Miller Center

Riding The Tiger

“I discovered that being a President is like riding a tiger. A man has to keep on riding or be swallowed.” Harry S. Truman

Inaugural History Feature of the Week: Abraham Lincoln

The second inaugural address of Abraham Lincoln, given on 4 March 1865 on the east portico of the U.S. Capitol.

The second inaugural address of Abraham Lincoln, given on 4 March 1865 on the east portico of the U.S. Capitol. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress. PD.

Each week leading up to President Obama’s second inauguration, which will take place on January 21, 2013, RTT will feature an inaugural speech by a previous president from the Miller Center’s archives.

November 19th will mark the 149th anniversary of President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and it, as well as Lincoln’s second inaugural in 1865, are acknowledged to be among the great orations in American history. Given the upcoming anniversary, this week RTT highlights the importance of both of these speeches.

Lincoln’s second Inaugural Address on March 4, 1865 was delivered just over a month before his assassination and as the end of the Civil War was rapidly approaching. The address was brief, but profound.  Abolitionist Frederick Douglass called the speech a “sacred effort” and praised it  for sounding "more like a sermon than like a state paper." Lincoln used the address to “look with high hope to the future” and to unite the country by propounding a providential interpretation of the cause, duration and consequences of the war for both sides. While the President rejected the triumphalism of radical Republicans, he also denounced slavery in concrete terms:

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, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. 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." 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.

Lincoln concluded the address with a defense for a pragmatic approach to Reconstruction and reconciliation: 

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the fight 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, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.