Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson 4: The Second Inaugural Address (1865)—Restoring the American Union

A We The People Resource


The Lesson


Photograph of Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural. Lincoln is at the very center  of the picture surrounded by dignitaries.

Photograph of Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural. Lincoln is at the very center of the picture surrounded by dignitaries.

Credit: Image courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.

"Mr. Lincoln, that was a sacred effort." So spoke Frederick Douglass soon after he heard Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address on March 4, 1865. The abolitionist orator/editor (and former slave) had met Lincoln only twice before, and for most of the war was a fierce critic of the president's policies. But he praised Lincoln's four-paragraph speech as sounding "more like a sermon than like a state paper." Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address was a surprisingly brief but profound reflection on the meaning of the Civil War that speculated on the purposes of God to help reunite the country.

With the war nearing its completion and the Confederacy in a shambles, Lincoln adopted a humble approach in stating the Administration's view of the war and the future of the American union. He surprised many observers by rejecting the triumphalism of Radical Republicans in Congress, who sought to rule over the defeated Southern States with a vengeance. Moreover, 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, one that viewed God as a key player in the unfolding drama, would help the country move beyond its disagreements "with malice toward none, with charity for all." 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."

This lesson will examine Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address to determine how he sought to reunite a divided country through a providential interpretation of the Civil War.

AP U.S. History teachers will benefit from this lesson because their students will better understand the context out of which Lincoln made his Second Inaugural Address, and the magnanimous way in which his speech sought not to find blame, but to give an interpretation to the Civil War that would help the nation to heal. In enlarging student understanding of war—its effects, resolution, and aftermath—students will be better equipped for the AP exam, particularly the DBQ and essay part of the exam. Specifically, this lesson deepens student knowledge in the following AP areas: in the Themes section of the Course Description, the growth of democracy and struggles for civil rights under Politics and Citizenship, the influence of religion on politics under Religion, and the impact of war on politics, economics, and society under War and Diplomacy; and in the Topics section of the Course Description, military strategies, emancipation, and social, political, and economic effects of war in the North and South under the Civil War. If students do the Extending the Lesson section, they will be further enabled on the topic of presidential and radical reconstruction under Reconstruction in the Course Description.

Guiding Questions

How did Lincoln seek to restore the American union as the Civil War drew to a close?

Learning Objectives

  • Describe the historical context for Lincoln's second inauguration as president.
  • Articulate some of the concerns of Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, a leader of the Radical Republicans, who controlled Congress after the election of 1864.
  • Describe the mood of the South as reflected in Confederate President Jefferson Davis's rhetoric in early 1865.
  • Explain Lincoln's understanding of how the war began, its relation to slavery, and the role of God in the conflict.


Unlike his first election to the presidency, where he garnered less than forty percent of the popular vote, Abraham Lincoln was re-elected in 1864 with 54 percent of the popular vote and the electoral college votes of all but three states—New Jersey, Delaware, and Kentucky. (The eleven Confederate States did not participate.) Drawing an overwhelming majority of the soldier vote, Lincoln won a convincing re-election over his dismissed general, George B. McClellan, the "Peace" Democratic candidate. To emphasize national unity and not partisan differences, the Republicans ran as the "National Union Party," even going so far as to select Democrat Andrew Johnson of Tennessee as Lincoln's running mate. But the key to retaining the presidency was the string of significant victories won by Union forces in the fall of 1864, which convinced Northerners that the war was close to being won. Where preserving the Union was the issue at his first inauguration, crushing the Confederacy and restoring the union of all the American states formed the context of Lincoln's second inauguration.

By the time of his second inauguration on March 4, 1865, the Civil War was almost over. Supported by Generals Philip H. Sheridan, who laid waste to the Shenandoah Valley (a key food source for the Confederate army), and William Tecumseh Sherman, who disrupted Confederate transportation, communications, and morale throughout Georgia and the Carolinas, General-in-Chief Ulysses S. Grant mounted a coordinated attack on Southern forces and gained control of all the major Southern ports.

On the political front, a peace conference at Hampton Roads, Virginia (February 3, 1865), which took place aboard the president's steamer River Queen, failed as Lincoln rejected an appeal for a cease-fire by Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens. Lincoln remained committed to emancipation, and insisted on the disbanding of all rebel forces and a "restoration of the National authority throughout all the States."

