A war weary Abraham Lincoln. Photograph was taken by Alexander Gardner on Sunday, February 5, 1865, a month before Lincoln’s second Inauguration Address
Image Source: Library of Congress, reproduction Number: LC-USZ61-1938 (b&w film copy neg. from Emily Tinker positive) LC-USZ62-3479 (b&w film copy neg. from carte de visite size print)
Was the American Civil War the result of God’s judgment for the “bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil?” This was the extraordinary conclusion of president Abraham Lincoln in his second Inauguration Speech of March 4, 1865. Even more extraordinary is that most Americans today have no idea of this view which Lincoln expressed on that day. Why that is, we can only speculate.
Lincoln might well have used his second inauguration speech to gloat. By then the Union was on the brink of victory over the Confederate States. Indeed, just one month later, on April 9, 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered his forces to Union General Ulysses S. Grant in Appomattox, Virginia. That was the beginning of the end of the Confederacy.
But Lincoln did not say much about the status the war, probably out of confidence for the Union’s position. He did state that “(t)he progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself; and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all.” And with that, Lincoln went into the main body of his oration.
Lincoln gave a speech whose tone was neither boastful nor celebratory, neither glorifying nor romantic about the Union’s winning war effort. Rather, his talk was somber, poignant, melancholy, and reflective. In fact, it was almost confessional. We have sinned, he said, and the wages therefrom have been enormous.
He noted that when the war began, “all knew” that the “peculiar and powerful interest” in slaves “was somehow the cause of the war.” But “neither (side) 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.” That is, no white person thought the war would result in the demise of slavery. Men on both sides thought the war would be brief and easy.
But God, said Lincoln, had “His own purposes.” God brings “woe unto the world because of offenses… (and) if we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses,” then “He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came.”
Notably, Lincoln cites both the North and the South as the recipients of this horrible penance. Slavery was not simply the South’s sin; it was America’s sin. And the price America paid, said Lincoln, was just: “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.'”
Interestingly, Lincoln’s view of the war as God’s judgement for the sins of slavery is not well known by most people outside of the academy. Or so it appears to me. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and it’s talk of a “new birth of freedom,” has achieved a kind of iconic status. (In the past, some schools required students to memorize the Gettysburg Address.) Many people are aware of the second Inauguration Address’s call for “malice toward none” as the Union procured its victory over the Confederate enemy. But Lincoln’s somber reflection of slavery as sin, and war and its attendant suffering as God’s righteous judgement for that sin, has not achieved the same status or attention. This, despite the fact that our country has a strong Judeo-Christian tradition, in which Lincoln’s discussion of the role of God in man’s affairs should resonate (as opposed to a totally secular view of the war)
I do not have enough information or data to speculate about why this is so. But it does seem to me that many Americans are much more comfortable with delving into the glory and heroics and strategies of war, and celebrating the end of bondage, than they are with engaging in a somber reflection of human failing, commemorating these sins of the past, and (for believers) pondering the role of God in the events that befall man.
This is from Lincoln’s second Inauguration Address, given from the front of the White House:
On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it.
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. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. 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.