Oklahoma Voices
11:14 am
Mon April 14, 2014

How Abraham Lincoln Used 701 Words To "Bind Up The Nation's Wounds"

The handwritten opening lines of President Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address, delivered March 4, 1865.
The handwritten opening lines of President Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address, delivered March 4, 1865.
Credit Library of Congress

A little over a month before his assassination, President Abraham Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address as the Civil War drew to a close.

Audience members braved the rain, wind and mud to hear the speech. Historian Ronald White, the author of A. Lincoln: A Biography, and Lincoln's Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural, says letters and diaries of those who attended the March 4, 1865 lecture were filled with rage.

UCLA historian Ronald White.
UCLA historian Ronald White.
Credit Provided / ronaldcwhitejr.com

“If you think about it, every person there had probably lost a father, husband, son, or brother, and they were deeply angry,” White says. “And they wanted Lincoln to speak to their anger.”

The University of California-Los Angeles historian delivered a line-by-line analysis of what even the oratorically gifted 16th president called his “best effort” during the University of Oklahoma’s 2014 “Teach-In on the Civil War.”

“Lincoln must've thought long and hard, whether he could ask his deeply divided nation, to come together in forgiveness and reconciliation,” White says. “Was this possible? Could he dare ask it?”

----------------------------------
KGOU relies on voluntary contributions from readers and listeners to further its mission of public service to Oklahoma and beyond. To contribute to our efforts, make your donation online, or contact our Membership department.

FULL TRANSCRIPT

DAVID WROBEL: Good morning everybody, welcome back. I'm David Wrobel, the Merrick Chair of Western History at OU. Very pleased that everyone's able to join us for the University of Oklahoma's Third Annual Teach-In focusing on the Civil War. Thanks so much to Vernon Burton for opening the sessions with that wonderful lecture. Thank you. 

Our second speaker of the day is Ronald White, the author of A. Lincoln: A Biography, a New York Times bestseller. USA Today said if you read one book about Lincoln, make it, "A. Lincoln". A. Lincoln received a Christopher Award which honors authors who's work affirms the highest values of the human spirit. Professor White is also the author of Lincoln's Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural, a New York Times notable book and author of The Eloquent President: A Portrait of Lincoln Through His Words, a Los Angeles Times bestseller. He's lectured at the White House, and has been interviewed on the PBS Newshour. He's a professor of history at the University of California-Los Angeles; please join me in welcoming Ronald White. 

RONALD WHITE: Thank you, Professor Wrobel. Thank you President David Boren and thank you Dr. Kyle Wright. Thank you for being here. Abraham Lincoln is a man for all seasons. Students and others will know the movie Lincoln. Now we're in the celebration, commemoration of the Civil War. 2009 was the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth. But we need to know that Lincoln is not simply an American treasure. 

In 2009 I was invited by the state department to speak in several countries and the first stop was Hamburg, Germany. And at the United States Embassy they had invited 12th and 13th grade teachers of History and English. And after they asked me some questions I asked them a question; why is Abraham Lincoln so important to you? And their reply was this: they said well we know of George Washington. And we know of Thomas Jefferson, but those are what we would call, "well-born figures". Figures very much like people in Germany. For us the greatest American is Abraham Lincoln, for he represents what America is all about. That anyone can rise in America. That's why we're interested in Abraham Lincoln. 

I want to begin with a question this morning; this is going to be very interactive. I want you to get in touch with the first time you went to the Lincoln Memorial. Perhaps you went on a school trip. Perhaps those here who are parents or grandparents took their children there. Do you remember how you walked up those steps, and in that very noisy city, suddenly everything was quiet? What you saw first was the tall 28-foot-high Daniel Chester French statue of Lincoln? And then you entered into what I call that "templed space" and on the left, carved in three panels of Indiana limestone was, Lincoln's left was the second inaugural was Gettysburg Address. On the right was the second inaugural address. What some of you just be willing to say in one word, what was your feeling or your experience when you were there. The lights are bright, but in the first few rows if someone would say it out, I'll repeat it back. What was your feeling, what was your experience when you were there? Anyone?

[murmurs from audience]

WHITE: Awe? Gratitude? Reverence? Inspiring? 

