I try to visit the Lincoln memorial down on the National Mall once a month. While I don’t always have the time – every time I’m there I at least make an effort to go and read the text of one of my favorite Lincoln speeches engraved on the north side of the inner chamber of the memorial: the Second Inaugural.
In just a few days, President Barack Obama will be sworn in for his second term – using bibles from Martin Luther King, Jr. and Abraham Lincoln.
Of course, prior to the 1933 passage of the Twentieth Amendment, inaugurations took place in early March, but still on the occasion of the Second Inauguration of our nation’s first African American president – it feels right to reflect on President Lincoln’s words. If it’s been a while since you’ve read it I recommend checking it out here.
Lincoln himself was purportedly concerned that the speech didn’t have the desired effect. In a letter to Seward friend Lincoln political advisor Thurlow Weed – Lincoln wrote of his speech:
“Everyone likes a compliment. Thank you for yours on my little notification speech and on the recent Inaugeral Address. I expect the latter to wear as well as – perhaps better than – any thing I have produced; but I believe it is not immediately popular.”
From what we can tell though, Lincoln may not have been the best judge of his own popularity in this instance. The fantastic anecdote of a conversation between Lincoln and Frederick Douglass portray’s this most clearly:
“As I approached him, he reached out his hand, gave me a cordial shake, and said: ‘Douglass, I saw you in the crowd today listening to my inaugural address. There is no man’s opinion that I value more than yours; what do you think of it?’ I said ‘Mr. Lincoln, I cannot stop here to talk with you, as there are thousands waiting to shake you by the hand’; he said again: ‘What did you think of it?, I said ‘Mr.Lincoln, it was a sacred effort,’ and then I walked off.” (More on this quote here.)
A sacred effort. Of course with all of the religious overtones and references to God’s role the sacred is easily explicable. For me however, it is the effort of that speech that stirs me. The effort to objectively distinguish the moral truths and ambiguities of the Civil War. The effort to shape a narrative from within the waning moments of the conflict – these are the things that make this speech special for me.
I want to hear from you in the comments: what are your thoughts and reflections on Lincoln’s Second Inaugural?