An earlier, highly instructive inaugural address!


Lincoln, discussing both sides: This morning, we stumbled upon C-Span 3 as it re-aired the tape from February 2020 in which Harold Holzer discussed Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address.

At one point, Holzer says this was "the powerhouse moment" in Lincoln's address, "the moment that Frederick Douglass would admire most:"

Yet if God wills 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, still it must be said:

"The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

According to Holzer, Frederick Douglass "believed that was the greatest line he ever heard in an American speech." Holzer describes Douglass praising Lincoln for that passage at a White House reception later that day.

Almost everything in that address strikes us as other-worldly. We first read the text of the address on the wall of the Lincoln Memorial, on a day-long field trip to Washington sites with a group of Baltimore fifth-grade kids in the mid-1970s.

We well remember the shock we felt when we read what Lincoln had said. We were amazed to think that any person had ever said any such thing in public. 

Luckily, we have a photograph of ourselves with [NAME WITHHELD], then a mere fifth grader, as we posed before the Gettysburg Address on the opposite wall of the memorial. (We dug it out this morning.) 

Lincoln had been sent here from Mars, we remember thinking that day after we'd read the text of the second inaugural address. For the full text, click here.

We humans! In truth, we don't really know where we are or what we're doing there. Occasionally, one of the "great souls" may show up and make unusual statements.

President Lincoln was describing the size of the nation's offense. In the wider context of the address, he was explicitly saying this:

Our side did this too.

Later, he said he knew that, as a general rule, people don't like such assessments.

Anthropologists keep telling us that we humans aren't wired to see things that way. We were happy to stumble on the C-Span tape on this extremely new morning. 


  1. "We well remember the shock we felt when we read what Lincoln had said."

    In our humble opinion, you're too easily impressed and shocked by words, dear Bob. Politicians' words.

    ...which is fine, of course, whatever turns you on, dear Bob.

    However: talk is cheap, have you heard this expression?

    1. Lincoln was a politician in the same way that Trump was a statesman.

    2. Let's hope the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters never learn their lesson; you need Trump to pay you, before you do the work.


  2. From Lincoln's address:

    "Both parties deprecated war but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. "

    This statement does not mean that both sides started the war or were equally guilty in perpetrating it. It means that one side (the North) thought that preserving the union was worth fighting for, while the other (the South) caused the rift by insisting that slavery was more important than national unity. That is hardly an equal contribution.

    Then Lincoln says:

    "It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces but let us judge not that we be not judged."

    He is not accepting the validity of the South's position when he says judge not, he is saying that he does not accept it, that it is "strange" but that final judgment is God's. He then suggests that the war itself is a punishment by God upon those who brought the offense (slavery). The sentences Douglass admired are expressing the will to continue fighting as long as necessary to fulfill God's will, whatever it may be (since the war was ongoing).

    But Somerby somehow hears this as Lincoln saying that "Our side did this too." That is not what Lincoln said. Read the address yourself. He decries previous administrations that sought only to limit slavery, not eradicate it. He says the war is God's will and must continue as long as God sees fit, even if it means paying back every lash and costing the South every dollar earned from slave labor. The North is not the bondsman. It is not the lash-wielder. It is the instrument of God, in Lincoln's words.

    I am glad that Somerby is no longer teaching, but I find myself wondering whether what he did teach back in the mid-70s was as badly distorted as this analysis. If it was, he has no business being in a classroom. Lincoln didn't write for Somerby's purposes and today's misuse of Lincoln's address is more than ridiculous, it is a travesty and insult to the memory of one of our greatest presidents.

    1. Sorry: I posted very similarly, but less eloquently, before I saw your comments.

    2. Happy to see that we both reacted the same way!

  3. "Both parties deprecated war but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came."
    I'm not really sure that Lincoln was saying "Our side did this too."
    It seems more like he is saying that one side is responsible and the other side is responsible for not ending the offenses earlier.
    " 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. "

    1. If we assess the culpability by the size of the punishment, which fits Lincoln's construction, then the South was more responsible. First, the war was fought largely on Southern territory so it experienced greater disruption and property damage. It lost all of its slaves. It lost its participation in its own governance for a while. It lost the war and had to surrender under terms set by the North. And it lost those who died in the war. If you watch Gone With the Wind, it also lost its culture. The North lost soldiers and the money required to finance the war but it retained everything else.

      That suggests that God was more pleased with the North than the South, upon whom the North visited God's wrath as the instrument of God's punishment of those naughty Southerners. And slavery ended, which must be what God wanted, given the outcome. And yet, white supremacists are still resisting God's while invoking God's support for their cause. Will they never learn?

    2. Word omitted: "God's will while invoking..."

    3. God doesn't "want" anything except for all of us to use our freedom of choice morally.

    4. Not the way Lincoln saw it, obviously.

    5. God is a concept, one of social construct.

      People like Lincoln use the concept of god to externalize responsibility. Lincoln showed no mercy in the brutal deaths of hundreds of thousands of slavery supporters; the intent was righteous, the method was incompetent.

      Reconstruction was a disaster in whose shadow we still live.

    6. Reconstruction was a "disaster" because it was a missed opportunity (one of many) for this country to atone for the sin of slavery and discrimination. It allowed for the confederate traitors to sign a paper to say they were sorry, then go about their business of re-enslaving Black people. The compromise of 1877 (that Sen. Ted Cruz recently referred to positively) installed Rutherford B. Hayes as President and pulled union troops out of the south, taking away the last bit of protection for the former slaves.

    7. What isn't a social construct?

    8. 99.999999% of the universe is not a social construct.

  4. Nothing about the address given this morning by Joe Biden? Nothing about why Trump chose to play "It's fun to live at the YMCA" as he walked onto Air Force One after addressing his crowd?

    What is the matter with Somerby?

  5. In this speech, Lincoln posits that there is some unknowable divine providence, meted out by a “Lord.” There is a certain amount of gibberish involved here. If God’s will is unknowable, then human beings still have to act according to their own best judgment.

    And that’s precisely what Lincoln did. He, along with Grant, knew the South had to be destroyed in order for the Union to prevail. And that was the goal Lincoln pursued. It was only after the goal was essentially achieved that Lincoln, representing the victors, gave his second inaugural speech, quoted here by Somerby. It was the victory that allowed Lincoln to speak about “malice toward none” in this speech. Somerby wants to gush over such noble sentiments, but Lincoln viewed that stance as a practical approach to the political problem of re-integrating the South into the United States.

    And, as it turns out, Lincoln was assassinated 41 days after giving this speech, and the South gave rise to Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan.

  6. What on earth is instructive about an inaugural address during the civil war. It obviously takes two sides to have such a war, but Somerby takes that to mean that both sides were responsible? That's ridiculous. That's like blaming Poland for being invaded by Hitler.

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  8. So according to Somerby, Lincoln was saying:

    "you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides."

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