Inaugural Address (1865)

Image: [Abraham Lincoln delivering his second inaugural address as President of the United States, Washington, D.C.]. Gardner, Alexander. (1865) Library of Congress.
How did Lincoln explain the Civil War? Who was at fault?
Are Lincoln’s views of God’s relation to humans the same in the Temperance Address and the Second Inaugural? Is there a similarity in his view of southerners in the Second Inaugural and his view of drunkards in the Temperance Address? Is this the same view or attitude expressed toward sin in Beecher’s sermon on holiness? Based on the Second Inaugural Address, how do you think Lincoln would respond to Alexander Stephens’ and A. C. Dixon’s interpretations of the Bible with regard to slavery?

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In the Temperance Address, Lincoln pointed to the harm that might come from pursuing social reform on the assumption that the reformers were morally superior to those they sought to reform. The lack of sympathy and fellow feeling in such an effort defied human nature and contravened the teachings of Christianity. It thus diminished the likelihood of the reform succeeding and created divisions among fellow citizens. The attitude that Lincoln criticized in the Temperance Address contributed to the outbreak of the Civil War two decades later. Delivered as that war was coming to a close, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural picked up the theme of the Temperance Address in again calling for reconciliation among American citizens. With numerous references to the Bible, the Second Inaugural moved beyond the rational and natural causes to which Lincoln generally confined himself in speeches given early in his career (See The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions Address before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, the Temperance Address), appealing to God’s transcendent justice as the source of the charity among Americans necessary to bind the nation’s wounds. If they would leave judgment—certainly final judgment—to God, it followed that Americans would feel malice toward none, and charity for all.

—David Tucker

Source: Abraham Lincoln, Inaugural Address, online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project,

Fellow Countrymen:

At this second appearing to take the oath of the presidential office, there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement, somewhat in detail, of a course to be pursued, seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention, and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself; and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.

On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago, all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war—seeking to dissolve the Union, and divide effects, by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.

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. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union, even by war; while the government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war, the magnitude, or the duration, which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces;1 but let us judge not that we be not judged.2 The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. 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!3 If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’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 with 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.”4

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds;5 to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan6—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.

  1. 1. Genesis 3:19.
  2. 2. Matthew 7:1.
  3. 3. Matthew 18:7.
  4. 4. Psalm 19:9.
  5. 5. Psalm 147:3.
  6. 6. James 1:27.
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