Abraham Lincoln as
The Second Inaugural as America’s
Sermon to the World
Harry S. Stout
This chapter addresses the subject of Abraham Lincoln as a moral leader in the context of both the Civil War and nineteenth-century standards of morality. Such a topic, if handled thoroughly, would require an entire book addressing such themes as just-war planning for Civil War campaigns, justwar conduct, treatment of civilians and of prisoners of war, slavery and racism, and so on. For purposes of this chapter, I will select only one aspect of Lincoln’s moral vision and leadership, namely, his Second Inaugural Address, which I take to be the single most eloquent moral commentary on the war.
It is one of the curiosities of Lincoln’s historiography that his Second Inaugural Address was not widely analyzed until recently. Far more attention was paid to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. There were few conferences devoted to the inaugural address or sustained scholarly publications on it. Indeed, not one book-length study of the Second Inaugural was published before the twenty-first century. Then, in one year, two books appeared that explored the many dimensions of the 701-word Second Inaugural: James Tackach’s Lincoln’s Moral Vision: The Second Inaugural Address, and Ronald White’s Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural. Missing from these books, however, is the sermonic—even Puritan—dimension of the address.
While we technically label Lincoln’s Second Inaugural an “address,” or, in Ronald White’s title, a “speech,” contemporaries and scholars agree that it was really a sermon in all but name. Immediately following the oration Lincoln asked Frederick Douglass what he thought, to which Douglass replied, “Mr. Lincoln, that was a sacred effort.” Later, Douglass explained the reason for the power of the speech: “The address sounded more like a sermon than a state paper.”2 Later historians such as Mark Noll, Ronald White, Allen Guelzo, and Richard Carwardine agree. Like Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the cadences,