Feb. 12, 2004

Second Inaugural Address

by Abraham Lincoln

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Poem: selections from Abraham Lincoln's "Second Inaugural Adress."

selections from Abraham Lincoln's "Second Inaugural Adress."

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. . . . "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.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the sixteenth president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, born near Hodgenville, Kentucky (1809). He was raised on farms in Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois. He had little formal education, and spent much of his time doing chores like shucking corn, chopping wood and killing hogs. As a young man, he left his family to work on a cargo boat that went down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. He later described himself as a "friendless, uneducated, penniless boy, working on a flat boat."

He settled in the small town of New Salem, Illinois, where he helped manage a general store and worked as a surveyor and postmaster. He joined a debate society, read books on grammar and rhetoric, and studied to become a lawyer.

When Lincoln was older, he wrote to a young man who wanted to become a lawyer: "If you are resolutely determined to make a lawyer of yourself, the thing is more than half-done already. It is but a small matter whether you read with anybody or not. I did not read with anyone. Get the books, and read and study them till you understand them in their principal features; and that is the main thing. It is of no consequence to be in a large town while you are reading. I read at New Salem, which never had three hundred people living in it. The books, and your capacity for understanding them, are just the same in all places. Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any other one thing."

Lincoln ran for the Illinois state legislature in 1832. In his first political speech he said, "Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition. Whether it be true or not, I can say for one that I have no other so great as that of being truly esteemed of my fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem. How far I shall succeed in gratifying this ambition, is yet to be developed." He lost the 1832 election, but won it two years later. He served in the Illinois House of Representatives for eight years, and in 1846 he was elected to the United States Congress.

By 1854 he had become so consumed by his work as a lawyer that he had almost given up on politics. It was then that a Democratic senator from Illinois named Stephen A. Douglas introduced the Kansas-Nebraska bill, which threatened to repeal the restrictions on slavery for some northern states that had been in effect since the 1820 Missouri Compromise. Lincoln said, "The Missouri Compromise aroused me as I had never been aroused before."

In the summer of 1858, Lincoln decided to run for Congress against Douglas, and challenged him to a series of debates in seven different Illinois cities. The debates attracted huge crowds, and newspapers gave full reports using a recently invented shorthand. Douglas argued that slavery should be allowed as long as that's what a majority of a state's citizens wanted, and Lincoln argued for the abolition of slavery on moral grounds.

Lincoln lost the election, but the debates with Douglas gave him the exposure and confidence to run for president two years later, and this time he beat out Douglas. He didn't start out as a popular president. He won only 40 percent of the popular vote in 1860. He had just lost an election to Congress and many Americans still didn't know who he was. He had to enter Washington D.C. surreptitiously because of a death threat, and some newspapers called him a coward. People made fun of his physical appearance; he was six feet, four inches tall, skinny, slightly stooped, and he wore an old top hat and a coat that was too small for him. People called him a snake, a pretzel, an oversized frog.

But Lincoln was a great public speaker. He would write sentences and paragraphs as they came to him, on small scraps of paper, and then copy them out when he thought he had enough material. Most other public speakers at the time wrote flowery speeches that went on longer than they had to, but Lincoln's were always plain-spoken and to the point.

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