Some Southerners, like South Carolina diarist Mary Boykin Chesnut, acknowledged the increasing dominance of the federal military: after the fall of Atlanta to Sherman's army in August 1864, she wrote, "We are going to be wiped off the face of the earth." Nevertheless, even after Lincoln's re-election demonstrated the North's commitment to the war against Southern independence, Confederate leaders remained defiant in the face of mounting battlefield losses, the blockade of their ports, and rampant desertion and "stragglers" absent without leave. After hearing of the failed Hampton Roads Peace Conference, Confederate President Jefferson Davis delivered a speech in Richmond, proclaiming, "The duty that remains is to stand to our arms." He added that "his confidence was firm, that God would abase the arrogance of our enemies, and crown our exertions with triumph." But defiance did not preclude desperate measures, as Davis and the Confederate Congress even considered enlisting slaves to fight for the Confederate cause—with emancipation as a reward. With General Robert E. Lee's endorsement, the measure passed in early March 1865, but was never enacted.

Concerned that his wartime Emancipation Proclamation would become inoperative when peace returned to the nation, Lincoln had worked vigorously in 1864 and early 1865 to get the Thirteenth Amendment passed by the required two-thirds of the House of Representatives (it had already passed the Senate in April 1864), which it finally did on January 31, 1865. He called the amendment "a King's cure for all the evils. It winds the whole thing up." All that remained was for three-fourths of the states to ratify the amendment. By the time of Lincoln's death on April 15, 1865, twenty-one of the required minimum of twenty-seven states had ratified it, including two of the so-called Border Slave States, Missouri and Maryland, which had also abolished slavery in their state constitutions.

Facing Radical Republicans in Congress calling for stricter enforcement of federal authority over the rebellious states, and a defeated but defiant South with no love for the Union after a devastating war, Lincoln had a difficult task ahead of him as he prepared his Second Inaugural Address. Instead of spelling out his plans for Reconstruction or "restoration" (his preferred term) of the seceded states, he followed the model of his Gettysburg Address. Upon swearing the presidential oath of office for a second time, Lincoln's speech to the nation would be weighty but brief.

Discussion of the future course of the nation, the typical bread and butter of an inaugural address, was left for the very end of the four-paragraph, 700-word speech. The shortest paragraph of the address, Lincoln kept it eloquently vague. Beginning with the most memorable phrase of the speech, "With malice toward none; with charity for all," he studiously avoided any specifics about whether or not the seceded states had actually left the federal Union, how they would be restored to their former place within the Union, or what the status or rights of the freedmen—or rebels, for that matter—would be under these returning governments. More important than a detailed agenda for the future, Lincoln thought, was a careful review of the past: what was the meaning of the conflict and how could this understanding help heal the wounds of the divided nation?

Lincoln thought the reunification of the American people required a common view of the wrong of slavery, as well as a common acceptance of the ravages of the Civil War as due punishment from the Almighty for the national exploitation of black slaves. If "the war came" according to divine providence, and had proven to be an unexpected means of ridding the nation (and not just the South) of its original sin of slavery, then a common acceptance of this view of the war could help North and South "achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace." What made Lincoln's providential reading of the war so unique was not its references to God, which were commonplace in 19th-century oratory and letters, but his refusal to claim that his or anyone's intentions for the conflict were a clear expression of God's will for America: "The Almighty has His own purposes."

Thus, Lincoln saw little hope of a truly United States of America without a new way of thinking about the place of slavery in America's history, replacing both the South's defense of it as "a positive good" and the North's assumption that they bore no responsibility for the peculiar institution. What was accomplished on the battlefield needed to be established in the hearts and minds of the former combatants. Therefore Lincoln sought in his Second Inaugural Address to establish a common, public memory of the war as the basis for restoring national unity.