Well the word I've heard the most in asking this question is the word, "awe" or what young people often will call, "awesome". I want to make the point that "awe" is not the same thing as "understanding". In this remarkable music building with the organ behind us, I'm reminded this morning of my experience as a student at UCLA, singing in the a cappella choir. It was led by Roger Wagner, the founder of the Roger Wagner chorale. In our Junior year, we sang Bach's "St. John Passion" and I was moved to tears. And Wagner, a larger than life figure said after the concert, "Now, next year we're going do something more difficult. We're going to do Beethoven's "Missa Solemnis".

But it dawned on me about a week later, that I didn't really understand Bach and Beethoven, even though I appreciated their music. And so I decided to take a non-music major course, one in Bach and one in Beethoven. My attempt to write and speak about Lincoln is, although with great respect for what are called, "Lincolnphiles" is really for people who want to move from awe to understanding.

There is nothing more wonderful than when a 14-year-old, or a 15-year-old, contacts me and says, "I've read your book on Lincoln's greatest speech, and I have an understanding." As President Boren has said, sadly we're often not teaching American history. I have to do intensive events for teachers to even be able to teach Abraham Lincoln within American history. So this morning I want to open a window on Lincoln through his words. I believe that Lincoln led this nation in many ways through the Civil War by his words. Winston Churchill led his nation in many ways by his words. 

So I've put in your hands, the handout is Lincoln's second inaugural address. It is only seven hundred and one words. The second shortest inaugural ever offered. As was mentioned in the introduction this morning by David Boren, as we began the day, George Washington did not want to run for a second term, he was persuaded to do so, and so when he gave his second inaugural address, for which there was really no tradition, I like to say that he stood and, in 135 words, said, "Thank you very much." and sat down. 

We're used to long inaugural addresses, how many here in the audience have been to an inauguration? It's a very exciting event, especially if it's your candidate. But I was surprised to discover that on that particular second inauguration, we have been taught through many years that there were 620,000 dead in the Civil War. A recent study consulting the censuses of 1850 and 1860 has now revised our total to 750,000 dead. We lost 405,000 of the greatest generation in World War 2. Think of that tiny nation of 30-40 million and what it was when 27 young men walked out of the village of Manchester, Vermont and only 12 returned. What that meant in that time. 

So the audience that day, unlike probably our modern inauguration, to my surprise, as I read their letters and diaries, were not really caught up so much in a mood of affirmation and excitement, but many of them were filled with anger. Deep anger. For if you think about it, every person there had probably lost a father, husband, son, or brother, and they were deeply angry. And they wanted Lincoln to speak to their anger. In World War I, we banished the teaching of German in all of our public schools. In World War II we banished the Japanese from the West Coast of the United States, that's the way we respond in a moment of war. And Lincoln offers this surprising address. Now I get the first question. I've told professor Wrobel, in the question and answer period. Because Lincoln called this his greatest speech, he said to a Republican who had written to him, this is my best effort. I'm not degrading the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln simply said this is my best effort, but then he went on to say, "but it's not immediately popular". 

I'd like you to think, in the next few minutes, if Lincoln thought this was his best address, why did he then think it was not immediately popular? The audience that day was composed of many soldiers, as people wrote home in their letters; they were shocked by what they saw. Civil War surgery was marked by amputation. Three quarters of the surgery was amputation. And people were shocked by soldiers missing arms and legs. The reporter for The Times of London, often when you stand outside of a culture, you see things more clearly, was particularly noticing a group of people who seemed clustered at the back of the audience. It was a very rainy, windy, muddy day, but these people were dressed in bright colors and seemed to be in a very celebratory mood. They prepared to listen to Lincoln's address.

Let's look at it together: At this second appearing, to take the oath of the presidential office, there is less occasion for an extended address then there was at the first. This is not exactly "four-score and seven years ago". In the first paragraph, we're not exactly certain what Lincoln is doing. May I suggest that Lincoln breaks every rule of modern politics, and modern leadership studies? The modern politician, he or she is going to tell us all that they are going to do for us, promise after promise after promise. Lincoln takes exactly the opposite approach. Watch. 

At this second appearing to take the oath of the presidential office, there is less occasion for an extended address.

Line 7, over on the right column, "little that is new could be presented". The second line from the end of the first paragraph, no prediction in regard to it is ventured. What an unusual way to begin a political address. In the second paragraph, we begin to get a sense as to what Lincoln is doing. Lincoln is asking a question that almost no one else is asking. Not the politicians, not the professors, not the preachers. This is his question: "How can the south be brought back into the Union?" And Lincoln understands that if the south is meant to bear the shame and the blame alone, they will never be able to come back into the Union. 

