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

"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.