It has been over a century and a half since Lincoln’s assassination did much to deify his image and place him as the centerpiece of the American Pantheon. Such behavior is hardly unexpected; as the leader of his country during America’s deadliest war, a war directed towards enacting unprecedented changes in the structure of government and American society, Lincoln’s partisans would naturally be expected to elevate his status in order to justify their cause. His legacy continues to be passed down to generations of schoolchildren and enthusiasts of history, one conspicuous example being the praise and recital of his various speeches as a unique form of American gospel. One of Lincoln’s last and most famous speeches, his 2nd inaugural address, has become the singular topic of entire history books which seek to add as much meat as possible to its 700 words. Read in isolation, Lincoln’s inaugural address is a beautiful work of art which would certainly inspire even the more professional wordsmiths to write down notes on how to effectively persuade an audience to strive towards a higher moral purpose – all while retaining some form of familiar, respectable humility. Lincoln’s speech seems like a speech for all season; religious activists, advocates of racial equality, and adherents of fair legal justice would all seem to gravitate towards the words that he uttered to thousands of people during a gloomy spell of rain on March 4th, 1865. It is too bad that the 2nd inaugural happens to be the most egregious and blasphemous example of his habitual pattern of preaching as a secular messiah with a false claim of humbleness. Too many historians have a tendency to be swayed by Lincoln’s words in isolation, all while ignoring his deeds and the actual history that was playing out as a stark contrast to the image he was trying to provide to his audience. Recalling some of these historical events should serve as great assistance towards building an honest perception of the 16th president.
“Fellow countrymen: at this second appearing to take the oath of the presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement somewhat in detail of a course to be pursued seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of this great conflict which is of primary concern to the nation as a whole, little that is new could be presented. The 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. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured…”
Although this first paragraph is hardly controversial, it is worth noticing that Lincoln’s speech would hardly be “reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all”. As Larry Tagg points out in The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln: The Story of America’s Most Reviled President, Lincoln was considered to be one of the most despised politicians during his own lifetime. Indeed, one should expect many of Lincoln’s rather blatant acts of authoritarianism (in the North) to fuel this animosity. His administration would jail over 15,000 citizens critical of wartime policies and other acts deemed as “treasonous”, administer martial law across the entire United States to the point of sending federal marshals to arrest members of the Maryland legislature who were suspected to vote on matters of secession, and impose a federal conscription law. Lincoln’s speech could hardly have been encouraging to Frank Key Howard, the grandson of Francis Scott Key who was arrested and thrown in Fort McHenry for publishing articles critical of the Lincoln administration. Lincoln’s speech could have hardly been encouraging to the man that was hanged by Benjamin Butler for taking down a U.S. flag from a building. Lincoln’s speech could have hardly been encouraging to Roger Taney, who had an arrest warrant issued for him by Lincoln for daring to question the sanity of throwing citizens in jail without due process (a warrant that was thankfully never executed by level-headed marshals). Lincoln’s speech could have hardly been encouraging for the Northern newspaper publishers whose printing presses were destroyed by either federal marshals or violent mobs. Lincoln’s speech could hardly have been encouraging to the prisoners of Lincoln’s gulags who had water torture administered on them, nearly a century and a half before George W. Bush made the practice infamous during his “War on Terror”. Lincoln’s speech could hardly have been considered encouraging for the various poor men that could not fork over a couple hundred dollars for a substitute, policies which eventually resulted in events like the New York City Draft Riots (which would result in the largest lynching during the Civil War, far greater in scope than anything that happened in the South during this time period). In the 1864 election, only 55 percent of Northerners voted for Lincoln over Democrat George McClellan, and this is excluding the fraudulent votes brought about by soldiers interfering with the election process.
