Chief Justice Roger B. The ceremony was witnessed by Clerk of the Supreme Court, William Thomas Carrol, who recorded the occasion in the Bible, which has special significance for President Obama.
President Obama was the first President to swear on the Lincoln Bible for an inauguration since its initial use in 1861. He used it in 2009 and again in 2013. Why didn’t other president-elects use it? Slate Online Magazine provides the answer:
Because the Library of Congress didn’t offer it up. The Bible, which was given to Lincoln by the clerk of the Supreme Court, is part of the permanent rare-books collection of the library. Other presidents probably could have used the Lincoln Bible if they’d asked for it, but Library of Congress staffers proposed the idea themselves shortly after Obama’s election.”
When Lincoln used this bible in 1861, he was administered the oath of office by then Chief Justice Roger Taney, 84 years old and the author of the infamous 1857 Dred Scott decision. The Supreme Court decision Scott v. Sandford (60 U.S. 393), issued on March 6, 1857, was a landmark case holding that slaves were not citizens of the United States and could not sue in Federal courts. In addition, it declared that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional and that Congress did not have the authority to prohibit slavery in the territories. The decision was later overturned by the 13th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution.
The Bible upon which Abraham Lincoln was sworn in for his first inauguration.
Credit: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
As the Library of Congress reports:
The Bible was originally purchased by William Thomas Carroll, Clerk of the Supreme Court. The Lincolns’ family Bible, which is also in the Library’s collections, had been packed with other belongings that were traveling from Springfield. The Bible itself is bound in burgundy velvet with a gold-washed white metal rim around the three outside edges of both covers. All its edges are heavily gilt. In the center of the top cover is a shield of gold wash over white metal with the words “Holy Bible” chased into it. . . . The 1,280-page Bible was published in 1853 by the Oxford University Press. In the back of the volume, along with the seal of the Supreme Court, it is annotated: ‘I, William Thomas Carroll, clerk of the said court do hereby certify that the preceding copy of the Holy Bible is that upon which the Honble. R. B. Taney, Chief Justice of the said Court, administered to His Excellency, Abraham Lincoln, the oath of office as President of the United States … ‘”
Michelle Obama held the Lincoln Bible while Barack Obama took the oath of office in 2009. Credit:
Damon Winter/The New York Times
Donald Trump, never one to be outdone by Barack Obama, also used the Lincoln Bible for his own inauguration, in addition to his family bible.
While the Constitution requires presidents to take an oath of office, there is no rule requiring them to do so with their hands on a religious book, or any book at all. Most have used a family Bible.”
A number of president-elects have opted to use the bible used by George Washington. In 1825, John Quincy Adams was sworn in on a law book. Lyndon B. Johnson, a Protestant, was sworn in aboard Air Force One using a Roman Catholic missal found at Kennedy’s bedside on the plane after the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
'Alarmingly Similar.' What the Chaos Around Lincoln's First Inauguration Can Tell Us About Today, According to Historians
I f the tense beginning of 2021 has you worried history is repeating itself, you’re not alone.
Experts on political history say an apt parallel to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol can be found 160 years ago, when seven southern states seceded from the United States between December 1860 and February 1861.
The walk-up to Lincoln’s first inauguration was also dramatic, and some aspects of what was going on in the country back then will sound familiar to Americans today. In fact, a month after Lincoln took the oath of office on Mar. 4, 1861, shots fired at the Union’s Fort Sumter marked the beginning of the Civil War, America’s deadliest war.
“I think 1860-1861 is probably the best analogue for ,” says Robert Lieberman, a political scientist and author of Four Threats: The Recurring Crises of American Democracy. The 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol is “the closest we’ve come to 1861, the one instance of a real failure of what you would call a smooth peaceful transfer of power.” The big difference Lieberman finds between then and now is that the 2021 insurrection came “from inside the government,” referring to the members of Congress and President Trump who riled up the insurrectionists.
“This is an insurrection incited by the President of the United States,” Lieberman says. “That’s completely without precedent. That’s what’s so jaw-dropping to me.”
Unlike in 2020, politicians weren’t peddling false charges of election fraud and there was no disagreement about the outcome of the 1860 presidential election. However, “it leads to greatest failure of American democracy in history,” as Lieberman puts it.
