Book Excerpt: Lincoln Confronts the Evil of Slavery

In his second inaugural address, the Great Emancipator incorporates the language of the abolitionists into his speech -- a significant step, says historian Eric Foner in his latest book.

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On March 4, 1865, Abraham Lincoln took the oath of office for the second time. The setting itself reflected how much had changed in the past four years. When Lincoln delivered his first inaugural address, the new Capitol dome, which replaced the original wooden one, was only half complete. Now the Statue of Freedom crowned the finished edifice, symbolizing the reconstitution of the nation on the basis of universal liberty. For the first time in American history, companies of black soldiers marched in the inaugural parade.

When Lincoln spoke, the end of the war and of slavery was finally in sight. It must have been very tempting for him to use the inaugural address to review the progress of the war and congratulate himself and the nation on impending victory. Instead, he delivered a speech of almost unbelievable brevity and humility. Lincoln began by stating that there was no need for an "extended address" or an elaborate discussion of "the progress of our arms." He refused to make any prediction as to when the war would end. One week after the inauguration, Sen. Thomas A. Bayard of Delaware wrote that he had "slowly and reluctantly" come to understand the war's "remote causes." He did not delineate them, but in the second inaugural Lincoln did. Slavery, he stated forthrightly, was the reason for the war: 

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.

Lincoln, as always, chose his words carefully. Referring to the slaves as one-eighth of the "population" suggested that they were part of the nation, not an exotic, unassimilable element, as he had once viewed them. "Peculiar," of course, was how Southerners themselves had so often described slavery. "Powerful" seemed to evoke Republicans' prewar rhetoric about the Slave Power. To say that slavery was the cause placed responsibility for the bloodshed on the South. Yet Lincoln added simply, "and the war came," seemingly avoiding the assignment of blame. The war, Lincoln continued, had had unanticipated consequences:

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.

The "astounding" outcome, of course, was the destruction of slavery. Countless Northern ministers had pointed to this as evidence of divine sanction for the Union war effort. Lincoln took a different approach. Rejecting self-congratulation, he offered a remarkably philosophical reflection on of the war's larger meaning:

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."

Despite having promised not to judge the South, Lincoln, of course, did so. For one last time he reiterated his condemnation of slavery as a theft of labor, combining this with the most direct allusion in all his writings to the institution's physical brutality. Lincoln was reminding the country that the "terrible" violence of the Civil War had been preceded by 2½ centuries of the terrible violence of slavery. Yet Lincoln called it "American slavery," not Southern slavery, his point being that the nation as a whole was guilty of this sin. Lincoln had long favored monetary compensation to the owners of emancipated slaves.

The second inaugural, however, implicitly shifted the moral equation from what was due to slaveholders to the nation's obligation to the slaves. This passage, one of the most remarkable in American letters, echoed the abolitionists' view of slavery as a national evil deeply embedded in all the institutions of society and of the war itself as a "judgment of the Almighty" for this sin. Lincoln's words, an Illinois newspaper observed, "might claim paternity of Wendell Phillips."

Not for the first time, Lincoln had taken ideas that circulated in antislavery circles and distilled them into something uniquely his own. He was asking the entire nation to confront unblinkingly the legacy of the long history of bondage. What were the requirements of justice in the face of those 250 years of unpaid labor? What was necessary to enable the former slaves, their children and their descendants to enjoy the pursuit of happiness he had always insisted was their natural right but that had been so long denied to them? Lincoln did not live to provide an answer. But even implicitly raising these questions suggested the magnitude of the task that lay ahead.

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