“…On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, sought to avert it. 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 and divide effects by negotiation. 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…”
Yes, Lincoln had certainly tried to avoid conflict by explicitly stating in his 1st inaugural address that he would threaten to invade the South over tax collection, refusing to budge on the rate of the Morrill Tarriff that had passed just a few days before he took office. All of this while supporting a Corwin Amendment which would have made it impossible for the federal government to interfere with slavery where it still existed. This constitutional amendment would have gone further in enshrining slavery into the heart of American law than anything proposed by presidents like Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan, who have both been reviled by the history profession for being too “lenient” to the South’s interests in preserving the peculiar institution. Lincoln certainly tried to avoid conflict by privately writing to Republican senators to refuse any compromise measures like the Crittenden Compromise. Lincoln certainly tried to avoid conflict by ignoring Confederate commissioners who had proposed that the Confederate government purchase Fort Sumter as a peaceful way of resolving the issue of federal property in the South. Of course, giving up the fort would have meant on giving up on tariff collection in the South, which would have spelled doom for Lincoln’s Republican party. The Southerners eventually bombarded the fort after a resupplying attempt, something they had threatened to do ever since Buchanan’s days in office. American colonists certainly would not have tolerated British forts lingering in major ports of entry which would have effectively controlled their trade policy with outside countries, why would the Confederates have allowed the same situation with the U.S. government? After this bombardment in which no human casualties resulted (except for an accident after the shelling had taken place), Lincoln proceeded to unilaterally request funds from the Treasury as well as call 75,000 troops to invade the South as a form of collective punishment, declaring the legislative bodies of all seceded states to be “combinations too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings”. The interesting observation is that Lincoln had not once bothered to bring the issue to Supreme Court or any form of “judicial proceedings”. As for letting the “nation survive”, a Confederate government separate to do its own bidding would have posed no threat to the existence of the U.S. government. The House, Senate, Supreme Court, and executive branch were all operating under normal conditions. The only thing that would have perished would have been the special privileges offered to New England financial elites through protectionist tariff revenue. An independent South would have offered an enticing free trade zone to European traders, who would have diverted their trade from the high-tariff North. This would have spelled doom for the Republican Party, whose existence seemed to lie on the successful implementation of this tariff to appease its elitist base. Of course, just like with nearly every politician who “serves” the people of this country, Lincoln could not afford to risk political capital by being so nakedly honest and uttering these exact words.
“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…”
And here lies the great misconception that countless “historians” have repeated ad-nauseum about the Civil War. Yes, the South certainly had a much higher concentration of slaves than the North during their time of secession. It is also true that secession declarations had explicitly listed slavery as a big concern for influential politicians in the South. However, despite such issues, historians gloss over the complete lack of concern many Northerners had for this issue on the eve of the Civil War. Many Northerners supported secession, as New England itself had considered secession multiple times – noticeable episodes being during Thomas Jefferson’s presidency and the War of 1812. To oppose secession would have seemed hypocritical given the region’s rich history of separatist sentiment. The racist Northern electorate could have hardly been concerned about black slaves, for they would not have passed laws preventing blacks from moving to their states, having the capability to defend themselves in court, or owning property without being harassed by the state and white mobs. A noticeable highlight is Lincoln’s own endorsement of black exclusionary acts through the Illinois Black Codes. The Republican Party was “anti-slavery” as in opposing the extension of slavery, as the presence of blacks in the territories might one day present a threat to white workers. As mentioned earlier, the elite financial interests of Northern Republicans were primarily concerned about the tariff and the loss of privilege they would suffer if the South was to be allowed to leave in peace. There is certainly a debate on the extent the Soth left because of slavery, but the North attacked due to the tariff. It is rather interesting how many historical pundits point to “Big Oil” and various hidden economic interests fought in many other American wars, but are willing to assume that the U.S. government in this once instance adopted a stance of humanitarian morals, all during a time when race relations and animosity towards blacks puts serious doubt on this position. If slavery was such a large issue of the war, it is interesting to note how Lincoln pursued the pro-slavery Corwin Amendment at the very outbreak of Southern secession and negotiated with border states to try and delay emancipation well into the 1890s. Indeed, the very existence of slave border states greatly complicates the narrative of the Civil War and should force many honest students of history to wonder if something else is afoot besides the one cause of slavery. These states did not suffer brutal invasion by the federal government, the subsequent mass destruction of private property (this property not being related to slaves, we are referring to whole houses and farms being destroyed by Yankee armies), and the harming of innocent civilians. Why? They decided to stay in the Union and pay the tariff.