Southern Democrats in 1860 “all agreed Lincoln had won. But the similarity might be, in both cases, there’s a rejection of the democratic process,” Rachel Shelden, Director of Penn State University’s George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center, says. “[Today,] we’re seeing pushback against that idea that a majority voted for Joe Biden, and in 1860 although these folks did say yes Lincoln won the election, that, to them, meant that they needed to leave the Union, which was in and of itself, a rejection of democracy. They’re both rejections of the democratic process, just in different ways.”
Historian Ted Widmer has pointed out for the New York Times, a mob did attempt to break into the U.S. Capitol on Feb. 13, 1861, to disrupt the counting of the states’ certified electoral votes. U.S. Capitol security did not let them in because they did not have the proper credentials. Instead, they stood outside hurled insults at the head of the Capitol’s security detail General Winfield Scott, saying such things as &ldquoFree state pimp!&rdquo &ldquoOld dotard!&rdquo and &ldquoTraitor to the state of his birth!&rdquo Observers of the scene back then described the crowd as “a caldron of inflammable material&rdquo with &ldquorevolution&rdquo on their minds.
Later that month, Lincoln faced a threat to his life en route to his inauguration. When he was traveling by train to Washington D.C., a forefather of the U.S. Secret Service Allan Pinkerton and some of his operatives uncovered a plot, that had originated in Baltimore, to assassinate the incoming President.
“Pinkerton went into Baltimore with a team of agents and they impersonated Lincoln haters and got all of the information about the plot, then told Lincoln and his entourage,” Widmer, author of a book about the plot Lincoln on the Verge: Thirteen Days to Washington explains to TIME. “It was very well-funded…We don&rsquot entirely know if the new Confederate government was behind it there are interesting trails but they&rsquore not conclusive.”
In the middle of the night on the last night of Lincoln’s trip, detectives escorted him to a secure transfer station so he could continue to journey to D.C., and he arrived safely, enabling a peaceful swearing-in on March 4, 1861. Looking back on that close call in 1861, less than a week after the mob attack on the U.S. Capitol, Widmer says “It does feel alarmingly similar [to Jan. 6, 2021].”
“As in 1861, you do have a feeling of a country pulling apart, back then it was really a region pulling away from the rest of the country and seven states had seceded before Lincoln even got to Washington,” he says. “Now it’s almost family by family, within every state in the country, there are people who are alienated from one version of America or the other. But it does feel similar in that there are two competing ideas about what America should stand for.”
Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address is one of the most famous speeches for politicians calling for unity. Among the most famous lines: &ldquoWe are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.&rdquo
Shelden argues one similarity between the aftermath of the 1860 presidential election and the 2020 presidential election is, “political leaders were implicitly (and in some cases explicitly) rejecting the legitimacy of a party for reasons related to white supremacy.”
“That’s a real similarity to today,” she says. “People in Congress are whipping up conspiracy theories, and that definitely existed in 1860 and the 1850s more generally.” The slave states thought that Lincoln was out to eliminate slavery, the basis of their livelihood in their states, but, in fact, he ran for President in 1860 on a platform of eliminating it in the federal territories, not in the places where slavery already existed.
In addition to fear of losing control over slavery, southerners back then feared losing political control. They dominated federal politics for about the first half of the 19th century, and losing the presidency in 1860 threatened that dominance.
“The South controlled everything in Washington for a long time,” says Widmer, pointing out that therefore it’s ironic that part of the Lost Cause narrative reframes them as victims of big government after the Civil War. “They were just mad they lost control of what they had always controlled.”
Shelden says that the argument that FOX News presenter Brian Kilmeade and various GOP lawmakers made that Democrats shouldn’t pursue impeachment because of threats of mass violence “sounds a lot like what was going on in 1860” when the southern states repeatedly urged compromise or threatened to leave.
“There had been increasing expansion of slavery westward, and northerners repeatedly compromised with white southerners on that issue, and it was to no avail,” Shelden says. “The biggest lesson is that compromise is not always effective. It doesn’t necessarily prevent this kind of rejection of democracy.”
Then, as now, America was at a crossroads, but back then, Shelden argues there was less confidence that America would survive the conflict because of the country’s young age. The Jan. 6 insurrection attempt, she argues, showed many Americans how much they take their democracy for granted.
Making History Again: Obama to Use Lincoln’s Bible for Swearing-In
Though not constitutionally mandated, it&rsquos customary for the new president to swear the oath of office on a Bible. Incoming presidents usually choose a Bible with personal or historical significance. George H.W. Bush, for example, was sworn in on George Washington&rsquos inaugural Bible, while Bill Clinton took the oath of office on a family edition. President-elect Obama is the first to choose the Lincoln inaugural Bible.
