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Mar 18, 2015

Lincoln's Second Inaugural on Its 150th Birthday

tags: Lincoln

Sociologist James W. Loewen is the author of "Lies My Teacher Told Me."

            On Sunday, March 7, 2015, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the National Park Service and the Lincoln Group of DC held a formal program remembering (and repeating) Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address.[1]

Abraham Lincoln (Michael Krebs) and Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase (John O’Brien) listening to learned analyses of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural.

            It was altogether fitting and proper that they should have done so. At least two speakers claimed that it was the most important speech ever given in this country, and I think they were right.[2] Moreover, this recognition followed more than a century of deliberate misreading or ignoring of this address, by our history textbooks and in our national culture.

            Bob Vogel, Director of the National Capital Region of National Park Service, began the day with remarks directly on point. He referenced Bloody Sunday at Selma, Alabama, whose 50th anniversary was being celebrated the same day, as part of the legacy of slavery of which Lincoln spoke. It would not be the day's only reference to Selma, which was appropriate, because the Civil Rights Movement, including the speeches given at this memorial during the March on Washington, sparked the shift in America's view of Lincoln that made Sunday's event possible.

            Vogel also referenced Robert Russa Moton, Booker T. Washington's successor at Tuskegee Institute, who gave the major address at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in 1922. He noted that Moton had invoked the "new birth of freedom" from Lincoln's other famous address, at Gettysburg, and had acknowledged, correctly, that Lincoln was referring of course to black freedom. Other speakers at the event, including Chief Justice William Howard Taft and President Warren Harding, only spoke of Lincoln as the savior of the Union.

            Vogel did not mention that Moton's remarks had been censored by the white people in charge of the dedication ceremony. Moton had planned to speak eloquently about the then-increasing tide of racial discrimination against which African Americans tried to swim. In the 1890s, white Americans, North and South, had reunited under the common bond of white supremacy. The '90s began with Mississippi's new constitution, which removed African Americans from citizenship — from voting, serving on juries, etc. Yet the United States simply ignored this flagrant defiance of the 14th and 15th amendments. As a result, every other Southern state and states as distant as Oklahoma had followed suit by 1907.

            So segregated had the United States become by the time the Memorial was dedicated that African Americans were restricted to a section across the road from the white audience, even in the nation's capital. Twenty-one African American guests left the dedication in protest.[3] The contrast between this seating and Lincoln's own practice at the White House reception after his inauguration shows in microcosm the deterioration in race relations during the Nadir.

            Moton had planned to reference Lincoln's famous "House Divided" speech at Springfield, Illinois, in 1858: "This nation cannot endure half slave and half free: it will become all one thing or all the other." Moton then went on:

            With equal truth, it can be said today: no more can the nation endure half privileged and half repressed; half educated and half uneducated; half protected and half unprotected; half prosperous and half in poverty; half in health and half in sickness; half content and half in discontent; yes, half free and half yet in bondage.


In this new era, after 1890, a new view of Lincoln had become popular, North and South, a synthesis historian Scott Sandage calls "bowdlerized" and "contrived."[4] Lincoln was now seen as "the best friend the [white] South ever had" as white Mississippians told me earnestly in the 1960s, because he would never have insisted on "Negro domination" the way the "radicals" in Congress did during Reconstruction. This new Lincoln was solely interested in holding the United States together, not in doing anything about slavery. Moton's invocation of a different Lincoln, one who did care about black rights, simply did not fit the new consensus. Moton was allowed to retain his ending, which referenced Lincoln's Gettysburg Address: "We dedicate ourselves and our posterity, with you and yours, to finish the work which he so nobly began, to make America the symbol for equal justice and equal opportunity for all."[5]

            Art critic Royal Cortissoz wrote the inscription that looms above the seated Lincoln. In keeping with this new interpretation of Lincoln, he deliberately omitted slavery: "In this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever." Cortissoz explained, "The memorial must make a common ground for the meeting of [white] North and South. By emphasizing his saving the union you appeal to both sections. By saying nothing about slavery you avoid the rubbing of old sores." To this day most high school textbooks in U.S. history echo Cortissoz's interpretation of Abraham Lincoln. One of the ways they do this is by omitting his Second Inaugural altogether or by quoting only its final paragraph, "with malice toward none."

            It's obvious to anyone who reads Lincoln's Second Inaugural that its last paragraph is a sort of epilogue — a brief passage at the end of a play or speech that brings the audience down from its high emotional and intellectual climax. That climax comes in the penultimate paragraph:

            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 bondman'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.'


Two of those sentences are astonishing in their length alone, as well as in their content. Politicians don't talk like that nowadays. When my college students read it aloud, slowly and deliberately, they do not fail to perceive it as a searing indictment of America's sins against black people. The Civil War was by far the most devastating experience in our history. Yet we had it coming, Lincoln says here. And in his rhetorical context, sin or crime, not mere tragedy, is the fitting and proper term. Indeed, this indictment of U. S. race relations echoes the last note left by John Brown on his way to the gallows: "I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with Blood. . ."

            During the Nadir of Race Relations, which began in 1890 and began to loosen only around 1940, the United States went so racist in its ideology that the notion that Lincoln might actually have cared about black rights or ending slavery became an embarrassment. So let's leave that out! If the Second Inaugural is the most astonishing pronouncement about slavery ever uttered by any American president, let's just not quote it. Let's just quote from the epilogue. "With malice toward none, with charity for all" — who can be against that? Caring for widows and orphans — that's like being for the Ronald McDonald House — who could oppose that?

