Closer Readings Commentary

How to Write an Inaugural Address

Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address is not only considered the greatest inaugural address but is also widely viewed as one of the most significant speeches in American literature. Its no suprise that it is included as a Common Core exemplary text under the Common Core State Standards .RI.11-12.9 for English Language Arts:

Analyze seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century foundational U.S. documents of historical and literary significance (including The Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address) for their themes, purposes, and rhetorical features.

What are the resources?

This week, in honor of Lincoln’s great inaugural address, we’re highlighting EDSITEment’s lesson, The Second Inaugural Address (1865)—Restoring the American Union. We’ll examine the rich array of resources and activities brought together here to help English Language Arts as well as Social Studies teachers navigate the themes, purposes, and historical context of this speech.

A quick overview (and an easy way to send relevant portions of this resource to your colleagues), is available on the lesson’s homepage, where the basic lesson sections—introduction, learning objectives, historical background, preparation instructions, student activities, assessments, and extending the lesson—are called out in the left-hand column.

Teachers will benefit from reviewing the background section and students will be well on their way to developing the range of interpretive skills called for in the ELA College and Career Anchor Standards for Reading and Writing by utilizing the robust activity and accompanying worksheet.

Preparing to become a speechwriter

In order to better understand what Lincoln wrote, students will not be asked to read the Second Inaugural Address immediately. First, they will make their own attempt to see what they can do as presidential speechwriters for Lincoln's difficult assignment.

And just as modern speechwriters prepare for this important task, students will use the lesson’s interactive timeline to become familiar with some of the facts and figures they will be considering. They will also delve into primary and secondary sources that present the historical context for the re-elected president as he prepared for his second inauguration in March 1865, namely:

  1. The imminent Union victory on the battlefield (p. 1 of worksheet);
  2. Information on the large majority of Northerners eager to punish Southerners, whom they believed had started the terrible conflict (pp. 2–3); and
  3. Information concerning defiant Southerners who were not eager to be brought back into the Union under the terms and conditions that would be exacted (pp. 4–6).

Writing and evaluating an inaugural address

Now, on to composing an inaugural address! After reading a general description of what an inaugural address is and what it hopes to accomplish (p. 7), students will take into account what they have learned about the state of country in early 1865, as they grapple with the situation that faced Lincoln: What can be said to a divided nation in which both Northerners and Southerners had sent sons into the fields to do mortal battle with each other?

Students will be encouraged to address the nation with words that they think are appropriate for a people who have been confronted everyday with news of casualties from the battlefields or unrest on the streets, or worse, who have suffered personal loss themselves. They will also consider their thoughts on the cause of the war; a way to put the nation’s conflict into perspective; and finally, where they would lead the country over the next four years.

They then compare and contrast their speech with Lincoln’s.

How do their speech-writing efforts compare with his? Students will engage in a guided reading of Lincoln's Address (pp. 8–10), which may be accompanied by listening to an actor read the speech.

Through this evaluative exercise, they should gain a greater understanding of how unique Lincoln's agenda was. The religious element (i.e., his providential reading of the war) and the lack of triumphalism should be more readily apparent. Lincoln addressed the divided nation with healing, not vindictive, words:

He surprised many observers by rejecting the triumphalism of Radical Northern Republicans, who sought to rule over the defeated Southern states with a vengeance. In the face of Southern defiance spurred by Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who called Southerners “to stand to our arms,” Lincoln counseled “malice toward none; with charity for all.”

The newly re-elected president sought to unite the American people by interpreting the waning conflict as a divine judgment upon both sides of the war. He believed that a common memory of the war and its impact on slavery would help the country move beyond its disagreements. Lincoln gave a uniquely providential reading of the cause, duration, and consequences of the war in hopes that the duly chastened nation, both North and South, might “achieve and cherish a just and a lasting peace.”

In the Assessment section, teachers can see how well their students approximate Lincoln’s approach by having them write one or two paragraph answers to a series of questions that guide them in self-reflection: “What Have I Learned,” “What Do I Think,” and “Use Your Judgment.”

Additional resource