Search the web for Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. What part of the speech do you feel was most important to present to the American people at that time? Why?
As the Civil War progressed and Union forces gained control of territory in states that had seceded, the question arose as to how that territory and its people – slave and free – should be dealt with. This issue became more pressing as the war ended. President Lincoln encouraged reconciliation, and a respect for the constitutional limits of the authority of the President, the Congress and the states. Other Republicans believed that the South had to be reconstructed in a fundamental way. They, too, considered constitutional limits (especially Thaddeus Stevens), and concluded that, for the ultimate good of the Union and all its people, the seceding states had to be treated as conquered territories.
Meanwhile, the freed men and women sought to construct new lives in extraordinarily difficult circumstances (see “Many Thousand Gone“). The long-term effects of Reconstruction – or its failure – are evident in Senator Tillman’s speech from 1900. He defended the system of segregation developed in the South after Reconstruction (including lynching); segregation was not challenged until the 1950s and 1960s.
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. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention, and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented.
The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself; and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.
On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago, all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war – seeking to dissolve the Union, and divide effects, by negotiation.
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. And the war came.
One eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the Southern part of it. 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.
Neither party expected for the war, the magnitude, or the duration, which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease.
Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. 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. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully.