Righting America

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Lincoln’s Second Inaugural: The Best Medicine is the Truth | Righting America

by Rachael Griggs

Picture of Lincoln's second inaugural address engraved in stone with a two stone eagles on each side.
Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, engraved at the Lincoln Memorial. Photo: the U.S. National Parks Service

Rachael Griggs is a science advocate and a Jesus advocate. Her awe of nature and appreciation for the sciences began with her first telescope at the age of twelve. As an adult, she participated in various evangelical congregations until she converted to Catholicism in 2011. She holds the harmony of faith, science, and reason within the Church in high esteem. She is a military Veteran and a former schoolteacher. Currently, she is pursuing a M.A. degree in Religious Studies at the University of Dayton. 

In early November of 1864, Abraham Lincoln was elected for a second term as President of the United States of America. A few months later, on March 4, 1865, he gave his Second Inaugural Address to a nation wounded by war in every dimension.

Lincoln’s speech was on the shorter side, direct, to the point. It is likely that by this time, after four years of civil war, Americans needed truth as plain as they could get it, and Lincoln delivered.

The speech does not allow for false hope. It doesn’t promise a specific outcome or timeline to the end of the war. Lincoln instead pinpoints its cause in the following 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.

Lincoln does not dance around the issue. He doesn’t embellish or euphemize. He names the sin: slavery. His words are not diluted by fear of the people’s displeasure. They are simply true. No pointing fingers, rhetorical distractions, flimflam, or smoke and mirrors. Slavery is the evil which caused the war. 

Even as Commander in Chief, Lincoln stands with his people. He joins every American and shoulders the blame. He doesn’t elevate or separate himself from the nation he serves. The hopes he has for himself are the same for those of the United States – all of it. 

Today, it is difficult to imagine a President looking squarely into the camera, and with eloquent simplicity and directness, tells the country where it went wrong: “America, we’ve elevated our wills over our better judgment during this pandemic. In our pride, we are failing each other and the world.”

Imagine the repercussions of such a statement! Imagine the pundits and the tweeters and the commentators, buzzing about in a frenzy of offense. God forbid the leader of our nation – and of the free world – publicly name something for what it is: a lack of moral courage, a shortfall among citizens in fortitude and resiliency, and most lamentable of all, the loss of authentic concern for one’s neighbor. 

How many jaws would drop in American living rooms during the news hour, if our President compared us to the Cain of Genesis, who responded to God’s inquiry about Abel with a flagrant absence of contrition: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” 

And what if the President would be so bold as to take his judgment one step further and warn the nation of the consequences of such deficits? In this regard, over 150 years ago, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural brought into American consciousness the dire ramifications of the nation’s sins:

Yet, if God wills that it [the civil war] 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 by another drawn by the sword as was said three thousand years ago so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

While many Americans are making the sacrifices necessary to shoulder the burden of this pandemic, not enough are doing their part. This is not the time to cut corners, not the time to continue to reassure us that everything is just fine. Our President should stop telling us everything his (evangelical) base wants to hear. Lincoln’s truth – even if it was not fully heeded (especially given that he was assassinated a few short months after delivering this address) – was designed to enable this country to acknowledge its failures. In the context of history, this realization is always the best outcome, even if at the time it is a painful one. 

What matters most of all is the perpetuation of this nation’s freedoms and democracy, as well as the preservation of the dignity and health of its citizens. For the continuation of each of these, what we need most of all from our President is the truth.