Guest Columns


Lincoln’s Inaugural addresses spearheaded our journey towards equality and freedom

This week’s edition of The Colorado Statesman is dated March 4, 2011. 150 years ago today, on March 4, 1861, Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated as our 16th President. 146 years ago, on March 4, 1865, he was inaugurated for a second term.

Presumably, anyone even casually familiar with Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War era is aware that he was a complex individual with an insatiable hunger for knowledge and the capacity to adjust and evolve his opinions based on newly acquired information, experience and knowledge. Nowhere is this open-mindedness more apparent than in his developing views on the abhorrence of, and possible solutions to, the curse of American slavery.

But even though aware of Lincoln’s propensity for growth and change, one cannot help but note the stark differences between Lincoln's two March 4 Inaugural Addresses; the differences between a man entering into, and emerging from, our bloody baptism by fire. Because, looking back from 150 years into the future, Abraham Lincoln delivering those two speeches IS our nation at those two points in time, and the intervening four-year journey indeed forged for us “a new birth of freedom.” (My apology to readers who recognize that I borrowed these last five words from the greatest “halftime speech” of any contest in U.S. history: Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, delivered on November, 19, 1863).

In the First Inaugural, Lincoln firmly, but tactfully and poetically, beseeched his fellow citizens in the Southern states to remain loyal to the Union. He promised them he would not tamper with slavery where it currently existed, and he would not instigate an armed conflict. Although asserting his intention to “hold, occupy, and possess the property, and places belonging to the government...” Lincoln also promised that, “beyond what may be necessary for these objects, there will be no invasion — no using of force against, or among the people anywhere.”

But the new President also wanted to ensure that the South not misconstrue his strong preference for peace to indicate a lack of resolve to preserve the Union. So he also reminded them: “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war.... You have no oath registered in Heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to ‘preserve, protect and defend’ it.” (Emphasis in the original.)

In his Second Inaugural, four years later but still one month before Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, Lincoln is cautiously optimistic that the Union will survive, but also unwavering in his willingness to prosecute the war to its conclusion. I go back and read these two speeches nearly every time I read a new work about Lincoln (well, more truthfully, I scan the First Inaugural because it’s a lot longer than the Second!) I revisit them because I’m fascinated by the difference in outlook and demeanor the President portrays in each of these speeches. Lincoln expressly acknowledges and reflects upon these differences in his Second Inaugural:

“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 inaugeral (sic) 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.” (Emphasis in the original.)

At his first Inauguration, not knowing the full extent of the horror and suffering in the immediate future, Lincoln seems willing to go to extraordinary lengths to preserve the nation he has been elected to lead. That’s quite a contrast from his second Inauguration. In 1865, certain that the Union will prevail, but not yet certain how much additional death and destruction will yet occur, Lincoln seems almost resigned to allowing the rebellion to play out on the battlefield for as long as necessary.

In 1861, his one non-negotiable issue was his opposition to the expansion of slavery into the territories of the U.S., and he seemed willing to otherwise bend over backwards to appease Southern discontent to avoid civil war. He had no intention of ending slavery, at least not in the foreseeable future. By the spring of 1865, however, Lincoln’s position was that this nation would emerge from the war with slavery abolished, and the war would continue until the Confederacy acquiesced to that point through surrender.

The last three sentences of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address are arguably the finest ever written or spoken by anyone, ever, about a nation’s aspirations for goodness, moral courage, and redemption:

“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 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.’”

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 orphan — to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

Frederick Douglass, the former slave who had risen to a position of prominence nearly equal to that of Lincoln himself, was a man whose opinions mattered greatly to the President, and Douglass was also a man with no inclination to “sugar coat” his views. So he should have the last word here with respect to reviewing Lincoln’s two Inaugural Addresses.

Douglass was hardly pleased with the first speech, and its promises to leave slavery undisturbed and to enforce the requirements of the Constitution and the Fugitive Slave Act concerning the obligation to return escaped slaves to their “owners.” More bluntly and accurately, he was disgusted, lamenting the new President’s lack of moral courage when confronted by “the foul and withering curse of slavery. Some thought we had in Mr. Lincoln the nerve and decision of an Oliver Cromwell; but the result shows that we merely have a continuation of the (former U.S. Presidents) Pierces and Buchanans.”

But what a difference four years can make! At the White House reception following Lincoln’s Second Inauguration, the President reportedly spied Douglass across the room and immediately interrupted his greetings and handshakes to a sea of well-wishers to shout out: “Here comes my friend Douglass.” According to Douglass’ firsthand account, “Taking me by the hand, he said, ‘I am glad to see you. I saw you in the crowd today, listening to my inaugural address; how did you like it?’” When Douglass graciously tried to avoid monopolizing the President’s time and attention, Lincoln was not to be deterred. “You must stop a little, Douglass; there is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours. I want to know what you think of it?”

For a moment these two remarkable men stood together amid the sea of faces. Lincoln knew that Douglass would speak his mind, just as he always had. ... “Mr. Lincoln,” Douglass said finally, “that was a sacred effort.” Lincoln’s face lit up with delight. “I am glad you liked it!” he replied.

In my opinion, March 4, 1865, perhaps in tandem with April 9, 1865, when General Grant presented his magnanimous and generous terms of surrender for General Lee’s Army, represent one of several civic and moral high-water marks in U.S. history, and we should aspire to achieve and remain at that level again.

Quotations from Lincoln’s speeches are from Abraham Lincoln, Speeches and Writings 1859-1865 (The Library of America), and the account of Frederick Douglass is from Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin, 2005, Simon & Schuster. Dr. Goodwin’s quotations within that account are from Frederick Douglass’ own Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.

Patrick Teegarden is an attorney and public policy consultant in Denver. For purposes of celebrating the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War, he’s trying to convince his daughters he really still lives in his native state of Maryland, but they just laugh at him.