Story of a Big, Inconsistent, Brave Man

Lincoln had come to believe that the Civil War might well be a divine punishment—a millstone—for a national sin.

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President Abraham Lincoln, seated next to small table, in a reflective pose, May 16, 1861, with his hat visible on the table. [ Photo credit: Vintag]

Following excerpts adapted from the author’s latest book, And There Was Light: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle, published by Penguin Random House

“Fellow countrymen,” Lincoln said, “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.” His task today was less about how the nation must move forward than it was about why he believed the war had been fought, and what it meant. He had begun his presidency with a brief on secession and Union—a brief that had included support for a constitutional amendment that would have banned the federal government from abolishing slavery where it existed at the time. He was opening his second term with a searching statement about human nature, the relationship between the temporal and the divine, and the possibilities of redemption and of renewal.

Lincoln acknowledged that mortal powers were limited. “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,” he said. “And the war came.” The gulf between North and South was so profound, so unbridgeable, that only the clash of arms could decide the contest between freedom and bondage. In a speech that stipulated the ambiguity of the world, Lincoln was unambiguous about why the war had come: slavery. “One eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the Southern part of it,” the president said. “These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war.” There was no escaping this central truth.

Lincoln turned to the perils of self-righteousness and self-certitude, North and South. “Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God,” he said, “and each invokes His aid against the other.” Then the president rendered a moral verdict: “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.” In speaking of the strangeness of profiting from the labor of others—a subtle but unmistakable indictment of slave owners—the president drew on the third chapter of the Book of Genesis: “In the sweat of thy face,” the Lord commanded, “shalt thou eat bread.” Adam and Eve are being expelled from the Garden of Eden; the whole structure of the world as we know it was being formed in this moment. To work for one’s own wealth, rather than taking wealth from others, was the will of God.

In the same breath in which he framed slavery as a violation of God’s commandment, Lincoln invoked the words of Jesus: Judge not. This injunction is found in the Gospel of Matthew, in a plea for forbearance, forgiveness, and proportion: “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” The president believed he was doing the right thing—yet he knew that those who opposed him believed the same. “The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully,” Lincoln said of North and South. “The Almighty has His own purposes.”

Lincoln had come to believe that the Civil War might well be a divine punishment—a millstone—for a national sin. The president hoped the strife would soon be over, and the battle won. “Yet,” Lincoln said, “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.’ ” To Frederick Douglass, “these solemn words…struck me at the time, and have seemed to me ever since to contain more vital substance than I have ever seen compressed in a space so narrow.”

Lincoln’s point was a startling one from an American president: God was exacting blood vengeance for the sin of human enslavement in a specific place and a specific time—in the United States of America in the mid-nineteenth century. This was not routine political rhetoric. In the Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln was affirming a vision of history as understood in the Bible: that there was a beginning, and there will be an end. In the meantime, the only means available to a nation “under God” to prosper was to seek to follow the commandments of that God.

The alternative? Chaos and the reign of appetite without restriction and without peace. Lincoln once said that “the author of our being, whether called God or Nature (it mattered little which), would deal very mercifully with poor erring humanity in the other, and, he hoped, better world.” Until then, “poor erring humanity” was charged with making its words and work acceptable in the sight of a God who had enjoined humankind to love one another as they would be loved. That is where Lincoln left the matter in his peroration on Saturday, March 4. “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 a lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.”

His speech done, Lincoln turned to Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase for the oath of office. The sun came through the clouds. “It made my heart jump!” the president recalled of the breaking light. Lincoln, Noah Brooks wrote, “was just superstitious enough to consider it a happy omen.” A Black man who worked at the Washington Navy Yard, Michael Shiner, recorded the moment in his diary: “The wind ceas[ed] blowing the rain ceased raining and the Sun came out and it was as clear as it could be.”

The chief justice noted the passage of the Bible the president kissed—Isaiah 5:27–28, which reads: “None shall be weary nor stumble among them; none shall slumber nor sleep; neither shall the girdle of their loins be loosed, nor the latchet of their shoes be broken: Whose arrows are sharp, and all their bows bent, their horses’ hoofs shall be counted like flint, and their wheels like a whirlwind.”

There would be no rest. The wheels turned. The work went on.

Later that afternoon, the president would ask Frederick Douglass what he’d thought of the speech.

“Mr. Lincoln,” Douglass replied, “that was a sacred effort.”

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Copyright © 2022 by Merewether LLC

Jon Meacham

Jon Meacham is a Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer. The author of the New York Times bestsellers Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, Franklin and Winston, Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush, and The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, he is a distinguished visiting professor at Vanderbilt University, a contributing writer for The New York Times Book Review, and a fellow of the Society of American Historians. Meacham lives in Nashville and in Sewanee with his wife and children.

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