Written by Carl Peters
After years of civil war, Abraham Lincoln was under pressure to drop the abolition of slavery as a condition for peace with the confederate forces. He refused, saying, “The world shall know that I will keep my faith to friends and enemies, come what may.”
“When Lincoln said this, he fully expected to lose the election in November,” the Civil War historian James M. McPherson noted. But a couple of major military victories helped sweep him to victory. (New Jersey was one of only three Union states he did not carry.) He took the oath of office for his second term as president on March 4, 1865.
Lincoln was never a member of a church, so political opponents had often accused him of being an atheist. In the election of 1860, when he was first elected president, 21 of the 24 ministers in Springfield — his home — voted against him “in large part because they considered him an infidel,” noted Stephen B. Oates, one of his biographers.
Yet Lincoln knew the Bible well, and he was convinced both of God’s existence and of humanity’s inability to fully comprehend or explain divine providence. He avoided the pious theatrics of Andrew Johnson — his vice president, a political compromise candidate — who waved a Bible in the air at his own swearing in and then gave it a passionate kiss, but Lincoln’s second inaugural was deeply religious.
The speech was also different – strikingly so — from what Americans now expect to hear from a politician. With the end of the war in sight, the president did not claim vindication for his leadership or for his party. Instead, he acknowledged that neither side expected the war to last as long as it had, or for the fighting to be as intense as it was.
At a time when the country was more fractured than ever before or since — when regional and political differences had the most serious consequences for the country’s citizens — he noted that both sides “read the same Bible, and pray to the same God.”
“The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes,” he said.
In addition to the Bible, Lincoln knew a great deal of Shakespeare. A man who was aware of his own driving political ambition, his favorite play was “Macbeth,” the story of a nobleman who believes he is destined to be king.
Yet Lincoln was utterly unlike Macbeth, who becomes increasingly ruthless in trying to hold on to his own political power and prestige. “For my own good, all causes shall give way,” the king declares.
In contrast, and despite political pressure, Lincoln held fast to the causes he believed were worth fighting for — the preservation of the Union and, when it became a realistic goal, the total abolition of slavery. He also held fast to his concern for all people of the United States, including his many opponents and those who lived in this country but were not citizens and thus did not have the right to vote.
Refusing to exploit the divisions that were continuing to tear the country apart, Lincoln began his second term in office with humility, expressing concerns that sound like they could have been voiced by Isaiah, Martin Luther King, Jr., or Pope Francis:
“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 a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
Afterward, Lincoln asked Frederick Douglass, the former slave and abolitionist, what he thought of the speech. “There is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours,” Lincoln said to him.
“Mr. Lincoln, that was a sacred effort,” Douglass answered.
Carl Peters is managing editor of the Catholic Star Herald.