Obama is known to be a longtime admirer of Lincoln, and there are many similarities between the two men: Both are from Illinois, both had relatively little political experience prior to being elected to office, and both assumed their leadership during a time of crisis.
Brent Colburn, spokesman for the Presidential Inaugural Committee, says Obama&rsquos choice of the Lincoln Bible is not a surprise, but it adds to the momentousness of the occasion. &ldquoThis Bible is a part of the nation&rsquos history, and we will be celebrating another touchstone in history on January 20,&rdquo Colburn says.
All photographs by Michaela McNichol
The Lincoln inaugural Bible has been in the Library of Congress&rsquos collection since 1928, when it was donated by the widow of Lincoln&rsquos son. Clark Evans, the head of reference services for Rare Books and Special Collections, used white cotton gloves to display the book at the press viewing.
Lincoln was inaugurated for the first time on March 4, 1861. He arrived on a train from Springfield hours before the ceremony, so most of his belongings were still packed away and he couldn&rsquot use his family Bible. Instead, he used a Bible originally purchased by William Thomas Carroll, clerk of the Supreme Court.
The chief justice at the time, R.B. Taney, was the author of the majority opinion in the Dred Scott case he was no friend to Lincoln or emancipation. Taney administered Lincoln&rsquos inaugural oath. &ldquoWhen Lincoln put his hand on that Bible, it was one of the most fraught moments in history,&rdquo says Evans. &ldquoNow for the average American, the significance of the connection between the great emancipator and the first African-American president is profound.&rdquo
This Bible is bound in burgundy velvet with a gold-washed white metal border around the outside edges of the front and back covers. All of the edges are heavily gilded, and in the center of the top cover is a shield of gold wash over white metal with the words &ldquoHoly Bible.&rdquo It&rsquos a compact and thick King James Bible that was published in 1853 by Oxford University Press.
After Obama&rsquos inauguration, the Bible will be on display at the Library of Congress from February 12 through May 9 as part of an exhibition on Lincoln&rsquos bicentennial.
Abraham Lincoln’s train ride to Washington took ten days. The Lincoln family’s belongings, including the family Bible, had yet to arrive by inauguration day. William Thomas Carroll, a clerk of the Supreme Court, retrieved a Bible that he kept for official use. Lincoln, the 16th president, used this Bible for his swearing-in.
This Bible has become known as the Lincoln Bible. Although Carroll retained ownership of the Bible for a time, the Lincoln family acquired it at some point. The Bible remained in the Lincoln family until 1928. At this time, the widow of Lincoln’s son, Robert Todd Lincoln, donated it to the Library of Congress.
Barack Obama, the 44th president, chose to use the Lincoln Bible for both of his inaugurations.
Donald Trump, the 45th president, used the Lincoln Bible for his oath of office in 2017.
One Reply to &ldquoAmerican Scripture: Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address&rdquo
More than anything, the Second Inaugural is a nihilist text that points to the sheer arbitrariness of moral codes, including that of “the Almighty” (or rather the Bible). The fact was, the South was asking for a just God’s help in wringing their bread from another man’s face (African slaves), and why shouldn’t they have? The Bible time and again validates slavery (1 Peter 2:18: Servants. be subject to your masters with all fear not only to the good and gentle, but also the froward (sic).) This speech is about Lincoln’s distancing himself from the ill doctrines that brought on the atrocities of slavery. Notice, it is “the believers in a living God” that Lincoln refers to, making no inclusion of himself in that party. Lincoln is illuminating the cruel injustices that have occurred “in the providence of God,” asking what just God could indeed allow such backwardness and bloodshed. The Second Inaugural asks us, What truly drives the force of history?
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Vantage Point: Choice of inaugural Bible both historic and symbolic
President Barack Obama campaigned on a platform of change. Yet, valuing tradition, he took the oath of office with the Bible that President Abraham Lincoln used at his inauguration 148 years ago.
"Facing a nation divided, teetering toward civil war, President Lincoln used his first inaugural address to call for national unity, arguing that our Constitution was created 'to form a more perfect Union,'" wrote blogger Amy Hamblin on the inaugural committee's website (http://www.pic2009.org).
"President-elect Barack Obama is echoing President Lincoln's call in words and in symbolism. He will be placing his hand upon the same burgundy velvet-bound Bible that was used by President Lincoln at his first inauguration as he is sworn in as the 44th President of the United States," Hamblin added.