            The portrait of Lincoln that had been painted during the Nadir — free of content about slavery — still influenced our national commemoration of the centennial of the Civil War in the early 1960s. The centennial of his Second Inaugural went largely unremarked. Indeed, treatments of Christopher Columbus, secession, Abraham Lincoln, the presidency of U.S. Grant, that of Woodrow Wilson, and much else in our national U.S. history textbooks still remain under the thrall of interpretations that found favor during the Nadir of Race Relations. Thus only one textbook of the eighteen I studied for Lies My Teacher Told Me, published from 1975 to 2007, quotes anything from Lincoln's Second Inaugural about slavery. Seven quote a phrase or two from the epilogue. Ten ignore the speech completely.

            Not so, at the time. In 1865, it made quite an impact. Black listeners said "Bless the Lord" quietly after almost every sentence. Frederick Douglass told the president that evening that he deemed it "a sacred effort." Charles Francis Adams prophesied that it would be "for all time the historical keynote" of the war.[6] Six weeks later, farmers in New York and Ohio met Lincoln's funeral train with placards bearing phrases from this speech.

            Last Sunday, the mall looked beautiful, covered with snow. African American re-enactors played the part that U.S.C.T. had played 150 years earlier. Abraham Lincoln, in the person of Michael Krebs, at 6'4" the perfect size and shape to play the part, read his address. And last Sunday, the speech again made its full impact. Sally Jewell, Secretary of the Interior, referred to one of the two long key sentences in the address. She also referenced Harriet Tubman and her memorial in Maryland and various other innovative sites there National Park Service is opening, including Cesar Chavez National Monument and locales related to LGBT history.

Chuck Todd at the podium.  Lucas Morel, seated next to Lincoln, with United States Colored Troops behind him. Bob Vogel of NPS is to Todd's right; Karen Needles of the Lincoln Group of DC is in blue.

            Then came the first key speaker, and the best, Dr. Lucas Morel, who ironically hails from Washington & Lee University ("Lee" added of course to honor the Confederate general in 1870). Morel focused entirely on the key paragraph, calling it "the centerpiece of the Second Inaugural." In that paragraph, according to Morel, Lincoln provided a "national memory" of slavery, a "common understanding" of what the war had been about. North and South might now agree that even if this war were to cease immediately, after "only" four years, the nation would be getting off easy, so great was the stain of slavery. The ringing applause that greeted Morel's talk gave hope that in 2015, 150 years after Lincoln's death, perhaps we can recapture the content of his character, the anti-racism of his last speeches, and the meaning of his life for our time.

            Later, Chuck Todd of "Meet the Press" spoke of polarization and referenced Selma. Historian Edna Greene Medford of Howard University also referred to Selma at some length. She closed like Moton had closed almost a century ago, "Let us pledge to recommit ourselves to the principles [Lincoln] championed." Bobby Horton, known for his Civil War era musical scholarship, sang Lincoln's campaign song and also "Dixie." The Washington Performing Arts' Children of the Gospel Choir, not children but young men and women, sang several pieces. They ended with the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," which in a way gave John Brown the last word — perhaps a fitting finale. I noticed that Secretary Jewell let a tear fall during that hymn.

 Bobby Horton playing “Dixie”  for Pres. Lincoln and the audience.

            Afterward, Vogel invited the audience to come up and be photographed with the re-enactors. I didn't go. I was content just to look down the Mall on that beautiful day, now becoming comfortably warmer. Beyond the reflecting pools, behind the Washington Monument, I could see parts of the Grant sculptures and the wings of the Capitol behind them. It was all very imposing, as befits a great nation. In the aftermath of the morning's program, I was free to imagine, now that we let ourselves remember all of Lincoln's Second Inaugural, what if the United States could live up to its moral implications? What if we did construct a society with no unrequited toil? What if we did achieve a just and lasting peace with all nations?

            An impossible dream? Well, it was a patriotic occasion — and at a place where dreams have been dreamed before.

    [1]Karen Needles, president of the Lincoln Group, worked untiringly to make the program happen. Full disclosure: I think I am a member of the Lincoln Group.

    [2]Admittedly, the competition is fierce, from William Jennings Bryan's "Cross Of Gold" to Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream." Certainly Lincoln's Second Inaugural is the most important speech by an American president, notwithstanding even Lyndon B. Johnson's "We Shall Overcome" address to Congress in support of the Voting Rights Act.

    [3]Their walkout was specifically triggered when a Marine spoke abusively to them. When a fellow Marine admonished him, he replied, "That's the only way you can handle these damned 'niggers." At that point, the 21 left. See Albert Boime, The Unveiling of the National Icons (Cambridge:  Cambridge UP, 1998), 295-96.

    [4]Scott Sandage, "A Marble House Divided," Journal of American History, 80 #1 (6/93), 142.

    [5]Adam Fairclough, "Civil Rights and the Lincoln Memorial: the Censored Speeches of Robert R. Moton (1922) and John Lewis (1963)," Journal of Negro History, 82 #4 (1997), 410-12. Some sources claim that Moton himself was not allowed to sit on the speakers' platform, but photographs show him seated with other dignitaries. Cf. Sandage, ibid.

    [6]Adams quoted in Merrill D. Peterson Lincoln in American Memory (NY: Oxford UP, 1994), 12.

Copyright James W. Loewen

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