Comparison between Lincoln’s first and second inaugural addresses

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A closer look at Lincoln first and second inaugural addresses reveals a clear divergence from the main ideas, something that has been a center of the many discussions surrounding his presidency.  As a well-groomed politician, Lincoln is seen as a person who easily adapted to necessities, showing much readiness for compromise as long as he gets to his ultimate goal. Lincoln first inaugural speech took place in 1860 following his election into the office of the president. His ascension into the office was closely followed by secession of southern states in broad protest to Lincolns anti-slavery position. The happenings of that moment served as a trigger of the subsequent Civil war. Lincoln unmistakably identified the union of the nation as the major war objective as opposed to the slavery problem. It is on that understanding that he used his first inaugural speech to stress that he only sought to stop further expansion of slavery, an issue that did not go well with the radical Republicans who wanted to proclaim the war a fight for slave emancipation. His first inaugural speech broadly appears as a statement that sought to appease the southerners who believed his mission was to end slavery in many states where it existed. Coming at a time considered more challenging for the nation; seven states having seceded and the nation almost getting into a civil war, Lincoln focus was not so much on slavery. He was so much engrossed with issues that would work towards national unity and the constitutional mandate on matters of state and federal government’s relationship. Lincoln was aware that he was addressing a white-largely racist- audience. Throughout the speech, he was keen not to annoy them further, what he called “the public sentiment.”  The tone of his first inaugural speech was more legalistic and was focused on specifics of the rule of law seeking to assure southerners that there was no constitutional justification for the federal government to interfere with the internal affairs of the southern states. The whole idea behind these assurances was to talk down the ongoing discussion on slave trade abolition. He went ahead to assure them that he would implement the fugitive act hoping to win their support that seemed too elusive at that moment. Lincoln was personally against slavery, but during his first inaugural address, he committed himself to the demands of presidency stating that the power given to him through presidency could not allow breaking of the law by abusing power merely to selfishly enforce his personal belief (slavery). He went ahead to say “And yet I have never understood that the Presidency conferred upon me an unrestricted right to act officially upon this judgment and feeling. It was in the oath I took that I would, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. I could not take the office without taking the oath. Nor was it my view that I might take an oath to get power, and break the oath in using the power.” At that time, the constitution was in full support of the people owning property, and slaveholders took slaves as mere property, something that had been practiced over time since the time of the founding fathers.

Although Lincoln rejected the system of slavery just like many other opponents of slavery of his time, He was much careful not to offend the southerners. Such is the case that many other opponents who shared his view that “system of unfree labor would morally corrupt the nation and would be diametrically opposed to the basic principles of republican freedom” He was against their demand of speedy emancipation. Lincoln took the way of a compromise opting to let slavery continue where it was constitutionally granted, but contain it and prevent its further expansion. His first address seem to support the view that its containment would lead to its ultimate extinction. It is important to note here that during this period, his main concern was to avert the imminent secession plan of the southerner’s states. Faced by such surmounting problem Lincoln opted to take the path that would encourage both the south and North to remain dedicated to the union. His second inaugural address comes with much brevity and somberness, a change that speaks much about the impacts of the previous four years to both the Americans and Lincoln. Avoiding a direct condemnation of the southerners, Lincoln speaks of the Civil war as a judgment handed down by God upon both the southerners and northerners for the sin of slavery. Lincoln second inaugural speech in which he openly attacks the problem of slavery serves as an apology and appeal for forgiveness following an open admission of the national guilt for the problem of slavery.

The subject of slavery as addressed in the second Lincoln’s Inaugural address depicted a big change from the first address.  It is important to note here that this happened at a time when the North was almost winning the Civil war, and Lincoln preoccupation had changed greatly. He no longer needed to agree to slavery as the price of national unity. The free will allowed him to make the wartime emancipation proclamation the basis of permanent ending of slavery. While making this declaration, Lincoln made it clear through his statement “with malice towards none with charity for all” that his next chief concern was reconciliation. He publicly claimed that “slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest” and that “all knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war.” Reading through the whole speech one easily picks out Lincoln main intend that as opposed to the first address that played down the issue of slavery, Lincoln main intend turns to proving to everyone that slavery and the use of slaves was the main cause of the conflict. Here he states “One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war.” His second address was much less legalistic and showed fewer specifics. The address is seen as being centered on a more idealistic moral tone. During one of his previous addresses Lincoln had stated that, “If I could save the Union by freeing all the slaves, I would do it, if I could save it by freeing none of the slaves I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that”.  The September 22, 1862 second inaugural address takes the latter path. Although In his first inaugural address he never showed his support for abolitionist cause but instead endorsed a “middle position” on slavery, he uses his second Inaugural address openly condemning slavery.