When Abraham Lincoln placed his hand on that burgundy velvet-bound Bible, it was opened at random. Several presidents have taken the oath of office on a closed Bible, as Obama did Tuesday. Others have chosen a particular text that they hoped would guide them in their presidency, telling us something about themselves and their aspirations.
Dwight Eisenhower selected Psalms for both of his inaugurations. In 1953, "Unless the Eternal builds the house, its builders labor in vain unless the Eternal watches over the city, the watchmen keep vigil in vain" (Psalms 127:1). And in 1957, "Happy the nation whose God is the Eternal and the people God has chosen to be God's own" (Psalms 33:12).
Richard Nixon, a member of the pacifist Society of Friends and inheritor of the Vietnam War, chose for both of his inaugurations a prophetic text extolling peace: "Thus God will judge among the nations and arbitrate for the many peoples, and they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks nation shall not take up sword against nation they shall never again know war" (Isaiah 2:4).
When Nixon left office in disgrace, Gerald Ford entered the presidency touching these words from Proverbs (3:5-6): "Trust in the Eternal with all your heart, and do not rely on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge God and God will make your paths smooth."
Jimmy Carter selected Micha (6:8): "He has told you, O man, what is good, and what the Eternal requires of you: Only to do justice, to love goodness and to walk modestly with your God."
For some the presence of the Bible upon taking an oath of office, whether opened or closed, with a guiding verse or without one, is no more than a remnant of old practices, a ritual nod to the past amidst the inaugural panoply.
For others, the presence of this book, the central repository of the wisdom of Western religion, is not a trapping but an essential element of the event, confirming that however much authority the presidency of the United States of America may hold, there is a greater power still. However much attention is paid to the man and his achievements, there is a community of citizens to whom he is accountable and, beyond that, a Creator to whom he owes thanks.
Many presidents have chosen their family Bibles, ones given to them by a mother or a grandmother, for this moment of oath-taking. That Barack Obama chose a Bible used by a previous president, a Bible in the public domain (albeit under glass in the Library of Congress), a Bible associated with the struggles of our union, speaks to his understanding of the power of tradition to create change. As the executive director of his inaugural committee affirmed, "The President-elect is committed to holding an inauguration that celebrates the unity of America, and the use of this historic Bible will provide a powerful connection to our common past and common heritage."
When President Obama placed his hand on Lincoln's burgundy-velvet Bible, embodying change while upholding tradition, the commitment to unify the American people and to be claimed by and answerable to them not only resonated for him it also motivated untold numbers of citizens, black and white, old and young, of every religious and cultural background, to travel to Washington, D.C., to be part of this extraordinary moment. Even in a time of economic downturn, millions of citizens wanted to touch history, to witness the sweet ripening of equality over prejudice, of intelligence over ignorance, of hope over despair.
Our new president has asked for our hands to be outstretched as well, in order to renew our country. "We need your service, right now, in this moment—our moment—in history," Obama said in a speech last summer in Colorado. "I'm not going to tell you what your role should be that's for you to discover. But I am going to ask you to play your part ask you to stand up ask you to put your foot firmly into the current of history."
President Obama's inauguration is ours as well. If we can join together, if we can become a people ready to accept our own power and possibility, if we can believe, with our new president, that civility and compassion and community can be renewed in our country, then we, led and inspired by our new president, can be worthy of the promise of this moment.
Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann is senior associate dean for religious life.
All the Presidents’ Tables: Abraham Lincoln’s Inaugural Menus
In the throes of the 2008 election campaign, I decided to do a little looking into what the candidates, Senators Barack Obama and John McCain, eat when no one’s watching. (Chili for Obama and ribs for McCain – hmmm, wonder if there’s any Freudian, Jungian undertones there?)
Such musings lead, naturally, to a perusal of the various books out there about the presidents of the past and their food. In particular, the ostentatious inaugural dinners, with all the pomp and circumstance, frankly enthrall me and, I think, will fascinate you, too.
Let’s start with Abraham Lincoln, who served as president at possibly the most challenging time in history for the great American experiment. Probably only Franklin Delano Roosevelt faced an equally dangerous time for the future of the United States. One of Lincoln’s favorite dishes was Oyster Stew. His wife Mary said once that he also liked fresh fruit, particularly apples.
Elected twice, Lincoln obviously presided over two inaugural dinners, one during wartime. Ironically, the dinner held on March 6, 1865 appears to be opulent as any feast held in a French chateau or German castle.
