Saturday, January 17, 2009

President Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address

Americans take for granted the "peaceful transition of power" that is widely discussed in most inaugural addresses. It is true, the vast array of nations do not enjoy this transition and it is, on January 20th a startling sight to see, a marvel we should all be glad to witness and enjoy the fruits of such peace in at least, our homeland.

Especially, after living with these last eight years and the coup that occur ed in December of 2000. We did not take to the streets and cause violence. We chose to accept the decision of our Supreme Court, however illegitimate it might have been and the subsequent damage that has been done to our democracy since. Talk of impeachment, however should have been on the table, but again I digress because that is a different issue in some regards.

January 20th will be a sweet day for many and will usher in a new day for our nation with again a peaceful transition of power, a day the world waits for feverishly. It got me to thinking though, what are the greatest inaugural speeches? In modern day, of course it is Kennedy's which I posted earlier in the week, certainly a work of literature: Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace...

Roosevelt's first, "we have nothing to fear but fear itself" and certainly George Washington's first address that was more a historic moment because of what it meant. But, the greatest speech by a President at an inaugural address is widely considered Lincoln's Second Inaugural address. Actually it isn't even disputed anymore and the speech is considered to have a place next to the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address. He was our greatest President for many reasons that could and should be discussed, but in my opinion his skill as an orator, as a writer and as a person to convey what our nation means, not only in freedom and liberty, but in the tremendous contradictions and hypocrisy that endowed our nation. In his Second Inaugural Address he conveys all of this and is a man humbled by his mistakes and by his ability to have kept our nation in tact. Some say, he alone could have done that.

When I first read his speech I was going through personal crises and needed to come to terms with some painful realities and I read this speech and it helped because of its message of hope, humility and understanding. Lincoln conveyed to our nation our mistakes, but also our grandeur. This type of humility is unknown to politicians today (although Barack is a welcome change) and it is why he is considered our greatest gift to the world. It is such a marvelous document I wanted to share it with the SG. It is not only a work of literature, it is a work of art.

The London Spectator said of the speech at the time: "We cannot read it without a renewed conviction that it is the noblest political document known to history, and should have for the nation and the statesmen he left behind him something of a sacred and almost prophetic character."

It is also different in that it is tremendously short, much like the Gettysburg Address. Brevity is the key to wit could have been invented after Lincoln. He must have also been a marvelous lawyer to convey something so profound in so short an amount of words. Please read:

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 inaugeral [sic] 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 dissole [sic] 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. The Almighty has his own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!" If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences 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 offence 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 bond-man'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"

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.

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