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Historical Context in Second Inaugural Address

The End of the Civil War: By the time of Abraham Lincoln’s election on November 6th, 1860, there were already rumors of possible secession by the Southern states. Sure enough, South Carolina seceded from the Union several weeks later on December 20th, followed by six other states in the ensuing months. As the Southern states consolidated themselves into the Confederacy, drafted a new constitution, and elected a president, war loomed ever larger. The Civil War officially began in April of 1861 with the Battle of Fort Sumter, a US Army base in South Carolina that was attacked by a neighboring rebel fort. The war proved far slower and bloodier than either side expected. As Lincoln remarked during his second inaugural speech—four years and roughly one million American fatalities later—“neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained.” In his speech Lincoln calmly expects a Union victory, a prediction which would come to pass just five weeks later.

Lincoln’s Presidency: Abraham Lincoln’s presidency was defined by the Civil War. Many historians suspect that Lincoln’s election in November of 1860 was one of the events which triggered the war. The Southern states fiercely opposed Lincoln’s candidacy, particularly due to Lincoln’s outspoken aims to curtail the spread of slavery. The secession of the South and the rise of the Confederacy began shortly after Lincoln was elected, in many ways a reaction to a new anti-slavery administration. The Civil War, which many thought would be a quick conflict, extended through the entirety of Lincoln’s presidency and absorbed his attention. Lincoln’s time in the oval office is remembered for two primary achievements: the eradication of slavery from the United States and the Union’s victory over the Confederacy in the Civil War. At the time of his second inaugural address, Lincoln had completed the former and was soon to accomplish the latter.

Emancipation: One of the primary goals of Lincoln’s administration was the emancipation of the slaves. Abraham Lincoln initially ran as a moderate candidate. Unlike the so-called “Radical Republicans,” he did not present himself as a proponent of full emancipation. His stance was to stop the spread of slavery, not to stop slavery altogether. By 1862, however, Lincoln’s goal had changed and in September of that year he issued the first Emancipation Proclamation, declaring his plan to free the slaves. Lincoln had suspected that the great conflict consuming American life would not truly be resolved until the problem at the nation’s core—slavery, that is—had been solved. In his second inaugural address, Lincoln is more forward about his distaste for slavery than he had been as a candidate four years earlier. In the speech, Lincoln goes so far as to present the Civil War as a divine punishment for the nation’s centuries-long history of slavery.

Historical Context Examples in Second Inaugural Address:

Text of Lincoln's Speech

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"insurgent agents..."   (Text of Lincoln's Speech)

The adjective “insurgent” refers to one who rises in revolt against a recognized authority. Lincoln avoids naming the “insurgent agents” in an effort to present the causes for the war as inevitable and to avoid casting blame. However, in 1860, during and after Lincoln’s election, legislators from South Carolina and other Southern states had sought secession for themselves. On December 20th, 1860, South Carolina called a state convention to consider secession, and the states gathered there unanimously voted in favor. Their actions represent those of the insurgent agents that Lincoln describes as having sought to dissolve the Union.

"an impending civil war..."   (Text of Lincoln's Speech)

Lincoln’s election to the presidency has been cited as a key reason for the start of the Civil War. A few weeks after his election, South Carolina had a state convention in which several Southern states declared independence as a confederacy, drafted a constitution, and elected a president. Several other Southern states followed in the ensuing months, and the Civil War officially began in April, 1861, when the rebel army attacked the US Army base at Fort Sumter in South Carolina.

"four years..."   (Text of Lincoln's Speech)

Article II of the United States Constitution states that a president shall hold office “during the Term of four Years.” It wasn’t until the ratification of the Twenty-second Amendment in 1951 that presidents became limited to only two-consecutive terms.

"at the expiration of four years..."   (Text of Lincoln's Speech)

Lincoln won the presidential election of 1860 in a race that greatly reflected the political and ideological divisions in the country at the time, foregrounding the American Civil War which began just months into Lincoln’s first term. Lincoln refers to the theme of his first inaugural address and how his second shall differ.

"Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God..."   (Text of Lincoln's Speech)

Lincoln presents an attitude of balance and compassion towards the war. Rather than denouncing or blaming the Confederacy, Lincoln humanizes them. As he puts it, those on both sides “read the same Bible, and pray to the same God.” It is notable that Lincoln quotes the Christian Bible throughout this speech. While Christian ideas were important to the founding fathers who created the Constitution, the First Amendment to the Constitution calls for a “separation of church and state,” meaning that the government cannot regulate the beliefs and religious practices of its citizens. Nonetheless, Christian values have always been widespread in the United States, including in Lincoln’s time. Thus, it is far from unexpected for an American politician to draw on Christian values and ideals in a political address. In Lincoln’s case, the evocation of these values is a means to an end. Lincoln’s ultimate desire is for unity and peace, a goal which he strives for by appealing to the emotions and values of his audience.

"while the government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it...."   (Text of Lincoln's Speech)

When he entered office as president, Lincoln took a moderate stance on slavery, openly seeking to stop the spread of slavery, not to bring an outright end to it. This is the stance he refers to in this passage. This stance had been partly shaped by the federal legislature on slavery passed in the 1850s, namely the Fugitive Slave Acts—which dictate that escaped slaves must be returned to their masters—and the Dred Scott Decision—which denied citizenship to all slaves and which legalized slavery in the federal territories, which encompassed all of the regions added to the United States beyond the original thirteen states.

"All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war...."   (Text of Lincoln's Speech)

There have been debates over the cause of the Civil War since the war itself was waged. The two most often cited causes are states’ rights—the desire among the Southern states to make and govern their own laws—and slavery. Lincoln points to slavery as the deciding cause, a view which has become the most widely accepted interpretation of the war. As Lincoln expressed it in an 1858 speech, “‘A house divided against itself cannot stand.’ I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.”

"These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest...."   (Text of Lincoln's Speech)

Lincoln characterizes the slave population and their position in American politics during the war. Lincoln refers to the slaves as a “peculiar and powerful interest”: “powerful” because they represented over an eighth of the American population; “peculiar” because they did not align easily with any other group. While slaves as a whole were more sympathetic to the Union than the Confederacy, many did not readily view themselves as citizens of the Union. All told, slaves took a variety of perspectives: some took to the Union cause, joining the Union Army; others adopted a pragmatic stance, siding with the Union as long as it advanced their own goal of freedom; others still were wary of emancipation and the uncertainties of a free future.

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