“With malice toward none; with charity for all,” he said that day near the close of the Civil War, “. . . 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 . . .”
Those words are now carved in stone at the Lincoln Memorial.
No other second inaugural address — and there have been 15 others — has achieved the renown that Lincoln’s has, though they have touched on serious events of state: war, economic crisis and disaster.
President Obama is slated to deliver his on Monday.
Can he — did the others — come close to matching Lincoln?
How about President Andrew Jackson?
Angered by South Carolina’s efforts to nullify federal laws, he delivered an impassioned defense of the Union on March 4, 1833 — almost three decades before the Civil War.
With disunion, “we shall see . . . our sons made soldiers to deluge with blood the fields they now till in peace,” he warned. “The loss of liberty, of all good government, of peace, plenty, and happiness, must inevitably follow a dissolution of the Union.”
Or Ulysses S. Grant?
The cigar-smoking general who had led the Union to victory over the Confederacy spoke of civil rights at his second inaugural in 1873 — nearly a century before it became a rallying cry in the 1950s and ’60s.
“The effects of the late civil strife have been to free the slave and make him a citizen,” Grant said. “Yet he is not possessed of the civil rights which citizenship should carry. . . . This is wrong, and should be corrected. To this correction I stand committed.”
Woodrow Wilson, on March 5, 1917, tried to prepare the nation for its entry into World War I just over a month later.
“We are provincials no longer,” he said. “The tragic events of the thirty months of vital turmoil through which we have just passed have made us citizens of the world. There can be no turning back.”
And Franklin D. Roosevelt began his second term, in 1937, as the country struggled to emerge from the Great Depression.
“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much,” he told a rain-drenched crowd. “It is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”
Although none of them may reach the heights of Lincoln’s, these addresses, and many others, are fervent and vivid echoes of their times.
Some are short; George Washington’s was two paragraphs.
Others — including Ronald Reagan’s, Bill Clinton’s and Grover Cleveland’s — are relatively long.
Lincoln’s was a mere 701 words, 505 of them containing one syllable, according to Ronald C. White Jr., author of a book about the address.