Today is President’s Day and instead of doing much I am simply going to post one of the most poignant and meaningful speeches ever given by a President, Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.
The address was delivered on March 4th 1865 just over a month before Robert E. Lee’s Army surrendered at Appomattox, and just 41 days before Lincoln died at the hands of John Wilkes Booth. A man who the League of the South, a radical group bent on returning the whole country to their neo-Confederate ways plans to honor on April 14th for “executing” Lincoln who they call a criminal tyrant.
Lincoln’s words need to be remembered for what they are, a remarkable statement of reality as well as hope for the future. When he spoke them the war was all but over, but much blood was still being spilt on battlefields across the South. By the time the war, which began in 1861 was over, more than 600,000 Americans would be dead. It was the bloodiest conflict in American History.
To really understand what Lincoln was speaking of one has to remember that just nine years before the Supreme Court had seemed to demolish any hope at all for Blacks in the United States, and not just the enslaved Blacks of the South, in it’s notorious Dred Scott decision. Roger Taney, the Chief Justice writing for the majority, most of whom were Southerners said about Blacks when denying them any form of Constitutional Rights:
“Can a negro, whose ancestors were imported into this country, sold as slaves, become a member of the political community formed and brought into existence by the Constitution of the United States, and as such become entitled to all the rights, and privileges, and immunities, guaranteed by that instrument to the citizen?…It is absolutely certain that the African race were not included under the name of citizens of a state…and that they were not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word “citizens” in the Constitution, and therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States. On the contrary, they were at that time considered as a subordinate and inferior class of beings, who had been subjugated by the dominant race, and, whether emancipated or not, yet remain subject to their authority, and had no rights or privileges but those who held the power and the Government might choose to grant them”
Before that there was the equally noxious Compromise of 1850 which included the Fugitive Slave Act which gave any Southerner claiming his human “property” not only the rights but a legal mechanism to hunt them down in the North and penalize anyone hindering them with weighty fines and jail terms.
One has to look at the words of Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens in his Cornerstone Speech to understand the truth of what Lincoln spoke on that day in March 1865. Stephens, just four years before had declared in the starkest terms what the war was about and what the Confederacy’s foundation was:
“Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition. [Applause.] This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
It took four years of bloody war, the first total war waged on American soil to end slavery, sadly within just a few years the Jim Crow laws had regulated Southern Blacks to a status not much better than their previous estate, and again became victims of often state sanctioned violence, discrimination, prejudice and death through lynching.
Southern leaders like Stephens and Jefferson Davis denied that slavery was the cause of the war and the foundation of the Confederacy in their revisionist histories after the war was over. They did so even though the litany of their letters, speeches and laws they supported, damned their words as the bold faced lies that they were. In the mean time many in the South sought to reclaim their pre-war glory in the myth of the Lost Cause which permeated much of the United States in the decades after the war, being glorified by Hollywood in Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind, and Walt Disney’s Song of the South. The unconscionable racism and white supremacy promoted by these masterpieces of cinema helped perpetuate racism across the country.
In the North, blacks faced discrimination and prejudice as well. another Supreme Court decision (Plessy v. Ferguson 1896) had legalized segregation and discrimination against Blacks in the form of “Separate but Equal” across the entire United States, something that would remain until a later Supreme Court would overturn Plessy in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.
Despite all the reverses and the continued fight against the rights of Blacks, as well as women, other minorities and Gays, the struggle continues.
In August 1863, Lincoln was asked to speak at a gathering wrote in support of stronger war efforts and enlistments. Lincoln could not attend and wrote James Conkling a letter to be read on his behalf. That letter addressed those who disagreed with Lincoln on emancipation while still be claiming to be for the Union. Lincoln ended that letter with this:
“Peace does not appear so distant as it did. I hope it will come soon, and come to stay; and so come as to be worth the keeping in all future time. It will then have to be proved that among freemen that there can be no successful appeal from the ballot to to bullet, and that they who take such appeal are sure to lose their case and pay the cost. And there will be some black men who can remember that with silent tongue, and with clenched teeth, and steady eye, and well-poised bayonet, that they will have helped mankind on to this great consummation, while I fear there will be some white ones unable to forget that with malignant heart and deceitful speech they strove to hinder it….”
Lincoln, unlike many even in the North recognized the heroic nature of African Americans fighting for their rights and how their struggle was beneficial for every American.
Lincoln died too soon, his death was a tragedy for the nation, but today, on President’s Day let us remember the words of the Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address and the truth that they express. Lincoln’s concluding sentences which began with “With malice toward none, with charity for all…” should be at the heart of our dealings with all people so that we, as Lincoln said so eloquently “may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
It is a speech that always encourages me to fight for freedom and truth, even when that truth is less than popular and often uncomfortable. Lincoln’s words still inspire me, because he spoke the truth that many even today do not want to hear:
At this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement somewhat in detail of a course to be pursued seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.
On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war–seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.
One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. 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. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses 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 offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’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.”
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.