Preparation Instructions

  • This lesson makes use of written primary source documents and worksheets, available both online and in the Text Document that accompanies this lesson. Students can read and analyze source materials online, or do some of the work online and some in class from printed copies.
  • Read over the lesson. Bookmark the websites that you will use. If students will be working from printed copies in class, download the documents from the Text Document and duplicate as many copies as you will need. If students need practice in analyzing primary source documents, excellent resource materials are available at the EDSITEment-reviewed Learning Page of the Library of Congress. Helpful Document Analysis Worksheetsmay be found at the site of the National Archives. The main activity of this lesson is for students to draft their own "second inaugural address" to prepare for an examination of Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address.

    To enhance student learning even further, prior to their speech-writing and if time permits, an interactive has been included with this lesson designed to provide the student with more information—aural, visual, and textual—on the context of the March 1865 address. Because the interactive provides background material, it is listed first in the following section.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Reconsidering the Second Inaugural

This lesson is built around the following sequence of tasks:

  • Students gain contextual information by accessing the interactive (optional).
  • Students will read primary and secondary sources that reflect the historical context in which the re-elected president prepared for his second inauguration:
    • "Grant Takes Command" (1864/1865)
    • Charles Sumner, "Letter to John Bright" (March 13, 1865)
    • Jefferson Davis, "African Church Speech" (February 6, 1865)
  • Students will read an "Inaugural Address" description and then write their own.
  • Students will read Abraham Lincoln's "Second Inaugural Address" (March 4, 1865), and then compare and contrast his speech with what they wrote.

What would it be like to write an inaugural address, if you were a newly re-elected president who was presiding over the end of a Civil War that had cost the country around 600,000 deaths during four agonizing years? What would you say to your countrymen, and to all the regions of the country involved in the conflict, that would show your understanding of what had transpired, and would give your aims and purposes for the next four years? In this lesson, students will try their hand at just such a task.

Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address is the focus of this lesson, but students will not read it until the end of the activity. In order to appreciate better what Lincoln wrote, his address will be read last, after students have had a chance to see what they can do with Lincoln's difficult assignment.

Before writing their own inaugural address, and especially before they read Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, they will first read primary and secondary sources that present some of the historical context for the re-elected president as he prepared his second inauguration in March 1865: namely, (1) the imminent Union victory on the battlefield, (2) a large majority of the northern population (reflected in the Radical Republican agenda in Congress) eager to punish Southerners, whom they believed had started the terrible conflict, and (3) defiant Southerners who were not eager to be brought back into the Union under the terms and conditions that would be exacted.

Next, after reading a general description of what an inaugural address is and what it hopes to accomplish, students will grapple with the situation that confronted Lincoln: the task of what to say to a divided nation, where Northerners and Southerners had sent their sons into the fields to do mortal battle with each other-a battle rapidly drawing to a close. They will write their own inaugural address, taking into account what they just learned about where the country was in early 1865.

Finally, they will examine Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, and then compare and contrast his speech with their own.

Historical Context for Lincoln's Speech: Reactions to the Waning Conflict

To gain context for the speech that Lincoln wrote, students will read primary and secondary sources as given in this section. Divide students into groups of three or four, and have them work together on the questions for each of the readings below.

Have students read "Grant Takes Command," which gives a brief account of General Ulysses S. Grant's promotion to general in chief of the Union military and how his coordinated strategy spelled the beginning of the end of the Civil War. Grant Takes Command can be found at the EDSITEment-reviewed site Digital History. The text is also included in the Text Document on page 1, and can be printed out for student use. In their groups, have students work together on the answer to the following question, which is also available on page 1 of the Text Document:

  • What evidence do you find in this article that the Union is winning in late 1864 and early 1865, and that the South is collapsing?

Charles Sumner, "To John Bright" (March 13, 1865): "Can Emancipation be Carried Out Without Using the Lands of the Slave-masters"?

Next, have students read a March 13, 1865 letter that Charles Sumner, a U.S. Senator from Massachusetts and leading member of the Radical Republicans, wrote to John Bright. Bright (1811-1889) was a progressive member of the British Parliament and a Quaker who advocated universal suffrage and the abolition of slavery. Sumner's letter to Bright can be found at the EDSITEment-reviewed site Teaching American History. The relevant excerpt from Sumner's letter is also included in the Text Document on pages 2-3, and can be printed out for student use. Students should work together on the answers to the following questions, which are also available on page 3 of the Text Document:

  • What does Sumner propose should be done with the land of former slave-owners in the South?
  • What reasons does Sumner give for securing "suffrage" or the vote to the freedmen? What ultimate benefit does this bestow upon the United States?
  • What other proposals that Sumner offers in his letter would be seen as hostile by white southerners?
  • Describe the attitude Sumner has toward "the rebel states" and provide evidence for your answer.