“…To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would render the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than restrict the territorial enlargement of it…”
Now, part of this statement is certainly true. As mentioned earlier, Lincoln explicitly supported the restriction of slavery into the territories. But did the South really wish to expand slavery as to build a slave empire which would outrank any other in the world? Thomas Jefferson had outlined a strategy for expanding slavery into the territories since he believed a “diffusion” strategy would best preserve race relations and allow for a gradual abolition of slavery which would be absent of the violent revolutionary fervor witnessed in Haiti. Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate States of America, uttered the same concern, noting how “the extension of which into any territory will not increase the number of slaves by one single person, but which it is very probable may, in many instances, produce emancipation… it is not then, for the purpose of emancipation or for the benefit of the slaves that it is sought to restrict it; no sir, quite otherwise”. Of course, it was not only the South which had voiced opposition to the claims of “slave power”, lest one not believe Southern sources. The influential Northern congressman Daniel Webster had voiced serious doubts about the growing paranoia in his region over such a conspiracy. Webster asserted that there was simply no remaining federally supervised land that would be conducive to the practice of slavery, claiming that territories like New Mexico and California had a physical landscape that would prevent a typical plantation from being established that would amass a fortune. Webster cites how “California and Mexico are Asiatic in their formation and scenery. They are composed of vast ridges of mountains of enormous height, with broken ridges and deep valleys. The sides of these mountains are barren, entirely barren; their tops capped by perennial snow… What is there in New Mexico that could by any possibility, induce anybody to go there with slaves?” Therefore, Webster would reject measures like the Wilmot Proviso and other measures to restrict slavery in the territories as unnecessary and a useless flaunting of typical moralistic arrogance. Interestingly, David Wilmot, the author of the Wilmot Proviso, had no such concern for slaves when authoring his proposal – his main concern was for the welfare of white workers. On a similar note, abolitionist Nehemiah Adams traveled down South to explore some of these conditions related to slavery, and found that many of his abolitionist friends back up North were making exaggerated claims about the implementation of the peculiar institution. He by no means defended the practice, and continued to be a staunch opponent of slavery. But his attacks were guided by reason and appeal to moral principle, in contrast to the “Slave Power” conspiracy theorists like William Lloyd Garrison who seemed most interested in hating the South as opposed to finding means to practically free slaves without causing domestic turmoil. Of course, comments like those made by Webster and Adams about the South are never usually discussed with much respect and consideration when dealing with the South in much of academia.
“…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…”
Lincoln and the Republicans had many opportunities (every day in fact) to stop the conflict. The South attacked a fort in defense, so yes, they had made the “first shot”. However, it was the North that launched the indiscriminate, total invasion of the South, in which the South could not stop fighting so long as they were being invaded. Being the position of the aggressor, the North could have easily stopped the conflict and abandoned many opportunities to do exactly such. Most notable was the Hampton Roads peace conference where Lincoln finally resorted to “diplomacy” by meeting with Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens. Seward and Lincoln brought up the possibility of delaying the 13th amendment, hoping such a move would entice Southerners into joining. As for those blacks, they could be expected to “root, hog, or die” at a safe distance from the racially pure Northern states. Being primarily concerned with independence, no such ploy was entertained seriously by Stephens and the other representatives that accompanied him. Through Lincoln’s relentless persecution of the war, hundreds of thousands of Americans lost their lives in a conflict that was entirely unnecessary- the estimated death toll ranges from 620,000 to 1,000,000 Americans. Such a death count is worse than the total American casualties in all other wars combined, even when considering the bloodbath of WW1 and WW2. Lincoln may not have expected a conflict to grow so large when he first called out the militia on April 15th, 1861 and requested 75,000 volunteers. However, when the body count began to pile up, when the casualties became too numerous for any legitimate humanitarian to ignore, Lincoln continued to beat the drums of war. Any other path would have conceded to the formation of a Union opposite to the one that the Republican Party elites desired.
