In his second inauguration on March 4, 1865, Lincoln sought to begin the healing of a divided country emerging from a bloody Civil War that took more than 700,000 lives in the North and the South.
The new dome of the Capitol with the Statue of Freedom on top gleamed in the bright sunlight behind the 56-year-old Lincoln as he stepped forward to deliver his address. The clearing sky seemed symbolic of the ending of the dark war to the special correspondent for the New York Times, poet Walt Whitman.
“As the president came out on the capitol portico, a curious little white cloud, the only in that part of the sky, appeared like a hovering bird, right over him,” Whitman wrote.
The crowd of 40,000 people roared as Lincoln moved to the front of the high platform wearing a plain black frock coat. Spectators stood in mud following a rainstorm that had swept through the city shortly before the ceremony.
Lincoln began by noting the contrast to his first inauguration in 1861 when platoons of troops guarded the ceremony as war approached. The scene, with sharp shooters stationed atop houses, was much like the backdrop of the 25,000 National Guard members protecting the inauguration of Biden and Vice President Harris.
“While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war — seeking to dissolve the Union,” Lincoln said. “Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.”
Lincoln moved to the issue that had split the union.
One-eighth of the population were enslaved people, localized in the South. “These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest,” he said. “All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war.”
But the Great Emancipator didn’t let the North off the hook. “To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war,” he said, “while the government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it.”
Lincoln invoked biblical references both to condemn slavery and to seek healing. “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,” he said, “but let us judge not, that we be not judged.”
The large number of African Americans in the crowd “seemed to have been the only portion of the assembly which was much moved by the Scriptural speech of the ex-rail splitter,” one newspaper said. They responded with “Bless the Lord” in “a low murmur at the end of almost every sentence.”
Pride was evident in the faces of Black citizens, newspapers wrote. “You ought to have been on the steps of the Capitol on Inauguration day, and seen the faces of the listening crowd,” one Black man wrote later in the African American newspaper the Liberator. “If I were to live to the age of Methuselah, I could not expect ever to witness such a spectacle again.”
Though the Union was near final victory over the Confederacy, Lincoln didn’t gloat. The prayers of neither side have been “answered fully,” he said. “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.”
Lincoln’s speech lasted only about six minutes. At just over 700 words it was second only to President George Washington’s remarks of 135 words in 1793 as the shortest inauguration address.
As the crowd broke up and mingled, it was clear that it would take more than a speech to heal divisions.
“It seemed as if there was a reaction from the anti-slavery sentiments of the inaugural, and every Negro boy got an extra push on account of his color,” the New York Tribune reported. “Soldiers knocked Negro women roughly about and called them very uncomplimentary names.”
Lincoln returned to the White House about 3 p.m. “He was in his plain two-horse barouche, and looked very much worn and tired,” Whitman wrote in the Times.
“The lines, indeed, of vast responsibilities, intricate questions, and demands of life and death, cut deeper than ever upon his dark brown face; yet all the old goodness, tenderness, sadness, and canny shrewdness underneath the furrows.”
Lincoln was unsure how his speech would be received. Black abolition leader Frederick Douglass was invited to that night’s White House reception, and the president waved him over.
“Here comes my friend Douglass,” Lincoln said. “I saw you in the crowd today, listening to my inaugural address; how did you like it?”
“Mr. Lincoln,” Douglass responded after a hesitation, “that was a sacred effort.”
Douglass later said that he had “a vague presentiment” as he watched Lincoln’s inauguration. “I felt that there was murder in the air.”
Another man in the crowd that day was a popular actor and Confederate sympathizer named John Wilkes Booth. Historians speculate that Booth had considered shooting Lincoln at the inauguration.
On April 9, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia. The war was finally over. To celebrate, Lincoln and his wife, Mary, decided to attend a play, “Our American Cousin,” at Ford’s Theatre in Washington on the night of April 14.
The rest is history. Booth slipped up the stairs to Lincoln’s balcony box overlooking the stage and shot the president in the back of the head. Lincoln died the next morning.
Lincoln’s inauguration speech lives on, however, as an eloquent call for mutual forgiveness. A closing line “should be engraved on every heart,” one newspaper of the day said:
“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.”
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