In his first inaugural speech, Lincoln admits that slavery is wrong but maintains, however he goes slow on it saying he did not know what should be done, and even envisioning freeing them and taking them back to Africa. This is the actual position of his first inaugural address, a speech that epitomize his views as he took over American presidency.  Since he was not an abolitionist and he did not subscribe to their ideas, Lincoln first address revealed his indecisiveness on the issue of slavery.  It is said that while giving his first address Lincoln was not really considering black people as core part of the America society. In his opinion, they were aliens taken by force from their own society and brought across the ocean. Based on the perspective he saw the only solution was to take them back to Africa, an opinion shared by majority of the white Americans at the time. Lincoln idea at the time was to repeal slavery gradually and try every means to compensate slave owners who would definitely feel the loss. However, during his second inaugural address, popularly referred to   the Emancipation Proclamation that he declared the immediate freedom of all slaves naming 10 specific states where the law would take effect. This was a complete turnaround from his first position of gradual repealing of slaves. It also served as the first time that he publicly rejected the views in his first inaugural speech. There is no doubt that Emancipation Proclamation totally repudiates all Lincoln previous ideas. In his second address, the abolishment of slavery is immediate not gradual as earlier said. Here, there is no mentioning of compensation and the issue of colonization is never addressed. Several reasons have been given to explain Lincoln sudden shift in position with regard to former slaves. First, both the slaves and their owners never supported the issue of colonization. Slavery was slowly disintegrating and the union army was interested in recruitment of new solders. Many of the Africans former slaves, especially those from the south, embraced the idea of enlisting in the army.

Lincoln’s change on the issue of slavery can be seen through his use of blistering biblical quotation “Woe unto the world because of offences” (Matthew 18:7) refereeing to the injustices realized through slavery. In his definition of slavery as one of the aforementioned offenses, he broadened the emotional and historical range of his concern something that he did not do during his first inauguration address. Here he was careful not to say “Southern slavery” but instead asserted that South and North must collectively own the offense. Lincoln second inaugural speech carried the scale of justice on matters of slavery something that was missing in the first address. Here, he did so with a full understanding that   Americans had although remained uncomfortable while facing up their own malevolence. We can clearly see his turn around to a spirited abolitionist when he says, “Until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.” In his speech, he goes ahead, to define slavery as a grievous national sin that was the cause of God’s fierce judgment upon United States reflected by the Civil war.  Using some of the strangest statements he says, “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.”

“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.

Among Lincoln listeners during his second inauguration address were African American soldiers, a true picture of the major changes that had occurred in the last four years, which were also reflected in this address. For the first time, the African American had been allowed to march in the inaugural parade

In conclusion, Lincoln opinion on major topics (slavery) changed much during his second inaugural speech. As established here, the first inaugural address saw Lincoln take a soft approach to the slavery issue. During this period, his main concern was to avert the imminent secession plan of the southerner’s states. Faced by such surmounting problem Lincoln opted to take the path that would encourage both the south and North to remain dedicated to the union. His second inaugural address comes with much brevity and somberness, a change that speaks much about the impacts of the previous four years to both the Americans and Lincoln. Avoiding a direct condemnation of the southerners, Lincoln speaks of the Civil war as a judgment handed down by God upon both the southerners and northerners for the sin of slavery. Lincoln second inaugural speech in which he openly attacks the problem of slavery serves as an apology and appeal for forgiveness following an open admission of the national guilt for the problem of slavery. Lincoln was much convinced that the outcome of the Civil war was justice meted out by God on those guilty of slave trade. He even went ahead to urge  both the victors and the defeated  to forgive each other and  reconcile as a way of  joining the whole America fraternity in accepting to abide by  Gods justice as depicted by the war outcome.

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  1. Jeukendrup, Asker E. 2002. High-Performance Cycling. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
  2. Hanchett, William, and John S. Wright. 1971. “Lincoln And The Politics Of Slavery”. The Journal Of American History 58 (1): 169. doi:10.2307/1890126.
  3. Hubbell, Jay B. 1931. “Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address”. The American Historical Review 36 (3): 550. doi:10.2307/1837914.
  4. Siddali, Silvana R., and Allen C. Guelzo. 2005. “Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End Of Slavery In America”. The Journal Of Southern History 71 (2): 468. doi:10.2307/27648776.
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