My previous posts for Law and Liberty examining Abraham Lincoln’s use of the Bible in the Gettysburg and Second Inaugural addresses generated interest that far exceeded my expectations (and those of the editor). These were primarily descriptive rather than critical assessments of the propriety of Lincoln’s references or allusions to Scripture in these celebrated orations. Space constraints did not allow me to explore other issues of interest to me, such as the perils of deploying religion in political—often partisan—rhetoric.
In his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln reprises the brevity and complexity that has made his Gettysburg Address so well known and so cherished. He also reprises the Biblical allusions and spirit that animated some of that earlier speech. But the tone is strikingly different. For us, the speech rings tragically in our imaginations because of its author’s fate—known well to us, but as yet unknown to him. Lincoln’s Second Inaugural is framed in terms of eternity and clouded by the inscrutability of God’s mind. It takes this perspective because of his very different aim: unity in the aftermath of approaching victory.
A hundred and fifty years ago today, as the sun broke through the clouds shortly after noon on a wet Washington day, Abraham Lincoln, with one hand raised and the other on an open Bible, took the presidential oath of office for the second time. The speech he just gave had been received by an enthusiastic crowd on the East Portico of the U.S. Capitol. It took about six minutes. Then the oath. Then he said, “So help me God,” bent forward, and kissed the Bible to conclude the solemn ceremony.
Director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner’s Lincoln opens with a chaotic battle in a river, black and white soldiers struggling to kill each other in hand-to-hand combat. We then see pairs of black and white soldiers reciting from memory the Gettysburg Address back to the President.
Lincoln concludes the movie by delivering the Second Inaugural. Most of the time in between is an elaboration of his wartime and Reconstruction strategy and thus a commentary on the purposes of the First Inaugural and the Emancipation Proclamation. These occasions are the rhetorical high points of Lincoln’s presidency, though most of the movie is focused on events in early 1865.