The title’s not as ambitious as I promised, of course, but sometimes it’s best to keep one’s hubris below the fold. In case you’re lost right now, I posted to this blog several days ago two “poems” for Poetry Friday: one of them a short ode to Abraham Lincoln by Vachel Lindsay, and the other was the full text of Lincoln’s remarkably brief speech given after he took the oath of office for the 2nd time, in March of 1865. I acknowledged going in that calling it a poem was daring but defensible. I commented afterwards that by Monday I’d explain why I think it’s his best speech—better even than the Gettysburg Address—and perhaps the best speech ever given. I’m going to make that attempt now. I want to say at the outset that I recognize this is an unresolvable question. I’m not even sure that I’d agree with me on this 100% of the time—there are a lot of great speeches in the world, and in different moods they affect me in different ways. So all I’m really doing is trying to explain why this reaches me, why I think it deserves higher acclaim than it gets, and why at the very least it is one of the great prose poems that expresses America at her noblest and best. I’m not including the whole text here (as it’s accessible by scrolling down a bit), but will quote from time to time.
Photograph of Abraham Lincoln in 1863
I want to start with his humility. This is a public address on an immensely important occasion. Lincoln has been re-elected by a country that knew his first election had caused the war. His dedication and unconventional thinking had helped steer a course to victory. As recently as the fall of 1864, leading up to the election, it was unclear if the war could end in any reasonable time, and many Northerners thought suing for peace would be best. But startlingly by March 1865, the war is essentially over. Lee is weeks away from surrendering at Appomattox. The Union is victorious. And Lincoln begins this triumphant opportunity by telling the crowd he doesn’t want to talk long. He calls the course of the war “reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all” and refuses to predict anything about its imminent conclusion. He’s a man who literally had been sneaked into the capital through the shadows for his first inauguration because there were mobs waiting to kill him, and he’s unwilling to take a bow until the last shot is fired. He would rather not linger on the stage. Nothing he has to say is important. This is characteristic of him—the Gettysburg Address is in exactly the same vein—and there is something pure and unfeigned about his shyness. He recognizes the greatness of his time and the inability of any human being to look prominent by comparison. In the modern era, where politicians never pass up a chance to give a long stirring speech with lots of applause lines, where our leaders look for chances to declare victories with banners and fanfare, Lincoln is a mystery.
Lincoln acknowledges the contrast with March 1861, noting the anti-Union forces at the start of the war (though saying nary a word about their personal hatred of him, or their attempts to do him violence). And then the first of the great moments in the speech arrives: “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.” Lincoln uses 19th Century American language the way Shakespeare used Renaissance English—their command and confidence, in both cases, is really beautiful. In one sentence, that slips by us like a rider in the night almost before we can hear it, Lincoln draws the lines between North and South in a way that does not demonize, but does distinguish. The irony in that sentence—of the peoples who would have rejected war had there not been a more terrible evil to conquer—is at just the right level for me. Lincoln was an unwilling warrior—strangely, the President we most associate with a war was, as far as I can tell, one of our least warlike and most pacifist leaders—and the phrasing of that clause “would accept war rather than let it perish” must be exactly what he said to himself the night that Sumter was fired upon. It’s how he justifies to himself the years of blood and smoke that follow—the death and horror that live in those four slow syllables, “and the war came”.
Lincoln begins to walk directly into the topic of slavery, unblinking, fully aware that his Maryland audience is tense about the end of the war because it will bring with it an end to slavery—slavery which had been legal in the Union state of Maryland throughout the war. He does so because he wants to show them that the course of history gives them no alternative. He reminds them that both sides tried their best to avoid this outcome—to seek, in his beautifully phrased prose, “an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding“. But it could not have been. Lincoln here reveals a personal perspective on slavery, in saying that 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 he immediately steps back from this as a policy statement: they are not to judge, lest they be judged themselves. There is a wonderful balance here, in which Lincoln simultaneously reminds the audience that the Bible and their faith has been used by both sides against the other, while using the language of the Bible and of faith himself to present his own perspective on the war, a perspective he knew in his heart was “right” in a way the Confederacy could not be.
