Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address: Themes & Purpose

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  • 0:01 Lincoln's Second Inauguration
  • 1:03 What Was the War Really About?
  • 2:10 When Will the War End?
  • 2:54 What Should Happen…
  • 4:00 A Disappointing Reception
  • 4:46 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will explore the context, themes, and purposes of Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address. We will see how Lincoln's speech answered three important questions that were on the minds of his listeners.

Lincoln's Second Inauguration

President Abraham Lincoln looked tired and careworn as he stepped up to give his second inaugural address on March 4, 1865. The country had been embroiled in Civil War for nearly four years, and the conflict had taken its toll on the President. He hadn't even been sure that he would win reelection, for the war had been going badly for the Union throughout the election year of 1864. Only the Union captures of Mobile, Alabama and Atlanta, Georgia had given citizens enough faith to commit to Lincoln for another four years.

Lincoln's second inaugural address was short, only 701 words and between six and seven minutes long, but it was a powerful message to a country weary of war. In it, the President answered three questions that were weighing on the minds of his listeners: 'What is the war really about?', 'When will the war end?', and 'What should happen after the war?' Lincoln was meditative in this speech, and one wonders if somehow he had an inkling that in only a little over a month he would be killed by an assassin.

What Was the War Really About?

According to Lincoln, the Civil War was about slavery; slavery caused the war, he maintained, and that should be evident to everybody.

'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 reminded his audience. '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.'

The South wanted to expand slavery. Many in the North wanted to abolish slavery or at least prevent it from spreading into the Western territories. The North was not, however, completely innocent, Lincoln asserted. It had plenty of interest in slavery, too, because it made a healthy profit off of slave-grown cotton, and Northerners were often just as racist as Southerners. Slavery was a national sin, the President told his hearers, and the war was a consequence of that sin.

When Will the War End?

Lincoln went on to say that he prayed that the war would end soon. He, like most other Americans, was horrified by the high cost of the war, especially the cost of soldiers' lives. The President believed, however, that the war would only end when the nation had paid the full price of the sin of slavery. God would determine when that debt was canceled, and no one knew His will.

The President personally thought that the horrors of war would 'continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman'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...' Slavery, which was maintained by violence, would only die by violence.

What Should Happen After the War?

Perhaps, however, the time was near for the war to end. The North had won some major victories over the past few months, and the South was weakening in resources and manpower. Lincoln was already looking ahead to the day when he could put the country back together, and his goal was to get back to normal as quickly, easily, and compassionately as possible.

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