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.
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.
Frederick Douglass, who was in the audience, called the Second Inaugural "more like a sermon than a state paper." In a speech of only 700 words, Lincoln had referred to God or the Almighty eight times and liberally quoted and paraphrased the Bible. After the address, Douglass repaired with some 5,000 other persons to the White House. When he stepped forward to offer congratulations, Lincoln clasped his hand and said, "My dear Sir, I am glad to see you." Douglass called the speech a "sacred effort." Not every listener was as kind. Particularly harsh was the New York World, which printed the speech "with a blush of shame." It was an "odious libel," the editors complained, to equate the blood that "trickled from the lacerated backs of the negroes" with the carnage of "the bloodiest war in history."
But many Republicans also found the speech puzzling. Why, they asked, had Lincoln not promised an end to the war and laid out "some definite line of policy" regarding Reconstruction? Overall, as Lincoln himself recognized, the address was "not immediately popular," although he remained confident that it would "wear as well -- perhaps better than -- anything I have produced." Lincoln thought he knew why people did not like his speech: "Men are not flattered by being shown that there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them." On one thing everyone agreed: As George Templeton Strong noted in his diary, the Second Inaugural was "unlike any American state paper of this century."
Reprinted from Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery by Eric Foner. Copyright © 2010 by Eric Foner. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Co., Inc.