We are not far into the speech—a handful of sentences, really—but are already past the half-way point, and everything from here on out is shocking. Lincoln accepts the war as a punishment to both the North and South for slavery: he presents this simply enough, but think of the even-handedness of this. He does not present the North as the white knight, having vanquished the iniquitous Southern villain. Both sides are brothers, kinsmen in a house that must suffer for its sins. Lincoln, who grew up and lived in an emancipated North, believes so firmly in the unity of his country that he will not excuse the North for having allowed the South to go its own way for so long. Think of the daring of that from any political leader at any time—the willingness to share blame equally between your friends and your foes—and then think of a President doing this on the day of his triumphant inauguration, on the brink of victory after a long and bloody war. The kind of character it takes to say this is remarkable.
Patients in Ward K, Armory Square Hospital, 1865
And then he says “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.’” The epic scope of this overwhelms me every time, and sometimes pushes me to the brink of tears when I read it. The Civil War had been the country’s bloodiest conflict—over 600,000 Americans dead, hundreds of thousands more wounded and maimed for life. Every community in the country had felt loss, every neighborhood had at least one young man who would not come home (and many who came home were never the same). And at this moment, when that long national nightmare seems at an end, when the light is beginning to dawn, Lincoln looks squarely in the eyes of his nation and tells them that this war has been the mercy of God. That the evils they have undeservedly visited upon a whole race of human beings are so terrible that only the destruction of the American society, only an ocean of spilled American blood, could expiate their guilt. At a time when he could easily have saluted his followers for their victory “in the cause of freedom”, he instead looks back on the gruesome past of a country built on the backs of an enslaved people and can hardly believe that divine justice will allow his land to escape with a mere million casualties. His bravery in facing this truth has never, I think, been paralleled by any national leader in the history of democracy.
And I haven’t even gotten yet to the best sentence he ever penned. “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.” The war is on the verge of ending, but as he continues to remind them, it is not quite over yet. So, how does he envision the next four years? Retribution against the traitors who destroyed his country? Punishments that ensure no such rebellion will ever again arise? No, he reaches out into the bleeding wounds of the South with charity and not malice—with a love that aches for his American brothers and sisters even as they continue to deny his leadership, even as a few of them are plotting to kill him and his closest friends in a night of assassinations. Lincoln reminds his people, as both a benediction and a call to service, what work they are engaged in: not the work of warfare, of brutal force and blood. There has been enough of that—a necessity forced on Lincoln by the war he could not avoid, but not the path of his choosing. No, the work for Americans is to bind up the nation’s wounds, the whole nation’s and not merely part of it. To care for soldiers and for those left behind by the dead, regardless of the color they wore as they fell or the flag they saluted when they enlisted. To take every step, to leave no stone unturned, until the nation is at peace with the world and at peace with itself.
It’s not the greatest speech ever if you want to inspire modern people to action—it’s not timeless in the way that some speeches are (Martin Luther King comes to mind as a better example). But as a speech of its time, especially of that particular context of the 2nd inauguration at the end of a difficult war, I think it shows an unmatched willingness to confront the truths no one would have asked to hear. Lincoln is a great leader and a great man because of what he manages in speeches like this one—to humbly and simply put before the nation the truth about itself, that America has never lived up to its ideals, that America has built itself on injustice and exploitation, that in facing hardship America is only facing the consequences of fate and divine retribution that would befall any nation so unwilling to do what is right. And he says all of this without condescending, without pulling rank or moral authority, and without shifting the focus away from what is most important—that revenge is unthinkable and that peace will only come from kindness and goodness, from the open love offered by a charitable heart. Lincoln is our greatest President, and this is his greatest speech, because he shows us that under all his canny political instincts (there’s no denying he was skilled, and crafty at times) his devotion to truth and justice is unflinching even when it aims the sword at his own heart. How our nation was fortunate to elect, not once but twice, a man who ultimately refused to glory in victorious battle, refused to keep honest criticism from his allies, refused to take vengeance on those who threatened the safety of himself, his family, and the nation he swore to protect, I cannot possibly imagine. If he were a politician in the United States today, he might never rise above the office of local dogcatcher. That is our century’s shame, and should be all the incentive we need to re-examine our politics.
This is an immense post, and may well be rambling (though I hope not). I think at the very least it conveys my enthusiasm for Lincoln and for this speech, and I hope I did so in a way that touches you also, even if not in the same way. If you’ve never read anything by him, I urge you to track down whatever you can—even in short letters to people he was unacquainted with, the character and the vision I’ve been praising are very evident.