DeKalb County Opinion

Historic Highlights: Lincoln’s second inaugural stands test of time

‘With malice toward none, with charity for all’ is hallmark of compact speech

Few presidents have ever made a shorter inauguration speech. And none have ever said more.

The Second Inaugural Address of Abraham Lincoln in March 1865 is considered by some his greatest oration – even ahead of the Gettysburg Address. The normally reticent Lincoln said that his second inaugural would “wear as well as – perhaps better than – anything I have produced.”

“It’s certainly one of his greatest speeches,” said Kathryn Harris, who retired as director of library services at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield in 2015.

Six weeks later, Lincoln was dead at the hands of an assassin. But his words, particularly the closing remarks of “with malice toward none, with charity for all” have become a hallmark of both the Lincoln presidency and the path to peace for a divided nation.

Measuring a mere 703 words, the second inaugural has been lauded for both its moral tone and blueprint of the reconciliation. The Union was clearly winning the war, and Lincoln was already looking ahead to reunification. Refusing to praise his own efforts or his own armies’ successes, Lincoln instead chose to focus on the road to “achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace.”

“He was calling for a re-United States,” Harris commented. “Lincoln wanted to show the Confederacy that the country would work together when the war was over. He was kind of handing out an olive branch.”

This photo of Abraham Lincoln was taken in 1858.

Charles Francis Adams, a great-grandson of the second president, praised the address “in its grand simplicity and directness as being for all time the historical keynote of the war.” It is the third-shortest inaugural address ever delivered by a president, longer only than George Washington’s second inaugural (130 words) and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fourth inaugural (550 words), and lasted only six or seven minutes.

The morning of March 4, 1865, in Washington began with a pouring rain that left women’s dresses splattered with mud. However, the sun broke through and bathed Lincoln in sunlight just as he was about to begin.

In the crowd was actor John Wilkes Booth, a Southern-sympathizing stage actor whose hatred of Lincoln continued to simmer. Booth later remarked how easily he could have assassinated the president that day. On April 14, Booth shot Lincoln, and the president died the following morning. Some scholars believe as many as five of Booth’s conspirators were also in attendance.

Contrasting with Lincoln’s dignity at the inauguration was incoming Vice President Andrew Johnson, who earlier that day stunned onlookers with a rambling, incoherent speech in which he appeared drunk.

Polite applause arose from the crowd when Lincoln was finished, though many realized the greatness of the moment. Later that day, Frederick Douglass told the president the speech was a “sacred moment.”

Naturally, there were critics, including one Pennsylvania voter who called the speech “one of the most awkwardly expressed documents I have ever read.” He also blasted Lincoln for not making the speech “a little more creditable to American scholarship.”

However, the speech found favor in London, where the Spectator declared “no statesman ever uttered words stamped at once with the seal of so deep a wisdom and so true a simplicity.”

“Lincoln always had a way with words, and never spoke above anyone. I don’t think he had many speechwriters,” Harris said with a laugh. “In the second inaugural, he was truly speaking from the heart. When you do that, it’s best to keep it simple.”

Many scholars point to the morality that prevailed in the address, while others cite the Christian themes. Douglass and others compared the speech to “a sermon.”

“I don’t know if I, personally, would call it a sermon,” Harris remarked. “But there are clear religious messages throughout the address. It’s a remarkable speech.”

Like Douglass, Harris believes the address would have been well-received by African-Americans. “I think they would have been pleased by Lincoln’s words,” she said. “People of color were finally being recognized as citizens. Though the 13th Amendment didn’t pass until later that year, there was so much work behind the scenes at that time, and coupled with that, they would have felt good about what was happening.”

One of the few memorable statements ever delivered in a presidential inauguration, the words of the second inaugural are inscribed on the walls of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

• Tom Emery is a freelance writer and historical researcher from Carlinville, Illinois. He may be reached at 217-710-8392 or