“…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 man should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread and sweat of other man’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 need 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 continues 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 with another drawn by the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’…”
Here is where we arrive at one of the most egregious violations of honesty and decency in Lincoln’s inaugural. Lincoln documents how this war has been vile and taxing, and that the cost of blood shall be enormous towards the health of the United States. An honest evaluation of this terrible violence would have included his admission in perpetuation the conflict to the massive scale that it grew into, but of course this should not be expected from a lifetime politician like Abraham Lincoln. As Murray Rothbard noted, a master politician is a master conniver, manipulator, and liar, maxims that Lincoln was faithfully following to a tee. As explained in a letter to Albert G. Hodges, Lincoln claims that “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.”. This justification is provided divine sanctification from the Lord almighty himself, who is said to have exacted a terrible justice upon the entire territory of the U.S. and the C.S.A. It is rather interesting how this cleansing did not strike portions of Europe and the rest of the world, despite having their governments sanction the practice of slavery for centuries. Lincoln’s full embrace of religious rhetoric, a surefire way to inspire the heavily Christian American populace, was also worth noting in spite of his lack of personal faith. His own wife and closest associates noticed at worst, his outright skepticism, and at best, a cautious deism that was in stark contrast to his moral grandstanding witnessed during the 2nd inaugural. Being safely perched at Washington D.C. far away from the actual conflict, Lincoln was free to act as a moralist as it required no personal cost. This action is nothing new of course, as politicians of today are not required to sacrifice anything in their zeal to hand out “free stuff” to their voting base. Just as it is easy to spend billions of other people’s tax dollars, it is very easy to speak of “cost” and sacrifice, as well as “every drop of blood” when the blood being spilled and the cost being paid is not one’s own. Lincoln had cleanly absolved himself of blame in the cheapest and most dishonest way possible, by utilizing rhetoric that he hardly would have employed were he a private citizen attending an ordinary seminar. Not only does Lincoln appear to justify the past bloodshed, he seems to welcome further carnage, as much as is necessary to ensure the Republican party’s ascendancy, by saying “… 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 with another drawn by the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether’…”. Despite being labeled as a moderate within his party, Lincoln still takes a position of the most fanatical zealot willing to destroy his entire country if necessary to establish the New Kingdom of God, free of all past sins, bolstered by the extraordinary abuse of power obtained during the last 4 years. It is a small wonder that although its policies were aimed mainly at benefiting the elite business monopolies, many German communists (the 48’ers), prohibitionists, and other militant social reform movements found perfect harmony within the Party of Lincoln. A party that was willing to use violent warfare to achieve one end could be utilized to fulfill every radical and revolutionary movement under the sun. Although Lincoln says this is a work of God in his own theory, his is in reality taking the place of God himself by continuing to exact bloody vengeance upon the South. In addition to this newfound submission to God, Lincoln utilized the mythological “Union” to try and get his fellow Americans to subscribe to some higher purpose as to achieve a clearer justification for the war effort. Indeed, even before he had latched onto the excuse of slavery to cover up his bloody hands. Everything that is done, Lincoln argues, must be done for the Union. All the blood, al the sacrifices that must be made (by others of course) is for the Union. In addition to establishing a false messianic cult following around his war effort, Lincoln turns the Union into a sacred idol that must consume a million lives before appeasement. This jargon riddled abstraction must never be questioned, lest you be accused of treason. The founders and true American statesmen of the past had understood the Union to be an agent of mutual benefit, a tool of self defense and promise of interstate free grade without utilizing new federal power as a tool to enact radical social change or extreme economic discrimination. Additionally, no state would have dreamed of joining a Union if the threat of invasion and complete annihilation should any attempts at secession be carried out. After all, the states had broken away from both Great Britain and the Articles of Confederation. To expect the states to magically be welded to the Constitution for all eternity is a ridiculous, ahistorical fantasy. This was all explained by Murray Rothbard in his essay “Just War”, summarized brilliantly when he states “does anyone seriously believe for one minute that any of the 13 states would have ratified the Constitution had they believed that it was a perpetual one-way Venus fly trap – a one way ticket to sovereign suicide?” Very much like how the 20th century communists deified their political leaders, the 19th century Republican Party had defied the Union as well as the federal government by equating its preservation to the control over all the Southern states that had seceded. And all of this glamorization was done for the sake of a politician’s money war.
