A Model of Civic Charity
Original in length, style, and content, Lincoln's Second Inaugural is without peer in presidential rhetoric—a point wellacknowledged on the left (Alfred Kazin: “the most remarkable inaugural address in our history—the only one that has ever reflected literary genius”) and the right (George Will: the “only” presidential inaugural that “merits a place in the nation's literature”). Especially when read in tandem with the Gettysburg Address, the speech stands as a singularly profound embodiment of America's deepest moral impulses. A powerful force for forging national bonds of affection then and now, these remarks are the culminating statement of Lincoln's unique political and, ultimately, religious discernment that preserved this country through the Civil War and refounded the nation by fashioning a broader and deeper civic commitment to both natural rights liberalism and ideals of Christian charity.
Admirers of Lincoln who continue to insist the speech is basically “irrelevant” to his political philosophy and who disparage those who admire the speech have an erroneously narrow view of what that philosophy was, and they belittle Lincoln himself. When filing away his personal copy of his Second Inaugural, Lincoln, who was not much given to selfpraise, was heard to say, “Lots of wisdom in that document, I suspect.” A week after delivering the address, Lincoln wrote to Thurlow Weed, saying of the speech, “I expect the latter to wear as well as—perhaps even better than—any thing I have produced.”1
On March 4, 1865, Lincoln delivered his Second Inaugural from the eastern portico of the U.S. Capitol. To those inclined to see such things,