Jefferson Davis, "African Church Speech" (February 6, 1865): "The Duty that Remains is to Stand to Our Arms."

With the failure of the Peace Conference at Hampton Roads, Virginia (February 3, 1865), Confederate President Jefferson Davis delivered a speech to rally Southern support for the war. A link to Davis's African Church Speech can be found at the EDSITEment-reviewed site Teaching American History. An excerpt from Davis's "African Church Speech" is also included in the Text Document on pages 4-5, and can be printed out for student use. Students should work together on the answers to the following questions, which are also available on page 6 of the Text Document:

  • Is Jefferson Davis hopeful or pessimistic about the Confederate war effort? Give evidence for your answer.
  • What does Davis believe is required for the Confederate cause to succeed at this stage of the conflict? What does he call upon the citizens of the Confederacy to do?
  • What can you infer from the "African Church Speech" about the status or morale of the Confederate military? Cite an example or two in support of your answer.
  • Is Davis open to having the Confederate states rejoin the American union? Explain.
  • Describe the attitude Davis has towards "the enemy" and provide evidence for your answer.
A Presidential Inaugural Address: Students Write Their Own Speech, Then Consider Lincoln's "Sacred Effort"

Now it's time for the students to put themselves in the president's shoes and write an inaugural address for the year 1865, based on what they know about the unfolding events and prominent opinions of that time from their readings. Students will 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.

Before they write, however, instruct students to read a brief history entitled Inaugural Address, which can be found at the EDSITEment-reviewed site U.S. Senate. They can read this online, or it can be printed from the Text Document on page 7. This reading contains general information about the inaugural address, such as a brief history of the address and what presidents generally hope to accomplish in this speech. Students should find this helpful as they set out to write their own inaugural address.

Suggest to students that they might wish to mention or refer to the following points in their address:

  • what you know to be true about the nation in 1865
  • your thoughts on the cause of the war
  • a way to put the nation's conflict into perspective
  • how you will deal with a nation whose sections are hostile to each other
  • where you will lead the country over the next four years
  • your goals and vision for the nation

Abraham Lincoln, "Second Inaugural Address" (March 4, 1865): "With Malice Toward None; With Charity for All."

After writing their address, students will then read Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address and compare and contrast their speech with Lincoln's. Aside from recognizing the rhetorical eloquence of an unquestioned master of the English language, students should also gain a greater appreciation of how unique Lincoln's agenda was, as he declared it in his March 4, 1865 address. 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; we'll see how well the students approximate this approach in their addresses in the Assessment section.

Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address can be found at the EDSITEment-reviewed site National Archives and Records Administration. The Second Inaugural Address is also included in the Text Document on pages 8-9, and can be printed out for student use. Students should work together on the answers to the following questions, which are also available on pages 9-10 of the Text Document:

  • In the second paragraph, what does Lincoln say that Americans (North and South) believed about the "impending civil-war"? Why does he not identify the South as responsible for starting the war?
  • What connection does Lincoln make between slavery and the Civil War?
  • What two or three things about the Civil War does Lincoln say the American people did not expect?
  • What does Lincoln "suppose" God may be accomplishing with the Civil War?
  • How does Lincoln's interpretation of the war humble both victorious Northerners and defeated Southerners? Why is this useful given the historical context in March 1865?
  • In terms of both the war and slavery, how do Lincoln's references to the Bible help him to explain what has happened to the country since his first presidential inauguration?


Choose a question or two from each of the categories below, and have students write a one- or two-paragraph response.

"What Have You Learned" Questions:

  • Give a brief summary of the historical context that Lincoln faced as he prepared his second inaugural address.
  • Is Jefferson Davis open to the idea of the Confederate States rejoining the American union? What appears to be his priority in any peace settlement?
  • What do you learn from Lincoln's address about his attitude towards the South, the apparent losers in the conflict? What do you learn from Lincoln's address about his attitude towards the North, the apparent winners in the conflict?
  • What insight did you gain from President Lincoln's Address? What kinds of things did he include that you did not?

