After four years of unspeakable horror and sacrifice on both sides, the Civil War was about to end. On March 4, 1865, at his Second Inaugural, President Lincoln did not offer the North the victory speech it yearned for, nor did he blame the South solely for the sin of slavery. Calling the whole nation to account, Lincoln offered a moral framework for peace and reconciliation. The speech was greeted with indifference, misunderstanding, and hostility by many in the Union. But it was a great work, the victorious culmination of Lincoln's own lifelong struggle with the issue of slavery, and he well understood it to be his most profound speech. Eventually this "with malice toward none" address would be accepted and revered as one of the greatest in the nation's history.
In 703 words, delivered slowly, Lincoln transformed the meaning of the suffering brought about by the Civil War. He offered reunification, not revenge. Among those present were black soldiers and confederate deserters, ordinary citizens from all over, the black leader Frederick Douglass, the Cabinet, and other notables. John Wilkes Booth is visible in the crowd behind the president as he addresses posterity.
Ronald C. White's compelling description of Lincoln's articulation of the nation's struggle and of the suffering of all -- North, South, soldier, slave -- offers new insight into Lincoln's own hard-won victory over doubt, and his promise of redemption and hope. White demonstrates with authority and passion how these words, delivered only weeks before his assassination, were the culmination of Lincoln's moral and rhetorical genius.
Dean and professor of American religious history at the San Francisco Theological Seminary, White (Religion and the Bill of Rights) does for Lincoln's Second Inaugural ("with malice toward none... ") something of what Garry Wills did for the Gettysburg Address: explicate Lincoln's remarks, place them in the context of the hour when they were uttered, and demonstrate how Lincoln (as usual) sought to shape public sentiment through the power of eloquent and carefully calculated rhetoric. In the process, however, White expends a great deal of ink attempting to prove a point that many will think moot. Why is it necessary to label the Second Inaugural "Lincoln's greatest speech"? Such subjective competition is dicey, especially when it comes to Lincoln, who made a habit of great eloquence, whether on Inauguration Day 1865 or at Gettysburg in 1863. There is also his "House Divided Speech" of 1858 and his 1860 remarks at New York's Cooper Union. Which of these is Lincoln's "greatest" speech? Who is to decide, and what is the point of arbitrating such questions? That said, White's book does a workmanlike job of parsing the 701 words in which Lincoln, with victory in sight, briefly laid down the philosophical framework for reconciliation between South and North, a framework grounded in simple Christian generosity.