By Charles Mathewes, Ph.D., University of Virginia
Abraham Lincoln gave many great speeches, but none greater than his second inaugural address. This address, given in the early spring of 1865 as the Civil War was coming to its conclusion, can serve as a kind of potential hypothetical road map for where Lincoln would have liked the nation to go.
Lincoln’s point was to implicate himself and those other people who were on the side of the North. This was not an attempt to whitewash Southern slavery; it was an attempt to expand the complicity to all of America.
Along with justice, Lincoln believed that public life has a destiny beyond justice; a destiny that will transfigure our mundane life and not renounce it. This was the crucial part of the speech. Addressing both the sides, he says:
Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.
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; but let us judge not that we be not judged.
The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes.
And then he quotes the Bible:
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!
If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came …
This is a transcript from the video series Why Evil Exists. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
A Theodicy Question
He addressed this to an audience, many of them soldiers, many of them widows or orphans of soldiers, many of them wounded in the war, all of them with intimate acquaintance of what the war had cost. A terrible war; a war so vast and so expansive that at that point the war had changed the face of America, and everyone in the crowd knew that.
This terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offense came…shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him?
The whole point of the above sentence is framed as a theodicy question; it’s a question about whether or not we can imagine this God as just. Is this God a just God?
Within asking of a question, inside of it, Lincoln frames the whole history of the war as a theological punishment to the nation as a whole, for its collective sins.
Learn more about “theodicy” or theory of evil.
Manichean Dualism of Good and Evil
Lincoln turned what would have been, what was for so many of his contemporaries, a Manichean dualism of good and evil—for the South, the good South and the evil North; for the North, the good North and the evil South—into two sides of a community, both of whom having sinned grievously in God’s eyes, out of God’s mysterious providence, and now God chooses to punish them and thus expiate their sins through this punishment.
Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.
That’s the human side of Lincoln hoping for this, and in a way sincerely; but the rhyming of it makes it sound a little almost too musical. Next, Lincoln goes again into one of these vast periodic sentences, and it’s wonderful:
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.”
Learn more about the “cosmic drama” of sin and redemption.
A Theological Register
In a way, he chooses this register in the most public speech of the end of the Civil War. He really thinks at this point he’s pivoting his political leadership now away from fighting this war to healing the nation; and what’s interesting is he identifies the register in which to deal with this problem as a theological register.
Both sides of this war were deeply theological; both sides understood themselves to be fighting on God’s cause, on God’s side. What Lincoln suggests is that we can make both the sides understand that they are not fighting a crusade, but as penitents in a war that works out their own complicity in sin, and one has to let God decide the outcome of that war as a way of resolving that sin in some ultimate sense.
It’s an astonishing speech for a number of reasons: a theological register for a person who wasn’t apparently very theological; a speech of remarkable mercy from a war leader about to defeat his enemies, mercy that no one else on his side would have offered at this point; but more than mercy, an astonishing invitation for both sides to reconsider what they are in, not so much as a just war against evil but as a history of punishment, a history of just punishment, providentially just, that all ought to accept and reply to with humility.
Common Questions about the Manichean Dualism of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address
Abraham Lincoln calls the Civil War as God’s judgment, as he says, ‘North and South’, were punished for their collective complicity in the sin of slavery.
Abraham Lincoln addressed this to an audience, many of them soldiers, many of them widows or orphans of soldiers and many of them wounded in the war.
Abraham Lincoln suggested that both the sides should understand that they were not fighting a crusade, but were there as penitents in a war that works out their own complicity in sin.