For the inaugural luncheon on March 4, 1860, the menu was rather simple:
White House at the Time of Abraham Lincoln
In 1865, in spite of the war and food shortages, the opulent dinner served on March 6, 1865 seems both dreamy and extravagant, the French a little rough and crude and incorrect, something hard to swallow for a nation enduring four long bloody years of internecine warfare. According to chef and cookbook/historical menu collector, Louis Szathmary (1919-1996), only three copies of the menu exist today:
The symbolism of Trump’s two inaugural Bible choices, from Lincoln to his mother
When George Washington took the oath of office as the country’s first president in 1789, he placed his hand upon the Bible while speaking those solemn 35 words required by the Constitution, beginning a tradition that has come to define the pomp and circumstance of Inauguration Day.
And though the act of swearing upon a Bible held significance at the time, the particular book he chose did not.
It was, historians say, an afterthought. Organizers had simply forgotten to bring one, so they grabbed the closest holy book they could find — a nearby Masonic lodge’s altar Bible — and Washington made his promise.
But in the two centuries since then, the act of choosing an inaugural Bible — or Bibles — has become far more symbolic.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt used his family’s Bible, written in Dutch and printed in 1686. John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic elected to the White House, chose a Douay Bible. And when his second inauguration fell on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, President Obama chose to lay his hand upon a book of Holy Scripture that belonged to the civil rights leader.
The story behind the Bible adds gravitas — and gives media commentators something to talk about.
On Wednesday, President-elect Donald Trump announced his choices: a Bible his mother gifted him in 1955 when he graduated from Presbyterian Sunday school and the one President Abraham Lincoln used at his inauguration.
#TBT My confirmation picture at First Presbyterian Church in Jamaica, NY.Posted by Donald J. Trump on Thursday, December 11, 2014
In a statement, Presidential Inauguration Committee Chairman Tom Barrack explained the selections.
“In his first inaugural address, President Lincoln appealed to the ‘better angels of our nature,’” Barrack said. “As he takes the same oath of office 156 years later, President-elect Trump is humbled to place his hand on Bibles that hold special meaning both to his family and to our country.”
The scene in Washington on Inauguration Day
Trump’s choices seem to make a nod to themes that deeply defined his controversial campaign for the presidency and the direction of his administration since emerging victorious — religion and race, and his complicated relationship with both.
The last, and only other president since Lincoln, to use the Lincoln Bible was Obama, both in 2009 and 2013, a choice the 44th president said was meant to emphasize Lincoln’s call for “national unity” during his first inaugural address. Others speculated that Obama’s selection evoked even deeper symbolism — the first black president taking the oath on the Bible of the Great Emancipator.
But the connection to Lincoln’s Bible is less obvious for Trump. Lincoln was, after all, a man credited with keeping America from permanently fracturing during the Civil War. Trump won the presidency on a campaign fraught with division.
And the president-elect’s relationship with the African American community has thus far been strained — especially this week after Trump fired off an insulting tweet about Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the civil rights leader who said he believes that reports of Russian influence in the election made Trump not “legitimate” and pledged to boycott the inauguration. Since then, nearly 60 other House Democrats have joined him.
Trump has spoken about Lincoln before.
In an interview with The Washington Post, reporter Bob Woodward asked Trump, then a candidate, what made Lincoln successful. His response:
Trump spoke of Lincoln during a debate last October, when Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton tried to explain away some of her closed-door comments to the business community revealed through WikiLeaks with a reference to Steven Spielberg’s movie “Lincoln.”
“Now she’s blaming the lie on the late, great Abraham Lincoln. That’s one that I haven’t …” Trump said during the debate. “Okay, Honest Abe, Honest Abe never lied. That’s the good thing. That’s the big difference between Abraham Lincoln and you. That’s a big, big difference.”
And, perhaps coincidentally, the very passage from Lincoln’s first inaugural address, appealing to the “better angels of our nature,” that Trump’s team cited in its Bible announcement was actually tweeted at the president-elect earlier this month — by Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Trump had tweeted negatively at the former California governor and current “Apprentice” host about his ratings on the reality TV show, saying Schwarzenegger got “‘swamped’ (or destroyed) by comparison to the ratings machine, DJT.”
Schwarzenegger responded with a video of himself reading aloud that noteworthy passage from Lincoln’s address and asked Trump to “please study” it.
The president-elect’s second Bible selection references his Presbyterian upbringing in Jamaica, Queens, in New York City. His mother gave it to him on June 12, 1955, upon his graduation from Sunday Church Primary School at First Presbyterian Church on Children’s Day.