And so his first rhetorical strategy is what I call the use of inclusive language. Listen. On the occasion corresponding to this 4 years ago, all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending Civil War. All dreaded it. All sought to avert it. Wouldn't it be wonderful in our modern political dialogue, if we could impute the best possible motives to those with whom we disagree? Lincoln is imputing the best possible motives to the people of the South. They did not want this war any more than the people did in the North. 

In that same inclusive language, he goes towards the end of the paragraph, both parties deprecated war. But one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive. Now the first time I ever talked about the second inaugural address was at the United States Air Force academy in Colorado Springs. And just as I was getting to this point, wouldn't you know it, a professor put up his hand, PhD in English from Princeton University, and he said, "But Dr. White, wouldn't you have to admit that he Lincoln actually is blaming someone? 'Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive and the other would accept war rather than let it perish'?" Yes, but. When you and I listen to politicians, or professors or preachers, we need to listen to what they do not say as well as what they do say. 

For example, what if Lincoln would've said, "both parties deprecated war, but those traitors, those Confederates, those Rebels, those tyrants" he KNEW that he would've raised the decibels, that they would've begun to cheer in derision to the enemy. I think Lincoln very self-consciously decided that day to lower the emotional tone by using the very generic, "but one of them would make war". Those German 12th and 13th grade teachers knew the story of Lincoln very well. They knew they he had less than one year of formal education. He finally came to study grammar really as a young adult. But in his grammar book, half of the book was what was called, "declamation". The way of giving to, learning to read from the Bible, from Shakespeare, from Byron whoever it might be. And so Lincoln in his rhetorical artistry has a number of abilities. 

The first is, well, listen to it. 

"All dreaded it. On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago, all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending Civil War. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war. Seeking to dissolve the Union, and divide effects. Both parties deprecated war. 

All right students, here's the extra credit question: what is alliteration? 

[crowd mumbling] 

WHITE: It's the use of the same consonant over and over and over again. Eight times in four sentences, Lincoln uses the consonant "d". And what does Lincoln, this is so important to hear today. Lincoln knew which we forgotten the difference between writing and speaking. His two biographers Hay and Nicolay said, "Lincoln never would've thought of himself as a great writer, but he always thought of himself as a great speaker." I hate teleprompters, because what people are doing are reading speeches. They're very different in terms of the interaction with the audience. And so Lincoln knew that alliteration does what? It promotes an invisible chord of meaning between those eight words. In this great music building, it builds as a crescendo for the listener. Now the listener isn't totally conscious that this is happening, but Lincoln is conscious. I learned after I wrote my first book on Lincoln, his own style of writing. He would speak the word out loud before he put it to the page. He always read out loud, he wanted to get the sound of the word before he put pen or pencil to paper. Alliteration. 

A second strategy of Lincoln, especially when you have only 701 words, or in the Gettysburg Address 272 words, and Vernon Burton kind of alluded to this in his wonderful presentation, is the repetition of the same word. What is the word in the second paragraph, the noun that just keeps pulsating through that paragraph, over and over and over again? It's what everybody is talking about in the audience. It is the word, "war". And war, if you think about it, and look carefully at this second paragraph, is the direct object. Both grammatically and historically of the actions of the soldiers, of the generals, and of Lincoln who taught himself to become commander in chief. Until we get to the last sentence.

I'm so glad the University of Oklahoma allowed me to do a handout. I was speaking at an elite boy's school in Nashville, Tennessee and the headmaster said, "Ron, this'll be extremely impossible to have a handout. First of all, the boys are all going to be going like that while you're speaking. Let's just put it up on the screen behind you." I said, "Well that's fine with me." And I turned around, and the modern edition of the second inaugural had changed Lincoln's punctuation. Had changed his sentence structure. The last sentence was no longer a sentence. That's why I have a handout. 

Lincoln comes to the last sentence of the second paragraph and he says, in 4 words and 4 syllables, "and the war came". Do you notice what he's doing? The war is no longer the direct object, it is the subject. When I gave that address in Colorado Spring, my guide was a marine corps captain. He told me that in on one afternoon in Vietnam, he was wounded 38 times. He went from there to earn a PhD in Philosophy, and then to become a military chaplain. This was before the beginning of the war with Iraq. And he said to me, "Ron" he said, "a new war will be coming, and when it comes we will be told by both our political and military leaders, that we will be in control of this war, and that this war will end shortly, because we have the greatest military machine in the United States." He said "Do not believe it." He said "We are never in control of any war. That war will take control of us." And this was the lesson that Abraham Lincoln had learned. The North would win this war quickly because they had twice as many men in arms. They had a much greater industrial base, but the war went on and on and on and on. And so now Lincoln wants to say, in some way, that the war has a life of its own and so he says, "and the war came". 

