“With Malice Toward None, With Charity For All”

The spirit of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address is as far removed from an American president landing on an aircraft carrier and announcing “Mission Accomplished” as one can imagine. A profound humility courses throughout this speech. Lincoln expresses little in the way of blame for the war and if there is any celebration to be experienced in Union victory it must accommodate the immense feelings of loss and sadness throughout the nation. Celebration must be tempered by the realization that God, “gives to both North and South this terrible war.” It is this realization that must somehow guide a reunited nation forward.

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. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses 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 offense 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 bondsman’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.”

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 lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

This speech moves me every time I read it. It’s worth reading again on this its 150th anniversary.

12 thoughts on ““With Malice Toward None, With Charity For All”

  1. Charles Bowery

    I agree. The difference between this speech and modern Presidential speeches could not be more profound. I’m not naive enough to think that the world, and our discourse, have not changed so much from 1865 to 2015, but every time I read Lincoln’s speeches, and then contemplate what our leaders have said in my lifetime, I’m amazed by the evolution (or devolution) of the ideas they express. President Obama _tries_ to articulate higher principles, and _tries_ to be thoughtful, but is lambasted for being wobbly, or indecisive, or socialist, or Muslim, or an America-hater.

    Reply
    1. msb

      I’m not saying you’re wrong, but suggest that two factors be considered. First, discourse has changed a good bit since the 1860s. This includes not only fashions in public speaking, but the sources of language and ideas that speakers drew on. While the Bible and Shakespeare remain important sources to us, our Bibles usually have much simpler language than the King James and familiarity with Shakespeare has declined. Also. very few people now receive the classical education common to well-educated people in the 19th century (even though Lincoln didn’t get such an education, it was the standard to which people aspired).
      Second, although President Obama is a wonderful speaker, we listen to him in the midst of his hecklers, and Lincoln’s are mostly lost in time. The Second Inaugural is a marvelous speech, but let’s remember that John WIlkes Booth was in the audience, too.

      Reply
  2. Rob Wick

    Kevin,

    There’s been a discussion as to what Lincoln’s greatest speech was. Some say Gettysburg while others point to the second inaugural. What has always moved me is how much Lincoln could say in so few words, which I think is why both rank at the top. Ronald White’s book “Lincoln’s Greatest Speech” is the standard on the second inaugural.

    Best
    Rob

    Reply
  3. Christopher Shelley

    I love this speech. In my nineteenth-century course, I read aloud both the Gettysburg Address and the 2nd Inaugural, and then we take them apart. But it’s interesting to me that while the students are clearly moved by the GA, they aren’t nearly so much by the 2nd-In. Partially I think that’s because the latter is a bit longer, and has longer interlocking sentences. But mostly I suspect they can’t relate to the religiosity and fatalism of it. Most of them, even the Christians, have no idea of where “Woe unto the world because of offences” comes from, let alone whether the Book of Matthew is in the Old or New Testament. (Some of them are only dimly aware that there are two Testaments!) And Americans are just not a very fatalistic people. (Which is why I think soccer has such a difficult time in this country: it’s a profoundly fatalistic sport. But that’s another subject entirely.) But even as a non-Christian, I find the words very moving–the profound humility, the desire to heal. I think Garry Wills ideas on this speech are interesting, too.

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  4. Brad

    There is no speech better than this and Ronald White’s book is indespensible (have read it twice). I believe it was White who said in one of his other books that Lincoln must be read aloud to be appreciated.

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  5. Bruce Vail

    Saw an interesting talk on C-SPAN teevee last year by a right-wing fundamentalist who talked about young Lincoln the atheist and is evolution by 1865 into to some kind of die-hard Christian mystic.

    I guess wading through blood and gore for four years will have that affect on some people….

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  6. Conrad

    Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address is evidence of a degrading and fanatic religious fatalism which is utterly unworthy of an American President and has no place in American politics. His efforts to pusillanimously shift the blame for the years of slaughter and carnage from himself to some amorphous non-existent spiritual entity is stunning in its duplicity. “God” did not will the war, Lincoln did. All he had to do upon entering office was announce that although he believed secession to be unconstitutional, he would respect the political choice of his former countrymen to peacefully separate from the United States. That’s it, no war.

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    1. G. Verloren

      Why yes – all he had to do was stand idly by and allow his fellow countrymen to ensure that millions of human beings would continue to toil in abject slavery, and to allow millions more yet unborn to suffer the same fate. As a good man, all he had to do was do nothing, and allow evil to flourish.

      But perhaps you are unmoved by such notions of morality. Perhaps you find no evil in slavery, or at least consider it less evil than waging war to abolish it and to preserve the Union from unconstitution . Or perhaps instead you manage to convince yourself that the American Civil War was not actually predicated upon the issue of slavery – that it was a “simple” matter of “State’s Rights”, and self determination.

      But whatever your deviant interpretation of the course of events, the fact remains that your own argument applies equally well when leveled against your own position. All the southern states had to do was announce that although they believed slavery to be their right, they would respect the judgements of the courts, the legislation of congress, the will of the people, and the supreme law of the Constitution itself to restrict and eventually to abolish the sale and ownership of human beings within the United States. That’s it, no war.

      Reply

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