Thursday, November 9, 2017

Lincoln's Second Inaugural

Whenever the blues set in, I return to those sure endorphin stimulators, like reading the opening paragraph of "A Farewell to Arms" or some other old friend in print and I keep going until I fall asleep.

One of those in the pantheon of magic mind blowers is Lincoln's Second Inaugural address, which I re read last night and saw something in it, I hadn't before.

You can get caught up in the poetry and lyricism so that you miss an important point--Lincoln, who is so direct and the master of clarity and economy, obfuscates unashamedly at crucial points throughout this wonderful oration.

He starts out by recalling his first address, but early on he uses unnecessarily complex sentence structure: "on the occasion corresponding to this four years ago" rather than, "at the first inaugural." 
He has already reversed the normal associations of words in phrases, by saying the the course of the war "absorbed the attention" and "engrossed the energies" of the nation, rather than the ordinary "engrossed the attention" and "absorbed the energies." That little trick is simply a way of keeping things fresh, but  why the ornate "occasion corresponding to four years ago?"

Then he addresses what has happened between the first and second inaugural addresses.
He marches through the answer to the "what" question most masterfully, and with an authority nobody but Lincoln could muster. What happened to bring on the war?  Well, he says, there were these people called slaves who constituted a "peculiar interest"  and "all knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war."
Thus, he puts to rest for the ages all the possible revisionist history which might follow, about "The Lost Cause" or "economic forces" causing the war.  Like Eisenhower touring the concentration camps at the end of WWII, ordering films and photographs to document what was found there, both leaders knew that in ensuing generations some would try to change the story, and both took care to establish the truth, undeniable, inalienable.  What happened cannot be in dispute. The war was, ultimately, about slavery. And this comes from the man who tried to convince himself and his countrymen, at the outset that slavery was not the cause, that Union was the cause.

But it when he gets around to trying to answer the "why" question that he gets particularly un Lincoln, and very obscure.

Basically, what he says is it may be that God may have looked at slavery as so grievous offense against His will that he required that each drop of blood drawn by the lash should be repaid by one drawn by the sword and since this has been going on for 250 years, a lot of blood was going to be required.
But here's the thing, as much or more blood was shed by the agents of ending slavery, i.e. the soldiers of the Union army, as was shed by the defenders of slavery. So how does one explain why the agents of retribution should be so afflicted? The only possible explanation, the only possible inference would be that somehow the North was just as guilty as the South in the institution of slavery.
Lincoln, of course, would never be so impolitic as to suggest the North deserved punishment, but that is what he very clearly is suggesting.
How had the North been guilty? By tolerating slavery, I suppose. And the Northern mills used Southern cotton.

There is also that delicious aside,"It may seem strange that any men should dare ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces,"* by which he is saying it might seem strange that men should ask a just God for help with acquiring wealth and sustenance by enslaving other men.  This remark follows his observation that men of the South invoked God to justify their "Cause," and they read the same Bible and prayed to the same God as those in the North. And he says that since both appealed to the same God for help, only one side could be right and only one side could get the answer it was looking for.  How the South could possibly expect help from a just God strikes Lincoln as perplexing but then he slides into that humble mode he did so well, "judge not lest we be judged."
So Lincoln, ever so delicately makes the case that the South was simply wrong in asserting there was any moral justification for slavery. What he is doing is to say, well, they've had their answer from God, but we here in the North won't gloat over it.

Grant, of course, was not so generous, when he said that his opponent, Robert E. Lee had suffered enormously and with grace for the "Cause" but it was the worst cause anyone ever fought for.

But what of that question, which Lincoln dances around?  Why should the North, the agent of the avenging angel have been made to suffer so? 
It is here Lincoln obfuscates and lapses into allusion to Biblical phrases, which, in all of Western literature are so obscure as to allow almost any interpretation, and so he can hide behind the ambiguity.
The Almighty has His own purposes. "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." 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, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? 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."
Basically, he says, "it's a mystery." Shall we question God? Do we say he's being inconsistent in his divine attributes and he talks about "believers in a living God."

Lincoln never really says he is such a believer. After his son, Willie died, he asked why such an innocent should be made to suffer. Then he saw innocents by the millions suffer from the war. 
He had no answer, really, to the why question. He could only answer the what question with certainly and clarity, and he left the believers their beliefs, and says, let's just hope to move past all this and bind up our wounds.

In this, we hear President Obama, who was not interested in chasing down the nasties who brought us to the brink of economic collapse; he was only interested in getting past it.
Unfortunately, that led to the emergence of a very real nasty.
What the country needs now is a U.S. Grant, who has the moral authority to take us to a better place.
What we've got is anyone's guess.

*This I learned after posting is from Genesis where God expels Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden and tells them they must obtain their bread from the sweat of their own faces. Lincoln read the Bible, unlike me. I did not recognized it, but I was struck by the oddity of the expression.


  1. Mad Dog,
    Testing this again to see if it will allow me to respond...

  2. Mad Dog,
    I had written a response yesterday that was breathtaking in it's brilliance-words to rival Lincoln's- but alas, lost to posterity by the whim of the evil Blog God.. I can't recall all that I wrote, but it centered around the fact that Lincoln's words illustrate why he's widely considered our greatest President-because he was more than just the occupier of the Oval Office -more than just an elected official. He was a leader and a patriot in the truest sense of those words. One would imagine when he stated, among other things, that God had given this "terrible war" to both the North and South, he did so deliberately and with forethought to the reunification that would be necessary at the end of the conflict. Yes both sides were suffering horrific losses, but he must have also been keenly aware that focusing solely on the misdeeds of the South would not hasten unity. But to your point, perhaps it was more than a practical gesture towards eventual reunification. Maybe Lincoln really did see both sides at fault for the continued existence of slavery, but you're right, this would have been a concept that, at that point, would need to be offered more subtly...

    Just think of what the current occupier of the Oval Office would have to say under similar circumstances. There'd be no generosity or balance, but rather the likes of-"Death to Dixie" and "We're going to wipe the South off the map-babies and pets included!!"....And other similar soaring prose..dispersed in tweets..Alleluia...

  3. Maud,
    I can hardly imagine yesterday's effort was more eloquent than today's, but somehow lost transcripts are always perfect and the replacements poor shadows.
    Agree President Dotard, the pink puffer fish is occupying that same White House, but his presence there is akin to the mice who pick their way through the ruins of the Colosseum--small things just rummaging around the space of former greatness.