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Rhetorical Devices in Second Inaugural Address

A War Without Winners or Losers: In his second inaugural address, Lincoln strives toward the reunification of the country by appealing to Americans’ sense of empathy and national camaraderie. Lincoln portrays the Civil War as an unfortunate conflict between fellow Americans over an institution that absolutely must come to an end. Therefore there is no boasting or vilifying, no attempt to declare the Union righteous or victorious in the fight against the Confederacy. Lincoln’s goal is healing and reconciliation. He states his perspective clearly in the final paragraph: “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[…].”

A Divine Perspective on Emancipation: In this speech, Lincoln emphasizes the wickedness of slavery and the necessity of its eradication. He appeals to his audience’s sense of justice by considering slavery through a religious framework. Specifically, Lincoln looks at American slavery in terms of divine determination. He deems slavery an institution which was initially ordered into existence by God but which “he now wills to remove… he gives to both North and South this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offense came.” Lincoln’s divine look at the war removes guilt, blame, and culpability from the hands of Americans but nonetheless frames the abolition of slavery as an inevitable step.

Rhetorical Devices 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.

"All dreaded it—all sought to avert it...."   (Text of Lincoln's Speech)

Lincoln makes another calculated rhetorical appeal in this line. He does not specifically state that anyone on either side was in favor of war and bloodshed. His use of “all” signals inclusion, which appeals to those seeking to reunify the country and avoids casting blame.

"With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right..."   (Text of Lincoln's Speech)

This trio of phrases concisely summarizes Lincoln’s attitude in the entire address. Lincoln’s perspective toward the Civil War as it draws to a close is one of balance and compassion. His aim is not to castigate the Confederacy, only to end the conflict and reconcile the nation. The phrase “with firmness in the right” conveys Lincoln’s conviction in the correctness of the Union cause, specifically the moral necessity of eradicating slavery from the United States. This method of summarizing the main points of a speech in its conclusion is an effective rhetorical strategy; it reminds the audience of what is most important and leaves a lasting impression.

"until all the wealth piled by the bondman'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..."   (Text of Lincoln's Speech)

In this passage, Lincoln reiterates the idea that the Civil War represents a punishment and payment for the sin of slavery. Lincoln expresses this idea using the image of blood; the every drop of blood exacted from slaves by their masters must be matched by blood spilled on the battlefields of the war. This image is purely figurative, but it is elegant and concrete enough to convey Lincoln’s point forcefully.

"With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured...."   (Text of Lincoln's Speech)

Lincoln’s opening paragraph is cautiously optimistic and reflects the overall purpose of his speech. He uses neutral language, he draws attention to the Union army’s successes, and he professes “high hope for the future.” However, note that Lincoln avoids mention of any “prediction” of what will come. This allows him to focus his policies on reunification as the defining aspect of his second term of office, allowing him to craft this inaugural address appropriately.

"The progress of our arms..."   (Text of Lincoln's Speech)

Lincoln makes a neutral claim to describe the military successes of the Union army under General Ulysses S. Grant during his first term. Rather than using words like “victory,” “success,” and “triumph,” Lincoln’s choice of “progress” reflects his desire to acknowledge the conclusion of the war, the likelihood of Union victory, and focus on reunification.

"the great contest..."   (Text of Lincoln's Speech)

Lincoln’s choice of diction here is significant; he calls it a “great contest” rather than a “civil war.” A potential reason for this choice is the success that the Union armies had found during Lincoln’s first term. Many saw the end of the war in sight, and many were looking to reintegrate the South into the Union. By saying “great contest” rather than “war,” Lincoln presents the rebel states as contestants rather than enemy combatants, potentially making an appeal to those sympathetic to the Confederates. Since the National Unity Party supported his re-election campaign and he took on Andrew Johnson as his vice president, Lincoln’s use of neutral terms suggests that he’s also looking towards reunification.

"this mighty scourge of war..."   (Text of Lincoln's Speech)

On a literal level, a “scourge” is a whip. More connotatively, it refers to any cause of suffering. Lincoln’s diction here reveals an intriguing and apt metaphor. Just as slaves were traditionally whipped as a punishment for misbehavior, the United States was whipped by the “mighty scourge of war” for the misdeed of allowing slavery to exist.

""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."..."   (Text of Lincoln's Speech)

In this paragraph, Lincoln quotes directly from the Gospel of Matthew 18:7, his second quotation from the biblical book of Matthew in this speech. The quotation expresses the inevitability of suffering and tragedy, but it suggests that the person through whom the suffering arrives will be subject to judgment. Lincoln then frames slavery as an example of an offense that needs to be removed. Lincoln suggests that because the American people allowed slavery to occur, they are being punished in the form of civil war. It is not clear whether Lincoln believes this to be true in a literal sense or whether the idea of divine punishment represents a rhetorical framework.

"The prayers of both could not be answered—that of neither has been answered fully...."   (Text of Lincoln's Speech)

Lincoln shares his balanced vision of the war and displays his understanding of both sides of the conflict. He recognizes that both the Union and Confederacy have experienced compromise and disappointment. The Confederacy’s desire for independence and the Union’s desire for swift reconciliation went unfulfilled. As Lincoln puts it, “the prayers of both could not be answered.” By envisioning the war as a compromise on all sides, Lincoln appeals to his audience’s empathy and calls for all Americans to aid in the reunification of the country.

"let us judge not, that we be not judged..."   (Text of Lincoln's Speech)

Lincoln quotes the New Testament of the Bible, specifically a passage from the Gospel of Matthew: “let us not judge, that we not be judged.” The passage, whose lesson is to avoid self-righteousness and hypocrisy, informs Lincoln’s handling of the Confederacy in the waning days of the war. Despite his firm anti-slavery stance, Lincoln expresses no desire to excoriate the Confederates. Rather, he continues to draw on shared Christian values and thereby emphasize common ground.

"that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces..."   (Text of Lincoln's Speech)

Despite the balanced, non-judgmental view Lincoln adopts in his discussion of the war, he takes a definite stance on the issue of slavery—a wrong he feels must be eliminated. Lincoln characterizes the Confederates as “wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces.” Lincoln, however, does not chastise the defenders of slavery; rather, Lincoln reiterates the importance of the Union’s cause.

"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.

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