America's Last Chain

by Howell J. Malham Jr.


Inside the Lincoln Memorial, etched into the limestone of the north chamber, one will see the complete text of Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address.

It is widely recognized as his greatest speech. It is perhaps the greatest speech of any president, living or dead.

Noted for a striking, unconventional brevity, certainly when compared to Lincoln's first inaugural address; and to the pleonastic speeches of his contemporaries, the second inaugural obliterated the norms of political oration as these words were actually personified — lived and breathed — by the man delivering them.

He couldn't know that he would be assassinated in just over a month, though he had premonitions of an untimely death. Perhaps on some level, he sensed that he wasn't delivering a political speech, certainly not one that would "take the hide off" of Southerners, as many of his gloating Northern supporters hoped.

He was imparting his final wishes.

If he had any agenda at his second inaugural, then, it was a deeply personal one, and that was to get down to the business of forgiveness— another deviation from the norms of his time. And ours.

Delivering on it would not be easy, considering everything that had come before that rainy day in March 1865, after four years of Civil War: all the battles, all the casualties, all the dead.

The first step, as he saw it, was to extend a sincere, humble invitation to citizens of a still-divided nation to see each other not as Republicans or Democrats, not as Northerners or Southerners, not as Yanks or Rebs, but as human beings.

This was neither a day nor a time for any other names or labels that had the capacity to polarize the nation as much as political ideology and personal opinion.

If he wanted to change the prevailing expectations of how warring factions of Americans thought about one another, viewed one another, spoke of one another, behaved with one another, Lincoln knew he needed to change the language.

By intentionally removing labels, by focusing only on parties who read the same Bible, he underscored not political divisions but a common, unifying belief that provided an existential purpose for many in the massive crowd before him.

Doing that, Lincoln did the impossible: He removed the concept of "the other," the root of man’s inhumanity.

It was no longer "us versus them," he was telling all of us that day. It was and is, in the final analysis, just us.

“It’s not hard to accept, then, that ‘conquest’ of an opposing party, or one section of the country, or the concept of representative democracy itself was never a war aim for Lincoln. He was after something far more noble.”

Lincoln's second inaugural was a celebratory occasion for everyone but Lincoln. The president viewed it as an almost painfully solemn occasion; something more like a national day of atonement; an opportunity to examine the collective conscience; to reflect on a deeper, truer understanding of all that was done and could not be undone; to create the space and the opportunity to repent for those transgressions.

And to forgive.

"With malice toward none," he intoned, "with charity for all."

Not for some. Not for a few. For all.

“Neither vindication nor triumphalism is present in the second inaugural,” writes Ronald C. White Jr. in "Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural".

“Lincoln is present to us in his own agonizing struggle for justice and reconciliation. He encourages us to ask difficult questions as we accept responsibility for defining America in our time."

Lincoln wanted to restore the union, certainly, but paramount to him was a restoration of brotherly sympathy among Americans, especially those who harbored deep enmity for one another; and whose rhetorical use of politically expedient labels justified that hatred.

Fraternal restoration, and that alone, was what victory looked like as far as he was concerned, and never was it more apparent than in his second inaugural, his "last will and testament to America," as White puts it.

And one that was, luckily for us, authored by a man of reason and of compassion.

“His two qualities of head and heart acted like counterweights; his logic, though unsparing, was never hopeless, being warmed by the goodness of his heart," wrote Helen Nicolay in "Personal Traits of Abraham Lincoln."

It’s not hard to accept, then, that "conquest” of an opposing party, or one section of the country, or the concept of representative democracy itself was never a war aim.

He was after something else, something far more noble: restoration through reconciliation, as White sees it, and that could not happen without forgiveness of the divine kind— an act that seems more than impossible if we see only a politically loaded label before us, yet becomes almost supernaturally inevitable if we allow ourselves to see the fullness and the frailty of the human, which necessarily allows us to find and reclaim the human in ourselves.

It is tempting to go even further and say on this, the country’s day of independence: That though we Americans long ago cast off the chains of a constitutionally absolute monarchy, we cannot and will not be truly free until we free ourselves from the tyranny of "us versus them."

It is the tyranny of Hate, the same tyranny that the spirit of Lincoln beseeches us to overcome; to break free of this last, rusted chain, and continue our work on the greatest modern experiment of representative democracy.

”With malice toward none; with charity for all”. :: :: ::