“The Bible is a revised standard version published by Thomas Nelson and Sons in New York in 1953 and is embossed with his name on the lower portion of the front cover,” Barrack, the inauguration chairman, said in a statement. “The inside cover is signed by church officials and is inscribed with his name and the details of when it was presented.”
Trump’s faith history was an early point of contention with evangelicals during the campaign, but come Election Day, they turned out in droves to vote for the Republican candidate. The selection of Vice President-elect Mike Pence — a devout Christian — may have helped boost support among that cohort, and Trump’s team worked hard to appeal to the party’s religiously conservative base.
In one such attempt, Trump thanked evangelical Christians for their support, said all the polls showed he was in their favor, then held up the Bible his mother gave him more than 50 years ago.
I want to thank evangelical Christians for the warm embrace I've received on the campaign trail. I will not let you down! #MakeAmericaGreatAgainPosted by Donald J. Trump on Saturday, January 30, 2016
But since his election, some in the faith community have sought to distance themselves from the president-elect, particularly during traditionally religious elements of the inauguration, including an interfaith prayer service at Washington National Cathedral on Jan. 21, and it is unknown if any churches are planning to bus in congregants for the swearing in ceremony, a road trip made by many during the Obama years, The Post’s Julie Zauzmer wrote last week.
The BEST: Lincoln’s Second Inaugural
Summary: March 4, 1865, began with torrents of rain and gale winds. Photos from that day show crowds in Washington, D.C., gathered in lake-sized puddles. As Abraham Lincoln began delivering his Second Inaugural Address , the rain stopped and the clouds dispersed. With the Union’s impending victory in the Civil War only weeks away, Lincoln was expected to deliver a triumphalist speech. But Lincoln did not congratulate himself, nor did he celebrate in any way. He did not speak about himself, at all.
Instead, the speech, which Fredrick Douglas praised as a “sacred effort,” is a deep meditation on the cause of the Civil War from a theological perspective. Lincoln saw the war as divine retribution for the sin of slavery. But he did not place the blame exclusively on the South on the contrary, he attributed blame to the North as well, “that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offence came.”
While the second shortest inaugural address in American history, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural is the most profound, revealing him as a religious thinker of the first caliber. His resigned theology sought to brace the American people to the task of rebuilding a united nation by enshrining a policy of pragmatic accommodation in place of doctrinaire vengeance.
Why this is The BEST: The Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural flank Lincoln’s sculpture in the Lincoln Memorial. Shortly after delivering it, Lincoln wrote to Thurlow Weed, a New York newspaperman and Republican party official, that he expected the speech to “wear as well as — perhaps better than — any thing I have produced.”
Historian Ronald C. White in his Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural calls attention to Lincoln’s use of inclusionary language (61):
Lincoln’s central, overarching strategy was to emphasize common actions and emotions. In this [second] paragraph, he used “all” and “both” to be inclusive of North and South. Lincoln was here laying the groundwork for a theme that he would develop more dynamically in paragraphs three and four of his address. Notice the subjects and adjectives in three of the five sentences in the second paragraph:
Sentence one: “All thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war.”
Sentence two: “All dreaded it – all sought to avert it.”
Sentence four: “Both parties deprecated war.”
These rhetorical devices allowed Lincoln to ask “his audience to think with him about the cause and meaning of the war,” not as warring partisans but as weary participants (59).
Earlier in life, Lincoln had been a religious scoffer, but he had now grown into a more mature and reflective religious thinker. Lincoln communicates knowledge of the Bible and humility, “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 fact, the speech reflects an existential humility. Lincoln maintained that the divine will is unknowable, “The Almighty has his own purposes.” These themes are apparent, as well, in Lincoln’s posthumously discovered note known as the “ Meditation on the Divine Will :”
In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time.
However, submission to inscrutable providence is more fully developed in the Second Inaugural.
Lincoln concludes with a vision of Reconstruction which is infused with his generosity of spirit, “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.” In contrast to the Radical Republicans, Lincoln took a more liberal approach attitude toward readmitting Southern States into the Union. Tragically, he was never able to implement this vision. One photo from that rainy day shows John Wilkes Booth standing in the galleries behind Lincoln. Only five weeks later, Booth shot and killed the President. In doing so he deprived the nation of its greatest statesman, its greatest orator, and its greatest moral paragon.
Menachem Genack , a TRADITION editorial board member, is the CEO of the Orthodox Union Kosher Division and rabbi of Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Englewood, NJ.
Click here to read about “The BEST” and to see the index of all columns in this series.