Now we have photographs of Lincoln delivering the second inaugural, but of course we don't have any audio. And I wondered how did Lincoln say those words? I can imagine that Edward Everett, who spoke for two hours and seven minutes at Gettysburg(I would like to follow that) might've said it in the style of oratory of the 19th century. "AAND THE WAAR CAME" but I think you've been working with this text long enough now to know that Lincoln didn't, wouldn't have said it that way. How do you think he might've said it? 

[crowd talking] 

WHITE: "Quietly?" How about mournfully? How about sadly? 750,000 dead. Yes, we want the war to end, but the war, the devastation of that war will go on for succeeding generations in the families who have lost loved ones. 

In the third paragraph, Lincoln becomes what I would call almost the historian or the sociologist, the chronicler. He talks about the meaning and purpose of the war. We've had a debate in this 150th commemoration of the war. What was the meaning of the war? Early on the Pew Charitable Trust did a survey, asking people in different age groups to name the cause of the war. The answers were fascinating. Only one age group named slavery as the major cause of the war. Only one age group. People 60 years of age and older. The youngest group in the survey, the youngest group, named slavery least as a cause of the war. What in the world have we been teaching or not teaching in terms of American history? Lincoln makes it very clear; 1/8th of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the Southern part of it. His original text said half of it. He crossed it out, he didn't want to credit the South of having half of the territory.

"These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow a cause of the war. Somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by War. While the government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each side looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding."

And then Lincoln makes a transition which gives this address, I believe, it's peculiar, fascinating character. "Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God and each invokes his aid against the other. In this address of 701 words, Lincoln uses 505 words that are one syllable. He loved what he called the Saxon Language. He didn't call the bible the "King James bible", he called it the "Saxon Bible". That sturdy, strong one syllable words. Recently we've heard that the SAT is doing away with the essay for high school students. That essay has produced all kinds of controversy, and the readers of that essay have said that high school students have somehow thought that if they sued big words, this would impress the readers. Abraham Lincoln spoke simple, Saxon one syllable words. 

Notice we're back to that inclusive language, "both read the same bible and pray to the same God". What is Lincoln saying to this Northern audience? Please understand he is saying the Confederate soldiers read the Bible every bit as much as the Union soldiers. The people of the South read the Bible every bit as much as the people of the North. "And pray to the same God". And then Lincoln uses that wonderful semicolon which is dropping out of our language and unfortunately dropped out of the screen that I was trying to speak from in Nashville, Tennessee. The semicolon is so important for Lincoln. It changes the whole dimension of what he is saying: "and each invokes his aid against the other". What Lincoln is saying is "how dare each side invoke God's aid against the other! I am tired of ministers and politicians coming to me to say 'God is on our side' just as I know they're going to Jefferson Davis to say, 'God is on our side'". 

I struggle to find the antecedents of this address. We mentioned in Vernon Burton's address the I Have a Dream speech, you can find the antecedents of that speech long before King offered it in Washington in August of 1863. But you cannot find the antecedents of this address in any private addresses. Or public addresses of Lincoln. But the antecedent's are there. 3 months to the day before Lincoln offered this speech two women came to see him. They knew that Lincoln was a softie. He hated what he called, "Butcher's Day" when the generals sent him orders to have this particular soldier executed because he failed to perform his duty, fell asleep on duty. So they came to prevail upon Lincoln, they said to him, "Our husbands are in a union prison, and they are Christian soldiers." Lincoln started talked with them about this and he said, "This is a fascinating conversation, would you come back tomorrow? Let's continue the conversation." Lincoln drove his secretaries crazy by just having people come. He called these his "Public-Opinion Baths" he wanted to know what ordinary people were thinking. At the end of the second day he invited them to come back a third day, and then he said to them, "I find it very difficult when you tell me your husbands are Christian men. How can Christian men go against the duly constituted authority of this land?" And then, from memory, Lincoln will quote the first of the four Biblical verses. "It may seem strange that many married men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in bringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces." Lincoln is pulling from Genesis, and what he's saying is the bible is not simply back there and then, it is here and now. And we need to understand it's message for our time. 

