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Abraham Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address on March 4, 1865, during his second inauguration as President of the United States. At a time when victory over the secessionists in the American Civil War was within days and slavery was near an end, Lincoln did not speak of happiness, but of sadness. Some see this speech as a defense of his pragmatic approach to Reconstruction, in which he sought to avoid harsh treatment of the defeated South by reminding his listeners of how wrong both sides had been in imagining what lay before them when the war began four years earlier. Lincoln balanced that rejection of triumphalism, however, with recognition of the unmistakable evil of slavery, which he described in the most concrete terms possible. He could not know that John Wilkes Booth, David Herold, George Atzerodt, Lewis Paine, John Surratt and Edmund Spangler, some of the conspirators involved with his assassination, were present in the crowd at the inauguration. The address is inscribed, along with the Gettysburg Address, in the Lincoln Memorial.
Lincoln used his Second Inaugural Address to touch on the question of Divine providence. He wondered what God's will might have been in allowing the war to come, and why it had assumed the terrible dimensions it had taken. He endeavored to address some of these dilemmas, using allusions taken from the Bible.
The words "wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces" are an allusion to the Fall of Man in the Book of Genesis. As a result of Adam's sin, God tells Adam that henceforth "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return" (Gen. 3:19, King James Version).
Lincoln quotes another of Jesus' sayings: "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." Lincoln's quoted language comes from Matthew 18:7; a similar discourse by Jesus appears in Luke 17:1.
The quotation "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether" is from Psalm 19:9 in the King James Bible.
The closing paragraph contains two additional glosses from scripture "let us strive on to. . . bind up the nation's wounds" is a reworking of Psalm 147:3. Also, "to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan" relies on James 1:27.
Lincoln's point seems to be that God's purposes are not directly knowable to humans, and represents a theme that he had expressed earlier. After Lincoln's death, his secretaries found among his papers an undated manuscript now generally known as the "Meditations on the Divine Will." In that manuscript, Lincoln wrote:
Lincoln's sense that the divine will was unknowable stood in marked contrast to sentiments popular at the time. In the popular mind, both sides of the Civil War assumed that they could read God's will and assumed his favor in their opposing causes. Julia Ward Howe's Battle Hymn of the Republic expressed sentiments common among the supporters of the Union cause, that the Union was waging a righteous war that served God's purposes. Similarly, the Confederacy chose Deo vindice as its motto, often translated as "God will vindicate us." Lincoln, responding to compliments from Thurlow Weed on the speech, said that "... I believe it is not immediately popular. Men are not flattered by being shown that there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them."
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