On this day in 1865, some five weeks before the Civil War ended, President Abraham Lincoln began his second term after Salmon Chase, chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, administered the oath of office.
Weeks of rain had left Pennsylvania Avenue a sea of mud. Tens of thousands of spectators stood in the mire at the U.S. Capitol for Lincoln’s second inaugural address — although only those near the podium on the East Portico could hear him. In the background, the Capitol dome, completed in 1863, served as a reminder that Lincoln as a wartime leader had succeeded in preserving the Union. In little more than a month, he would be assassinated.
Few had anticipated the speech that the president would deliver.
Combatants from the North and South read the same Bible and pray to the same God, Lincoln said, adding: “The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully.” This was because, he said, “The Almighty has his own purposes.”
The abolitionists were right in holding that slavery is a sin, Lincoln said. But slaveholders were not the only sinners. So, he ventured, they are not the only ones to be punished. His insistence on Northern culpability was one of the address’ themes.
In citing the words “wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces,” Lincoln alluded to both the evils of slavery — over which the war was fought — and, allegorically, to the fall of man as cited in the Book of Genesis. Because of Adam’s sin, God tells Adam that henceforth, “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”
Lincoln suggested that the death and destruction wrought by the war was divine retribution to the United States for possessing slaves, saying that God may will that the war continue “until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword,’’ and that the war was the country’s “woe due.” He drew his quotation “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether” from Psalm 19:9.
Lincoln concluded his remarks with what has gone down in history as a celebrated message:
“With malice toward none, with charity for all,” the president said, “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.”
The address is inscribed, along with the Gettysburg Address, in the Lincoln Memorial.