March 4th, 1865 was rainy and wet in Washington D.C. It was also Inauguration Day for Abraham Lincoln’s second term as President of the United States. After nearly four long years of Civil War, the end was finally in sight, but the Confederacy had not surrendered. In his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln called on the north to finish the war and achieve a lasting peace. The final paragraph of Lincoln’s speech is perhaps the best known passage from any inaugural address, with the possible exception of John F. Kennedy’s “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” in his inauguration in 1961. The speech is considered one of Lincoln’s finest, and like the Gettysburg Address, it’s short and to the point. Here’s Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address in it’s entirety:
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. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses 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 offense 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 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, 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.
When Lincoln stepped up to deliver his address, the rain stopped and the sun came out. Some viewed this as a divine sign. One who did not was John Wilkes Booth. The famous actor and ardent southern sympathizer had been given a ticket to the event by Lucy Hale, daughter of New Hampshire Senator John Parker Hale. Miss Hale and Booth were involved romantically, and apparently had a secret engagement. Booth stood on a balcony above and behind the president, close enough to have shot him that day if he wished he said later. Less than six weeks later, Booth killed Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre in Washington after being unable to accept the Confederacy’s defeat.
Right or Wrong, God Judge Me: THE WRITINGS OF JOHN WILKES BOOTH
Edited by John Rhodehamel and Louis Taper.