Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address

March 4, 1865.

We swore in presidents much later back in the day. With the passage of the 20th Amendment in 1933, the inauguration of the president moved from March 4th to January 20th. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the first president to be sworn in at on the earlier date, when he was sworn in on this date in 1937.

The Election of 1864 was not a close election for Abraham Lincoln. We were in the midst of the Civil War, and therefore nine Confederate states – Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Texas – did not participate. Lincoln defeated the Democratic nominee, his former general George B. McClellan, 212 to 21, and also won two former Confederate states – Tennessee and Louisiana – which were not included in the count.

This was much different than Lincoln’s first electoral victory in 1860. In that election, with slavery on everyone’s mind after the disastrous presidency of James Buchanan, Lincoln won a four-man race for the presidency, winning only 39.8% of the popular vote, but 180 of the 303 (59.4%) Electoral College votes. He was sworn in on March 4, 1861; just over a month later, the Battle of Fort Sumter started the Civil War.

Therefore, Lincoln spent nearly his entire first term, and ultimately his presidency, waging the Civil War. He began the war hoping for a quick resolution that would prevent mass death on both sides. Instead, the two sides fought a bloody was of “brother against brother,” with over 1 million total casualties.

Many times during the war, Lincoln thought the Union was going to fail. That the Confederacy would prevail, at least to the point of being able to sue for peace and become an independent nation. A slave-holding nation. But after several missteps at the top – including by McClellan – Lincoln plucked Ulysses Grant from the Western Campaigns and pressed the battle, and finally emerged victorious.

As the war was winding down, he stepped up to deliver his second inaugural address. The peace at Appomattox Courthouse would not come until April 9th. Nevertheless, the Union had prevailed and it was time to try and heal the country.

The speech was brief; accounts state the the weary president delivered it in less than eight minutes. He was not happy the war was at an end, and his melancholy echoed through the words he spoke. He quoted liberally from the Bible, and it is worth reading the whole thing if you never have. But I want to focus on the final paragraph:

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.

Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address

He was ready to reconcile with the former Confederacy, but it wasn’t going to be a “forgive and forget” situation. Reconstruction was coming to hold those to account for the damage wrought, and to the states that had decided to secede. Unfortunately, Lincoln didn’t get to see Reconstruction through; he was assassinated on April 15, 1865 and replaced by Andrew Johnson, a terrible president who wanted to see Reconstruction fail.

Had we had a real lasting Reconstruction of the insurrectionist states, the “nation’s wounds” would have (likely) been “bound up,” instead of festering for the past 150 years and leading to the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol of January 6, 2021. It’s hard to say that one man’s actions had such a large impact, but John Wilkes Booth’s bullet that ended Lincoln’s life was probably a turning point in this nation’s history from which we are still trying to recover.

Joe Biden is set to be sworn in as the 46th president in a little less than four hours from when this post goes live. I’m willing to bet the he quotes Lincoln in his speech from the front of the same Capitol that just two weeks ago was trespassed upon by people trying to prevent his speech from happening. But we must not simply forget the sins of the 45th president, and not attempt to “bind up” these long festering wounds with words and reconciliation.

We should have learned our lesson on March 4, 1865. Can we learn from our history this time? If not, the latest insurrection might be the first event in the ending of our republic once and for all.