Sunday, February 26, 2012

"With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right"

Lincoln's Greatest Speech, Ronald C. White, Jr.

I spent much of the past week reading Tom Jones.  I have found it really captivating, very funny in places and touching in others, and I can't imagine where Tom's adventures are going to take him next (except into more trouble).  But somewhere around p.460, my interest started to flag.  I realized that I was counting the pages rather than following the story (my Penguin edition has 851 pages of fairly small print), and I decided it was time to take a break.

This past week I also had the opportunity to see an exhibit on the Civil War at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.  It consists primarily of material from the collections of the National Archives, and the main draw for visitors last week was the addition of the Emancipation Proclamation, on display for only a few days.  As thrilled as I was to see that, the highlight for me was something that many visitors may have missed.  In a case with several small photos of soldiers, both individuals and groups, was one of a woman soldier who enlisted in disguise as a male, in order to serve with her husband.  The label referred to the more than 400 women who have been identified as serving, a topic that I've become very interested in after reading DeAnne Blanton and Lauren Cook's book They Fought Like Demons

Seeing the exhibit led me back to the Civil War section of the TBR stack, and to Ronald C. White's book on Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address.  As the title states, White considers this the greatest of Lincoln's speeches.  Like the Gettysburg Address it is short, but it conveys profound and powerful ideas in its 703 words (you can find a text of it here). The epigraph of the book is Frederick Douglass's statement to Lincoln: "The address sounded more like a sermon than a state paper."

 White, a professor of history at UCLA, has written several books on American religious and intellectual history.  In this book, he analyzes the Second Inaugural as both a state paper and a sermon.  The first chapter, "Inauguration Day," sets the stage in March, 1865.  Though the war has not yet ended, victory seemed near, with Grant's campaign against Lee in its final stages, and Sherman marching through South Carolina.  At the same time, though, Americans had suffered through four years of a brutal civil war with appalling casualties and destruction on a scale never seen before.  As people flooded into Washington to celebrate, they faced questions about how the war would end, how the rebel states would be brought back into the Union, and the fate not just of the soldiers who fought the war but also of millions of former slaves.  Many expected Lincoln to address these questions, to lay out his plans for what was already called "reconstruction," or to trumpet the victories of the Republican party and the Federal armies.

What Lincoln did instead was to trace the history of the conflict, to indict both the North and the South for the sin of slavery, and then to call the country to repentance, to reconciliation, and to care for those most affected by the war, the soldiers, their families, and the freed people.  White devotes a chapter to each section of the speech, to analyze its historical context, how it fits it with Lincoln's other writings, and its careful grammatical structure.  He pays particular attention to the religious context of Lincoln's words, including his background in the "Old School" wing of the Presbyterian Church.  White argues that Lincoln affirmed in this speech his belief in a providential God who was present even in the terrible events of the war, and that the address follows the familiar structure of a 19th century sermon, with indictment followed by imperative: we have gone astray and sinned, we must make amends.

In addition to the speech itself, White's analysis incorporates many other interesting elements, including the reaction to Lincoln's words, in Europe as well as America.  I had not realized that, according the political calendar of the time, Congress would not come back into session until December 1865, which meant that Lincoln would have had a free hand for months in "reconstruction."  Unfortunately for the country, among those in the audience at the Inauguration was John Wilkes Booth, clearly visible in photographs, who would assassinate Lincoln 41 days later.  White also looks at the place of the Bible in Civil War America, and the work of Bible societies (north and south, Protestant and Catholic) who distributed copies to the soldiers.  There are many accounts of soldiers' lives saved by their pocket Bibles, which deflected or stopped a bullet.  The exhibit here in Houston includes one of those Bibles, gouged with the track of a bullet.

I see from Dr. White's website that he has written a full-scale biography of Lincoln and is currently working on one of Ulysses Grant.  I look forward to reading both.


  1. Interesting post, thank you. I believe this speach is one of the ones on the walls of the Lincoln Memorial in D.C., yes. It is a marvelous speach.

  2. Thank you for stopping by, C.B. You're right - White notes that it's inscribed on the north wall of the Memorial. I have been there a couple of times but had forgotten that.

  3. When I think of inauguration speeches I don't think of greatness. I think 'yeah, right' and 'we'll see'. So cynical of me, I know. So, I find it fascinating that an entire book is devoted to deciphering an inauguration speech. It is such a tragic shame that Pres. Lincoln was assassinated - what more would he have done in his life?
    I love all of the Civil War related books that you are reading lately, Lisa. They're all the books I want to read!

  4. There are so many great books on the Civil War - and more coming out with the 150th anniversary.

    There is apparently a subsection of Lincoln studies focused on his speeches, I also have a book on the Gettysburg Address (TBR), and one on the Cooper Union speech in 1859. What Lincoln could have done with four more years - that has to be one of the most poignant questions in US history.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!