Speeches That Made History: Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural

by Derrick G. Jeter

Abraham Lincoln awoke on the morning of March 4, 1865, to the sound of a torrential rain. It looked like he would be inaugurated for a second term under the dome of the newly completed Capital, to the disappointment of the thousands of skin soaked and mud splattered visitors. As the morning wore on the skies began to clear, only to cloud over and rain again—forcing Vice President-elect Andrew Johnson to be sworn in on the floor of the Senate chamber.
As rain clouds hung over the nation’s Capitol, so too the cloud the war. Though the Confederacy was all but defeated, savage fighting continued in the Deep South and in Virginia. The bloodletting of the civil war was a terrible price to pay for the principle of state’s rights, the institution of slavery, and the preservation of the Union. But the war came, and neither side would cease hostilities until hundreds of thousands of American sons lay dead upon fields of battle. Unable to continue the fight, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to U.S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, one month after Lincoln’s inauguration, on April 9, 1865.
But Lincoln, when he rose from his bed that rainy morning in March, had no idea of the nearness of the end—nor had any American. On that rain drenched morning it looked like the war would continue indefinitely, soaking an already saturated ground with more blood. Citizens on both sides were weary. They had given all they could give—their sons, their wealth, their hopes and their dreams. Wives were widowed, children were fatherless or orphaned, families torn asunder, cities destroyed, land rotting with the bodies of men and animals. What could Abraham Lincoln say in the face of such carnage?
He would preach a sermon—a sermon of reconciliation. America’s sermon.
At eleven-forty the rain had ceased once again. Lincoln walked from the Senate chamber out to the East Front of the Capital. Placing his glasses on his face and holding his Second Inaugural in his left hand, Lincoln began. And as he began the clouds rolled away and the sun shone through.
Seated right in front of Lincoln was Frederick Douglass, the articulate former slave and abolitionist. At a White House reception following the inauguration, Douglass recounted this exchange with the President.
“Here comes my friend Douglass.” Taking me by the hand, he said, “I’m glad to see you. I saw you in the crowd today, listening to my inaugural address; how did you like it?” I said, “Mr. Lincoln, I must not detain you with my poor opinion, when there are thousands wanting to shake hands with you.” “No, no,” he said, “you must stop a little, Douglass; there is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours. I want to know what you think of it.” I replied, “Mr. Lincoln, that was a sacred effort.” (Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, 357)
Also present at Lincoln’s second inaugural was the 26-year-old actor, and Southern sympathizer, John Wilkes Booth. He stood above Lincoln, behind the right buttress of the Capital. Six weeks after his second inaugural, on Good Friday, April 14, 1865, President and Mrs. Lincoln were enjoying the comedy, “My American Cousin,” in Ford’s Theater. The young Shakespearean actor snuck into the presidential booth, and knowing the line that would produce the greatest burst of laughter from the audience, shot the President behind his left ear, at that exact moment. Lincoln died at 7:22 in the morning on the following day. Edwin Stanton, the head of the War Department, said, when Lincoln breathed his last, “Now, he belongs to the ages.” (Lincoln, 599)
Douglass, Frederick. Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: His Early Life as a Slave, His Escape from Bondage, and His Complete History, An Autobiography. New York: Gramercy Books, 1993.
Donald, David Herbert. Lincoln. London: Jonathan Cape, 1995.