But then it's almost as if, and this has happened many times in Lincoln's life. He writes a letter to George Meade after Gettysburg. He criticizes Meade, "How could you dare let Robert E. Lee get away and escape back over the Potomac to Virginia?" But in the Lincoln papers, is found this letter. And on the outside the envelope says, "Never signed, never sent". For Lincoln knew that he would devastate Meade if he sent that letter. Oh I wish we wouldn't push the send button sometimes on our email. Have you sent something you wish, 30 minutes later you had not sent? Lincoln thinks that and so he invokes these next words. 

"But let us judge not that we be not judged." 

A reporter for a Washington paper, hearing this address, wrote in his column the next day, "This was Lincoln's sermon on the mount." He got it. Lincoln is here invoking Jesus words from the sermon on the mount. Where Jesus says, instead of judgment, I offer forgiveness. And reconciliation. And this is the surprising heart of the second inaugural. "Let us judge not, that we be not judged". 

"The prayers of both could not be answered, that of neither has been answered fully. 

And then this central declaration. Architecturally it's in the center of the address. Politically, theologically it's the central affirmation. "The Almighty has his own purposes." Now beginning to get what Lincoln is all about. In addition to the actors of the soldiers, the generals, and of Lincoln as commander in Chief, Lincoln is pointing beyond himself. The question that he's been wrestling with, where is God in the midst of this Civil War? He answers with, "The Almighty has his own purposes." I like to say that Lincoln disappears in his two greatest addresses. In the Gettysburg Address he uses not one personal pronoun. In the second inaugural he uses only two personal pronouns. Can you imagine a modern politician? But I won't go there. 

Lincoln is pointing beyond himself, as this great teacher is pointing beyond the speakers, to the great realities of freedom. The Constitution, the experiment, Lincoln still thought this was an experiment. The experiment had not yet been decided. Would it work? Could it continue? And now Lincoln, in quite another voice, thunders forth, "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh" From the Gospel of Matthew Lincoln thunders something that the audience would've understood and we may not. Lincoln is here sounding like a Puritan preacher, preaching what was called jeremiads. For on the second and third generation, the Puritan preachers criticized the listeners by saying, "You have forgotten the faith of your parents and your grandparents. You have fallen into immorality, you have fallen into materialism." So the question that emerges for the audience, "and what is our problem?" And Lincoln immediately answers it. "If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses" Now remember what I said about what a person doesn't say? What if Lincoln had not used the word "American"? What if he'd have simply said, "If we shall suppose it slavery is one of those offenses" that Northern audience would've broken into applause. Give it to 'em Abe, get those people down South! No, American slavery. We're all involved in this. Lincoln inherent a case of a Connecticut shipbuilder, ship owner who had run ships to Africa, bringing back slaves. The man's wife came to Lincoln twice to plead for his life. Lincoln let the sentence go forward. He would be hung for his commitment of being a slave ship owner. 

"If we shall supposed 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" hear the inclusive language "this terrible War as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? And now listen to the alliteration again. "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, 'til every drop of blood drawn with the lash (slavery) shall be paid by another drawn with the sword (750,000 dead), as was said three thousand years ago (and now he will quote Psalm 19) , so still it must be said, 'the Judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'"

One of my difficulties for those who teach and learn American history, is that we often freeze frame people. Oh, this is Abraham Lincoln. No, Abraham Lincoln is a moving target. This is not at all the Abraham Lincoln of the first inaugural address. Who at that moment delivered a lawyerly, rational address believing by rational means he could. This is a much more evocative, emotional and certainly much more faith-filled person who is offering a very different kind of second inaugural address. 

At this moment, there had only been 4 occasions of applause in the inaugural address. Unusual. But the reporter for the Times of London, ever watching this kind of new scene for him, thought he began to hear something at the back of the crowd. He listened, he wasn't quite sure what he was hearing. And then he began to catch it, and began to move forward and it began to get louder and louder. "Bless the Lord, bless the Lord, bless the Lord" the African Americans in the crowd took up the chant. "Bless the lord" they understood what Abraham Lincoln was saying. Frederick Douglass, the greatest African American of the 19th century, was in the crowd that day. He'd been very disappointed in Abraham Lincoln's first inaugural where Lincoln said he would continue to maintain the Fugitive Slave Law. But Douglass met Lincoln twice in those intervening years. He came that day to wonder, what would the president say? Douglas wrote in his diary that evening, "this was not a state paper, this was a sermon". 

