The words in President Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address remind us about what an exceptional leader he became. Lincoln worked carefully at composing many of his speeches from words and phrases he scrolled on bits of paper at different times. Like a good thinker, he wrestled over the right words.
He began his speech by reminding the country about why the Civil War had come upon the nation. In lasting language, he spoke of the causes of the war and its duration. Then, he gave a brief explanation of how slavery and the war-related. He closed the address with some of the most riveting lines ever spoken, “With malice towards none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan - to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
Lincoln’s inaugural vision represented hope for reconciliation in the midst of war and a future peace. Instead of both sides inflicting recriminating malice against one another, he urged charity. Lincoln knew suffering. He had lost a child during his presidency to typhoid fever. He read the numerous casualty reports in the telegraph office at the War Department. He had written to some widows and orphans. He had visited soldiers in homes and hospitals. Living during a horrendous war, and like any human being, he wrestled with what to do concerning the great questions of his time. He argued for the proposed amendment to abolish slavery and had his ideas for how to integrate four million former slaves into society.
He is a great example of someone who grew through the course of his presidency. At the beginning of the Civil War, he pledged not to free a slave if he could win the war and preserve the country. However, through the experiences of war, he realized he could not accomplish preserving the union without addressing the issue of slavery itself. As someone who came to reference religious views through the course of his presidency, he increasingly saw slavery’s evils as God’s judgment on the land and its people.
We would be wise to listen to his words in our day because they remain well-written and they still have something to say. Charity is different from malice. Unfortunately, we are living through a great period where people are showing their best ugliness. A president tweets rudeness. A congress appears to take sides rather than advance the causes of everyday constituents. Pundits on television shows just argue and talk over one another. Civility seems to be the exception instead of the rule.
Leaders rise to great occasions. They suffer privately and publicly. Great leaders are willing to have a learning curve and are willing to grow.
In the upcoming elections, voters should elect leaders who will be “strivers” and not just a reflection of their particular political party. Lincoln encouraged the people of the nation to “strive on to finish the work we are in.” He used “We” instead of “I.” Each one of us has the responsibility to be a part of the “We” in whatever capacities we can. No citizen gets a pass.
Lincoln had been president during a great division in the country. He, more than anyone, knew firsthand the effects of such division and discord. Breaking down the verbs in the last paragraph of the inaugural, one will note they are presently just as real and important in the life of a nation as they were in Lincoln’s era: Strive, finish, bind, care, to do, achieve, cherish.
We may be more cognizant of the need to elect officials, at all levels, who display a certain character. We need people who can work to bind up the nation’s various wounds and continue to advance protections for people who are enslaved to institutions that do not serve them properly. They do not have to be perfect, but they need to have the ability to want to reach higher and not rest on past successes. These officials must display vision. They must not shy away from a learning curve. The everyday man and woman in Middle America can elect these leaders so civilities can be restored and progress can be made. Too many politicians today speak the language of division, and they need to be called out.
With the Second Inaugural, Abraham Lincoln just wasn’t writing for his time. He was speaking for all our times. His words need to not only resonate with us but also pour into our hearts more deeply than ever.
Brent Tomberlin is a social studies instructor at South Caldwell High School and Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute. Reach him at email@example.com.
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