“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 al which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
It would have been very interesting to see how the citizens of Atlanta, Georgia would have reacted to the phrase “malice towards none”, as Sherman and his fellow soldiers bombarded much of the area into oblivion, all under the approval of Lincoln himself. Perhaps the Sothern slaves, who were denied medical resources due to the Union blockade, would have enjoyed hearing that phrase very much. The inhabitants of Shenandoah Valley may have enjoyed that; sure, the burning of the entire region by Philip Sheridan and his men aside, these peoples were certainly eager that the U.S. government would assure “charity for all”. Jefferson Davis himself would have loved to hear these words in person, as he had survived the assassination attempt by Ulric Dahlgren who was sent by the Lincoln administration to destroy the Confederate capitol and kill the whole cabinet. Binding up the nation’s wounds should be reinterpreted to say “forcibly chain up the nation into a net so tight that any thought of separation should forever remain impossible”. Lincoln mentions concerns for those who have “borne the battle” and for “his widow and orphan”, but fails to mention how many widows and orphans came about because of his Union blockade which denied crucial medical supplies to Union prisoners as it did for slaves, which contributed to the very high death rate in camps such as Andersonville. He also fails to mention how deserters were shot, murdered by the federal government for refusing to comply with its bidding. A mention of how the famous Gettysburg troops returned to New York and indiscriminately shoot draft protestors, whether they be women or children, is not mentioned. Lincoln concludes by desiring a “just and lasting peace”; a lasting peace was surely implanted if we account for the lack of large-scale warfare, but to describe this peace as “just” would be stretching the mark. To be fair, Lincoln was assassinated before the ugly political battle of Reconstruction escalated to a substantial extent. When considering his treatment to the South after the war, Lincoln’s leniency is often cited. Regardless of his true intentions, Lincoln opened the floodgates of government terrorism during the Civil War. How then, could his Radical Republican associates refrain from such power if they had exercised it with such vigor for multiple years? During this time period, the federal government continued to loot Southern taxpayers and keep Northern “carpetbag” governors in power by giving all the blacks the vote in the South (while allowing Northern states to continue to refuse black suffrage and persecute the Chinese). Additionally, the same “virtuous” Northern soldiers would continue to kept the South under military occupation with the constant presence of federal troops. These moralistic, abolitionist soldiers, under the leadership of Sheridan and Sherman (two of Lincoln’s most prized generals), conducted a vicious campaign of extermination against the Native Americans to clear them off the land so crony capitalist railroads could be developed. Even the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the South can be attributed to the rise of Union Leagues, the terrorist arm of the Republican Party. Eventually, many Republicans like Horace Greeley began to bemoan the corruption that had plagued the party during the entirety of Reconstruction, giving rise to many Northern historians citing the waste, fraud, and failure of the entire movement. William Dunning, who is cited as a “racist” Reconstruction historian by the neo-abolitionists, was also a Northerner.
As we can see, Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural Address, when contrasted with proper historical context, reads like typical high-horse moralist bunk that we see coming from so many politicians’ mouths today. If we are to ever consider reversing the hyper-politicization of society which will inevitably lead to serious conflict if not tempered, we must strip away our reverence towards Abraham Lincoln. Only then can we begin to recognize that it is impossible to preach “unity” and “compromise” towards groups of people that have fundamental differences in culture and political views, as is the case with “red” vs. “blue” states. Perhaps the subject of national divorce would be considered the best, most peaceful solution to these problems, but the Lincolnites in academia will continue to scoff at this notion as long as he is looked upon in a positive light. One hopeful strategy of reversing this deification and hacking away at the American pantheon of false gods is to look at their pretty speeches a call them out for the pack of lies that they truly are. Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural Address happens to be one of the most egregious examples that we continue to suffer listening to today.