"What Do You Think" Questions:

  • Why do you think Lincoln devotes most of his Second Inaugural Address to a recollection of the how the war came about and how the war transformed the nation? In what way does his interpretation of the Civil War (paragraph 3) prepare the nation for his concluding exhortation (paragraph 4)?
  • Should Lincoln have been more specific about his recommendations for Reconstruction, or does he achieve his purposes better by stressing important themes instead of policy proposals?
  • Given the death of Lincoln, should Congress have done more to aid freed blacks after the Civil War? Was any particular omission during the Reconstruction Era responsible for the injustices of the Gilded Era and the first half of the 20th century toward black Americans?
  • Do you think Lincoln's wishes for the future can be fulfilled if Americans remain divided about the meaning of the war? Explain.

"Use Your Judgment" Questions:

  • What can you discern about Lincoln's character on the basis of what he wrote?
  • Evaluate Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address. What were its strengths? Do you see any weaknesses?

"For Further Thought" Questions:

  • In recent years, some Americans have called for a national apology for the slavery practiced for so long in the United States. Does Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address qualify as an apology? Explain.
  • Could a president today use the same religious rhetoric that Lincoln did to explain national policy? Was Lincoln wrong to do so? (Note: Is it significant that Lincoln presents his providential interpretation of the war as a supposition and not as a demonstrable fact?)

Extending The Lesson

The Political Battle Between the President and Congress for Reconstructing the Nation

For additional background on the Second Inaugural Address, especially with regards to contending options for Reconstruction, students can compare Lincoln's 1863 Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction with Congress' 1864 Wade-Davis bill, which Lincoln pocket-vetoed. (For Lincoln's thoughts on reconstruction near the close of the war, see his last public address, delivered on April 11, 1865, at the EDSITEment-reviewed site POTUS-Presidents of the United States" of the Internet Public Library.)

Have students read excerpts from President Abraham Lincoln's "Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction" (December 8, 1863), and answer the questions that follow, which are available in worksheet form on page 13 of the Text Document. A link to the Proclamation can be found at the EDSITEment-reviewed site "POTUS-Presidents of the United States" of the Internet Public Library. A shorter excerpt from the Proclamation is also included in the Text Document on pages 11-12, and can be printed out for student use.

  • What must someone who "participated in the existing rebellion" do to receive a presidential pardon? Be specific in your answer.
  • What persons are disqualified or "excepted" from receiving this pardon and amnesty?
  • What minimum percentage of qualified persons needs to take the oath in order to re-establish a state government loyal to the United States?
  • What does Lincoln encourage re-established state governments to do with regards to former slaves?

Then have students read excerpts from the Wade-Davis bill (July 2, 1864), and answer the questions that follow, which are available in worksheet form on page 16 of the Text Document. A link to the Wade-Davis bill can be found at the EDSITEment-reviewed site "Our Documents" of the National Archives. A shorter excerpt from the Wade-Davis bill is also included in the Text Document on pages 14-15, and can be printed out for student use.

  • Who does Congress say will govern a state whose citizens wish to be restored to the federal Union? Who appoints this person?
  • What minimum percentage of white male voters need to take the oath before those citizens could begin the process of reestablishing a new state government?
  • What must citizens do to restore their state to the federal Union?
  • Who are considered to be citizens of a restored state, and what categories of persons are left out?
  • What three requirements does Congress impose upon the re-established state constitutions?
Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

2 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > People > African American
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > AP US History
  • History and Social Studies
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Civil Rights
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Civil War and Reconstruction (1850-1877)
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Culture
  • History and Social Studies > People > Other
  • History and Social Studies > People > Women
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Politics and Citizenship
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Reform
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Religion
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Slavery
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > U.S. Constitution
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > War and Foreign Policy
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Evaluating arguments
  • Expository writing
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Textual analysis
  • Using primary sources
  • Writing skills
  • Lucas Morel, Washington & Lee University (Lexington, VA)
  • Constance Murray, Grace Christian High School (Staunton, VA)


Activity Worksheets
Student Resources