The Unity of Justice and Fraternity: On Lincoln’s "Second Inaugural"

Commentary below the speech, that makes sense of the speech paragraph-by-paragraph. My apologies for the format of this post; I hope you will read it in its entirety, and if you have suggestions about how it ought to look, do tell.

Second Inaugural Address
Abraham Lincoln

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 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 dissole [sic] 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 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, 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 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 his orphan–to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.


The Gettysburg Address argued for the centrality of equality in American life. Nothing less than a refounding of the nation was necessary, “a new birth of freedom,” as liberty had become perverted through direct and tacit support for slavery.

The Second Inaugural concerns Providence and its relation to Justice. How can a war-torn nation be repaired when one side, clearly in the wrong, is now also to be humiliated militarily?

A dignity is needed for citizens to be citizens. But right and wrong seem to be absolutes and do not allow us to assign dignity so easily. God’s time is above our time, calling us to something higher than our present conceptions, no? It would be for the South’s own good that they were treated like traitors and slavers. A transcendent notion of justice might demand that. To show “mercy” would be to cave into the sentiments that almost prevailed before the war, thus treating the war as an aberration from the normal course of events. The particulars of actions and times can be used in conjunction with what is perceived as transcendent to ignore the present, highest duty.

Lincoln asks his audience for charity, right then and there. How he gets to that point is the greatness of this speech.

The First Two Paragraphs

Lincoln begins with a shocking statement – we do not need plans, I do not need to tell you news. In this age where Presidents have to make news to be on the news, we must wonder what he feels his rhetorical task is. “The progress of our arms…is as well known to the public and to myself” gives a clue – he proclaims himself equal to the public in a matter he has been charged with; he is appealing as an equal to them at least as much as an Executive.

The equality of knowledge – upon which hopes are based – then segues into an equality of past hopes: All of us did not wish war. However, the knowledge that past hopes were based on involves a bit of history one might call skewed. The insurgent agents that wished to “divide effects” ultimately fired on Ft. Sumter. The way Lincoln makes it sound, there was a completely legitimate policy debate going on in Washington then.

Lincoln is not lying – he wants us to focus on the general problem of a democracy, that of minority/majority divergence. Every democracy is legitimate because the majority can make their voice heard and create law and policy. However, democracies didn’t just come about to only serve the many. They came about because actors in other regimes were deprived of their rights and what they had a right to. Every democracy is defined by this tension: the right of the majority versus the rights of minorities. The question of “what is most just” is merely one degree away.

The Third Paragraph

So Lincoln moves to the question of yet another minority, that of the slaves the South had. He mentions that they were “somehow” the cause of the war, as if to say “no one really understand exactly how the slaves mattered,” as if to say that America really does not understand the deep problems regarding democracy and equality. The North certainly did not know the deeper ideas behind both concepts when it said it could only restrict the territorial enlargement of slavery, at most. It gave a free hand through its passivity to the South to try and make slavery an acceptable thing for all.

The point of slavery not being understood properly as the cause of the war shows us that both North and South were engaged in a fundamental injustice. To oppose something wrong for the wrong reasons is not a good thing. In this case, it encouraged the South to be more bellicose than it should have ever allowed to be.

Since both North and South do not know what justice is, it makes perfect sense both sides would not expect anything that actually happened in the war. If they cannot understand what is universal, how could they understand what is particular? Ignorant of causality, they move to prayer, as if God will change the cosmic order for their shortsightedness.

To that end, Lincoln puts forth two counterfactuals. He does not say “God considers slavery a wrong that He wishes to remove, and this will cost us all much blood.” He is saying maybe God thinks that way. He appeals to a “just God” punishing both North and South in a Providential order. That’s the first counterfactual and it alone could end the speech. Hasn’t Lincoln established justice and providence in his audience’s mind in some way?

No, because the horrors of war do more than merely question justice and providence. They put one in a situation where prayers must be answered. If we’re Lincoln’s audience, realizing in some way the truth of our guilt, we should be able to repent and the war should end. A Providential God means a good must emerge at some point, as the war should not just consume everything. Yet the war isn’t over and it isn’t clear when it will end. Still, Lincoln is giving ground for belief in the justice He stands for. Suppose the worst about God, that He uses us to destroy each other to rid the world of evil. Is one going to say this is unjust? The predicates one uses to describe God could have been used long ago to rid us of those evils we are paying for now. The North was decadent before the war and allowed the tension that defined democracy to get out of hand. It did not take its own right seriously. This does not mean the abolitionists were of a true opinion in burning the Constitution, for they neglected the teaching which Lincoln will conclude with. They embraced a harshness Lincoln sees only out of necessity as a step to something higher.


Lincoln moves us from the “judgements of the Lord” to another Biblical teaching which has been neglected, that of charity and fraternity. We trust in God not for the sake of knowing the particular, but knowing that which is most important, which we could always see if we wished. The Providence and righteousness of God have always been about how we treat each other. The most magnificent words in American history describe any soldier, North and South, any widow, any orphan, and the first mention of justice itself in this speech is also the last: justice does not take peace for granted at any time, as the constant conceding to the South did, but aims for a peace that is lasting.


  1. What an excellent analysis of Abraham Lincoln’s speeches, writings and his life. Lincoln was and will forever be one of history’s greatest presidents and people. Dissecting what he said and how he presented himself not only gives us insight into the person he was, but it gives us a view of what PEOPLE as a whole were like back then. Lincoln’s experiences and accomplishments in his repertoire could fill up any resume beautifully.

  2. Great analysis on Lincoln’s speech. Rarely do I see another who was able to look into one of his speeches and give such a detailed commentary. I think that since those times, presidents have made use of god and religion to make a point. I wonder if using god as a way to speak to the religious folk and to win their support is a good move.

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