Much has been made in the past week of Barack Obama’s “Lincoln Moment” speech he gave in Philadelphia after the firestorm of controversy raised by his former pastor’s (Jeremiah Wright) church sermons in which Wright repeatedly stated “God Damn America” due to racial injustices, past and present.
Reaction to Obama’s speech (the complete text is here), has been mostly positive, including Chris Matthews of MSNBC who labeled it as “worthy of Abraham Lincoln”. But while the speech was incredibly eloquent and meaningful, as nearly all of Mr. Obama’s speeches have been, was it indeed “Lincolnesque” or not?
Harold Holzer, one of the leading Lincoln scholars, for one, thinks it was not. In fact, Holzer states that Lincoln’s famous “race speech” was actually much closer to the Rev. Wright’s sermons than to the speech given by Obama. In an editorial piece from the New York Sun from March 24, 2008, Holzer takes the reader through the “fury” (Holzer’s term) of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. Holzer claims that Lincoln unleashed a “stern lecture” on America for permitting slavery in the first place and that God had punished the nation with the terrible tragedy which was the Civil War. He also writes that most people focus on the brilliant closing of the Address, in which Lincoln wished “malice towards none.”
It must be remembered that when Lincoln gave his Second Inaugural Address on Saturday March 4, 1865 (the text may be found here), no one knew that the Civil War was barely just 6-8 weeks away from being over. It had dragged on for nearly four years and brought death to more than 600,000 Americans by the time of his speech. It would be no wonder if Lincoln really did unleash “fury” on his fellow countrymen.
My depth and breadth of knowledge about Abraham Lincoln certainly are not close to that of Holzer’s, but I disagree with his claims he makes in the editorial about the Address. In the Address, Lincoln briefly restated the facts that while both sides (the North and South) sought to avoid war, one side sought to make it (the South) while the other chose to accept it (the North) in order to defend their beliefs about the nation. Then Lincoln went on to say how odd it was that each side prayed to the same God for his help in achieving their goals. But nowhere do I personally detect “fury” in Lincoln’s Address. Indeed, he even quotes the “judge not, lest we be judged” verse from the Bible. He also states that if it is God’s will that the war 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.'”
I know that Holzer says the most important part of Lincoln’s Address is the section on slavery, but it is due to Lincoln’s closing paragraph that I believe that he was not unleashing “fury” at all. He stated ” 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, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
If Lincoln really had “fury” in his bosom that day, I highly doubt that he would have shown such magnanimity in his closing. I read no condemnation of America in Lincoln’s remarks, rather just an excellent grasp of the events which led to the bloodiest war in our nation’s history.
For an in-depth examination of the speech many scholars consider Lincoln’s greatest, even above the Gettysburg Address, the book “Lincoln’s Greatest Speech” by Ronald C. White, is indispensable and is a must-have for any Lincoln library.