Well it was a state paper, but if I may suggest as we close, that if we try to understand the sermon of the 19th century, and perhaps of the 21st century, that the sermon  usually has two basic components. The first I will call the indicative, this is where the minister, priest, rabbi, announces to the congregation, "this is what God has done" in bringing people through the Red Sea, in the life teaching death and resurrection of Jesus. That's what Lincoln has done. "The Almighty has his own purposes". But towards the end of the sermon, you may experience this sometimes on a Sunday morning. The minister will often lean forward and say something like, "And now dear friends" and this is the imperative. If there's been an indicative, the response is the imperative. We are to do something. I think Lincoln must've thought long and hard, whether he could ask his deeply divided nation, to come together in forgiveness and reconciliation. Was this possible? Could he dare ask it? And so I suggest that we need to put an unvoiced "therefore" at the beginning of the final paragraph. I've taken my time to do this because in usual selections of Abraham Lincoln in history courses, we only read the last paragraph. And I suggest the last paragraph has absolutely no meaning until we've grappled with the first three paragraphs. Now we're ready to hear the last paragraph. 

And may I suggest as we close, that we would do what Lincoln always did. He always said his words out loud. So that our conclusion, in our deeply divided nation. Lincoln, you see, is one of those few figures in all that students will study in this great university. Yes he's an historical figure and we need to see him as a 19th century person. But he's one of the very few people, I believe, who's words still speak across time. They will speak in 2014. I'm convinced they will speak in 2114. So let's say together, Lincoln's words to really understand what he's about. Let's say his imperative. Slowly. 

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 a lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

Thank you. 

WROBEL:  We have time for some questions from the audience. Yeah, students in the handsome jackets, moving around with the microphones. 

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Professor, can you hear me? There has been a lot written about Lincoln being religious, or irreligious, or at least having no religion. 

WHITE: Yes. 

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Apparently he never joined a formal church. Personally, I think he was a deeply religious person but, that's my opinion. I'm just curious as to your opinion on that. 

WHITE: Thank you for the comment and the question. Yes, Lincoln has been perceived mostly as a non-religious person. He, yes he did not formally join a church. I believe that the missing person in the Lincoln story is Phineas Densmore Gurley, the minister of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. Number one in his class at Princeton Seminary. Lincoln grew up on the second, in the frontier of the second Great Awakening. With no offense to any Baptists in the audience. His parents were Baptist and Lincoln recoiled from the emotionalism of that tradition. So he did what many young adults do, he pushed it away. In his terns, he became a fatalist. If there was a God, maybe a watchmaker God, but God did not intervene in history. Then his first child died, Eddie, in 1850 at 3 and a half. And trying to find the Episcopal minister who had married them, he couldn't, the man was out of town. He turned to James Smith, a new young Presbyterian minister. Which began an interesting relationship. Those of you who have seen the Lincoln movie, Willie dies in 1862. Mary will never recover. Phineas Densmore Gurley gives the sermon that day. It's a remarkable sermon. And Lincoln is so taken by it that he asked for a copy of it. Now I've been asked many times, you're kind in this way. "Well wait a second Dr. White, don't you know that Abraham Lincoln did nothing more than what a person would do in the 19th century? He quoted the Bible just as people would quote Shakespeare." Or as on biographer has said, this is not even really Lincoln's language, he's actually taking the audience's language, he's smart he's shrewd. The audience is religious and he's making his words their words. In 41 days Lincoln would be dead. Shortly thereafter, John Hay, his young secretary, rummaging around in the bottom drawer of his desk, comes across this little lined document. I've traveled around university to hold it in my hand. Like all of these so called "fragments" it's unsigned, undated. Hay gives it the title, "Meditation on the Divine Will". This is what Lincoln wrote: 

The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time. In the present Civil War it is quite possible that God's purpose is something different from the purpose of either party---and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect his Purpose. I am almost ready to say this is probably true -- that God wills this contest and wills that it shall not end yet. By his mere quiet power(Lincoln was tired of a noisy God), by his mere quiet power on the minds of the now contestants, He could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. And, having begun He could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds. 

