minds of the now contestants, He could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. And having begun He could give the final victory to either side any day. And yet the contest proceeds.”