I am nearing the climax of Ronald C. White's excellent Lincoln's Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural (2006). It is leading me to reflect once again why a speech that casts a war that slaughtered 600,000 men as a divine judgment and collective punishment continues to move me. There is something unique about the tired notion of divine judgment as transmuted by Lincoln's mind and bottomless suffering.
White casts the speech as a species of Jeremiad, a dominant form in Puritan preaching, rooted in the inevitable perpetual sense that the New Israel (like the old one) was forever backsliding. White demonstrates that Lincoln was intimately familiar with the genre, which he describes as follows:
The thrust was that the people had sinned by straying from the original vision of their forefathers and thus deserved punishment. Their sin was linked with the judgment of God. Judgment should give rise to repentance. If there was repentance, the preacher offered the possibility of forgiveness. Forgiveness portended hope. Hope should lead to reform (Kindle location 2102-04).
For the United States the "original vision," as Lincoln increasingly cast it in the war's later days (White notes), is the Declaration's credo: all men are created equal..endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. Punishment for corruption of that vision, in Lincoln's provisional judgment, is an eye-for-an-eye affair:
Both [sides] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."One part of my mind is tempted to write this indictment off as banal, the most tired of religious cliches, like the speech of the priest in Camus The Plague that blames the plague on the people's sins. Worse, I could see it as a cruel fallacy: the slaughtered youth, those who bore the battle, were not for the most part those who propagated the offense. But this write-off is a gross oversimplification. Several factors mitigate and complicate the portrayal of retributive justice here.
First is Lincoln's own compassion and share in the suffering. He alters the notion of collective punishment in two ways. First is the honor and claim on special care he accords to the war's primary victims -- "him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan." Second, as White spotlights, Lincoln, with astonishing political courage and the rarest of moral imagination, extends the guilt to North as well as South (though the prevalence of guilt, in his humbly hedged judgment, belongs with the South). Imagine George W. Bush declaring after 9/11 that the scourge of 9/11 was a kind of payback for American conduct that he later did denounce: decades of support for brutal middle eastern dictators.
Third, as White also implies, Lincoln implicitly includes himself in the indictment. He does so literally, with the pronoun "we": he is among those who fervently hopes and prays for relief from divine wrath that may not yet be forthcoming, and among the "each" who "looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding" and whose prayers could not be answered fully. It may be implied that having looked for "a result less fundamental" constituted a kind of complicity in the offense. White points out that this speech itself opened a new chapter in Lincoln's recognition of what he casts here as the war's ultimate purpose:
Lincoln's move to identify slavery as an “offence” to God shifted the balance of his address. Since 1854, all of Lincoln's major speeches had engaged the issue of slavery in predictable and consistent patterns. His major focus having been to block slavery's advance into new territories or states, he usually refrained from attacks on the horrors of slavery and exhibited no animosity toward Southern slaveholders (location 2125-2128).Fourth, there is the humility of Lincoln's delivery of his own judgment as provisional and partial: in his mouth, "as God gives us to see the right' is a hedge as well as an affirmation of firmness, and his injunction, "let us judge not, that we be not judged" is borne out by the if/then structure of his vision of divine judgment.
Fifth, there is the sheer sweep and force of Lincoln's compassion:
With malice toward 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 lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.If the retribution is divine, its mitigation is in human hands. In a key sense, for me at least, that human agency works backward on the retribution. Whatever we want to think about God or gods, human agency does bring down collective punishment. While the relative innocence of those who bear the battle is real -- it's always the older, the rich and the powerful who send them off to war -- there are senses in which collective guilt is real, and parents visit their sins on their children.
Most in the North were complicit to some degree in slavery. Few recognized African Americans as the nation's chief injured party. Few at the time Lincoln spoke were comfortable with granting full legal equality -- including Lincoln himself, though he seems to have been moving that way in his last months. Most were prepared to take action to ensure that some measure of white supremacy was preserved.
The purging of this national founding sin really does seem organic, indigenous. No outside power forced the conflict; it boiled up from the political and economic and religious life of the nation. One need not believe in divine punishment and salvation to be moved by the narrative of jihad within the nation's soul.
Post-truth political appreciation
A lawyerly Second Inaugural, or a piece of the president's heart?