Lincoln never expected any of us to ever see this document. But we've now been working with the second inaugural, don't you hear it? This IS the second inaugural. At this level it's still very theoretical, very philosophical. 2 and a half years later he will put flesh and blood on it. And somehow, Lincoln decides at the beginning of his second term, and by the way gamblers in the street were betting that Lincoln would be inaugurated for a third term. No term limits, and serve all the way to March 1873. So to me the answer is, perhaps Lincoln was shrewd. I listen to modern political addresses, and everyone seems to have religion in it. You have to close, do you not, with "God Bless America". I kind of wonder about the integrity. To me this is the integrity of someone wrestling at a very deep level with where is God in the Civil War. 

AUDIENCE MEMBER: I have a question. Would you say that the idea of a redemptive reconstruction ended with the assassination of President Lincoln, where it became predominantly one of a punitive reconstruction? 

WHITE: A very good comment. The irony of all of this is that the, in many ways, some of the strongest foes of Lincoln's magnanimous plan for redemption was within his own party. The so called "radical Republicans". A very good friend of mine, Richard Wightman Fox at USC, will be publishing a book on Lincoln in which he brings out so clearly, and sadly, that many of Lincoln's senate colleagues almost were glad that he was dead. Because now we wouldn't have to deal with this soft, forgiving Lincoln. We could now become much more strong. Now that's not to say that reconstruction would be simple. Because Ulysses S Grant will be the person who will try to reconcile these two divergent goals; how to provide freedom for the freed men and women, and how to reconcile the white South. And this is not an easy thing to do. So I think it would be not fair to sort of say, "Well Lincoln would of" but yet Lincoln had won a strong second election. He, I think, combined better than anyone else strength and compassion. 

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  The tone in the third paragraph, and your response to the first question, I think leaves all of us wondering up, was the Civil War predestined? Was it unavoidable? 

WHITE:  Wow. No one's ever asked that question before. “Now you're really using Presbyterian language, "Was the Civil War predestined?" In a religious sense, in a political sense. I mean in a sense Lincoln, I think, it's open to any of us to interpret this, is sort of saying, "Well, slavery had been a part". He grew up in an era where people thought that slavery would become extinct by its own natural progression. As he grew into adulthood and realized the changing dynamics of the country he realized this was not about to be. And so to me, one of his most remarkable phrases is a man who was both a lawyer, wedded to precedent, and an historian who understood, with great respect, the Founding Fathers just before that Emancipation Proclamation, which we heard about this morning. In his annual message to Congress, Lincoln says this, "The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate for the stormy present." He doesn't define the dogmas, but we, you know. As our case is knew, so we must think anew. And act anew. And I think this is the challenge for all of us. How do we in one sense have fidelity to the founding documents, and the Founding Fathers. But in another sense say, as our case is new. I am not suggesting that Lincoln can tell us what to do in Ukraine. Or that Lincoln can help us with climate change. Or advice President Bush or President Obama what to do in Afghanistan. When I say that Lincoln speaks to us today, it is that he gives us a spirit. A way that we can approach these issues with respect. So I think he thinks that, he believes that God does now enter into history. It's no longer Deism, it's no longer Fatalism, it's Providence. And that somehow we've reached a point in time where now the whole equation of slavery must change. That's, again as was said this morning, Lincoln began to preserve the Union, but now the equation changes. The Union is not worth preserving unless an expanded freedom is part of that Union. 

WROBEL: Time for one last question down at the front here. 

AUDIENCE MEMBER: In the final paragraph, where he says "let us strive to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for the widow and his orphan". The people who are hearing that understand clearly that he was speaking not only for those in the North who had born the battle, but for those in the South who had born the battle.

WHITE: A wonderful question, which you could ask in terms of the Gettysburg Address. I think in this case, because of his earlier use of inclusive language, he is thinking of everyone. Ulysses S Grant will offer a remarkably magnanimous piece to Robert E. Lee. Lincoln here is thinking of everyone. And then if I can just add, I thought the last words, "with all nations" was a throwaway line until a professor rushed into my office one day at the Huntington Library and said, "I've just read this from the counsel in Paris!" Remember that France had engendered our anger for its role in Mexico and that the French people thought when the Civil War was over, we're going to be coming up the in Seine in gunboats! And this is no throwaway line. Lincoln is offering this to the whole world. "And all nations". 

Thank you very much. 

Copyright © 2014 KGOU Radio. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to KGOU Radio. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only. Any other use requires KGOU's prior permission.

KGOU transcripts are created on a rush deadline by our staff, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of KGOU's programming is the audio.

Related Program