The Art of Rhetoric: Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural Address

The four years that had passed since Abraham Lincoln delivered his inaugural address after being elected President in 1860 had aged his appearance well beyond what normally occur over such a relatively short period of time. During those intervening years between that first address and his second inaugural address on March 4, 1865, the country had both been altered forever in revolutionary ways and had also not changed at all. The purpose of the speech delivered four years earlier was essentially argumentative in nature; Lincoln decided that he needed more than 3600 words to convince the citizens of every state in the union that any government formed through the process of secession would, by definition, be illegitimate. The overriding argument formed from the specific details outlined in those 3600 words boiled down to the proposition that since secession was not a constitutionally guaranteed action, it was therefore illegal and if secession itself was illegal, any government resulting from it simply did not exist. Since Lincoln had many times over the course of the four years of his first term in office reiterated this essential foundation for conducting a war to preserve the union, he foresaw little gain in looking to the past and decided to use his second inaugural address specifically for the purpose of establishing a definitive cause for the war which had divided the union in order to transform it into the issue on which common ground could be found on which to commence the long, hard process of reunification.

In a mere 700 words—a fraction of the length of his speech four years earlier—Abraham Lincoln’s exploited the spotlight provided by the pomp and circumstance of his second inauguration to proves himself a master of diction who engages that mastery for the purpose of utilizing a number of rhetorical devices in a remarkably short span of time. In many cases, Lincoln exploits the power of his elevated diction to connect two separate and distinct rhetorical tools in ways that can almost appear as if he purposely doing to subtly reinforce the concept of unification within the subconscious minds of those who will hear or read the speech. For instance, one of Lincoln’s favorite tools in all his most memorable speeches is the parallelism. In his determined effort to seek common ground, Lincoln early on lays a foundation in which he unites both the North and South in their respective parts as players in the war through engagement with his preference for parallelism:

“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” (Lincoln).

Common ground is one thing, but allowing for the enormous difference that exists between merely accepting war and making war, Lincoln decides to add a punctuate the New Testament-style of shared responsibility with a dash of Old Testament-style wrath by attending an extra little clause to his parallel linkage between the North and South. Lincoln effectively calls out the South by instituting uniting parallelism with another rhetorical tool known as polysyndeton so that the entire sentence takes on a tougher meaning by virtue of the addition of just a few words:

“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” (Lincoln).

Farnsworth points to the construction of this sentence as further evidence that Lincoln was highly influenced by the King James Bible in his speechwriting (140).

Lincoln’s specific attempt to mirror the technique of the most widely-read version of the Bible at the time of his speech should come as little surprise since a historical analysis reveals that his second inaugural address was a unique document that engaged the widespread familiarity and appeal of Biblical rhetoric for a very specific and unique purpose. Armed with the devaluation of such powerful rhetoric by 20th and 21st century politicians who are quick to reference scripture completely out of context merely for the purpose of appealing to a supposedly powerful voting bloc, it may come as something of a shock to learn that “before Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, the Bible had been quoted only one time in inaugural addresses” (White). Whether Lincoln was himself a devoted Christian or practiced a latter-day version of the deism preferred by those Founding Fathers who went on to become America’s first Chief Executives is not only beside the point, but not even at issue. Lincoln induction of specific Christian precepts outlined in Biblical scripture is inarguably unique in the annals of inaugural speeches and thus must mean that their inclusion is intended for equally unique purposes. What seems most assured is that Lincoln did not intend to use the occasion for evangelical recruitment; one certainly did not have to be a committing church-going Christian oneself to recognize the power of propaganda inherent in the document known as the Holy Bible:

“Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other” (Lincoln).

The writing style which Lincoln adopted for this address is one based entirely on the assumption that the overwhelming majority of Americans—whether southern or northern, white or black—would be more familiar with the contents of the Bible than any other book ever published. More than that; Lincoln’s speech is written in a style of high diction with an awareness of the increased power that such diction holds when the words are spoken. One of the powers of his mastery of diction that Lincoln applies pervasively throughout the entire speech is that of the rhetorical tool of isocolon which engages “successive sentences, clauses, or phrases similar in length and parallel in structure…[to] produce pleasing rhythms, and the parallel structures it creates may helpfully reinforce a parallel substance in the speaker’s claims” (Farnsworth). That parallel substance, as indicated earlier, is the continual reinforcement of the very concept of unity. Lincoln’s speech is all about explaining, repeating and reinforcing unification as imperative for moving the country past the ravages of its recent bloody past and forward to a renewed appreciation of what the phrase “United States of America” really means. The implementation of isocolon can be felt throughout the speech in the way that Lincoln raises his game when applying his favorite tool of parallel construction to make a point. Words and phrase are made parallel to each other to subtly link both the Southern and Northern ideologies together for a common purpose. The key locking those opposing ideals together for the common good is their shared awareness of scriptural rhetoric. But Lincoln takes this application even further by unifying the effects of scriptural rhetoric with isocolon’s ability to lend a written speech a familiar rhythm wen presented orally.

The most famous person of African heritage in the country was present in Washington, D.C. to hear personally hear Lincoln presenting his address orally. Later that night Frederick Douglass would return home, open his diary and make the following the observation about what he had heard: “The address sounded more like a sermon than a state paper” (White). What was it about Lincoln’s construction of the written word that would make it sound like sermon since it has been established that Lincoln’s speaking voice was hardly suitable for such evangelical whipping up of emotional states, especially in an outdoor setting where he had to try to reach such an enormous crowd in which many in attendance were probably already whipped to an emotional state in expectation of hearing words of condemnation directed to the Confederacy which was about to soundly humiliated? If it wasn’t the evangelical power of his oratory, then the sermonesque quality of which Douglass writes had to lie in the rhetorical strategy of the written word. That strategy seeks to unify the familiarity of scriptural structure with the equal familiarity of the church sermon intended to teach a message using that rhetoric. “In Protestant sermons, pairing the indicative and imperative is a familiar rhetorical structure the audience or congregation comes to expect… Lincoln’s grand indicative was that God had been present in the midst of the Civil War” (White).

The second inaugural address commences with the indicative by reminding his audience of the broader issues at stake as the war just commencing and looking forward to a future that would be ensured as that war would soon be drawing to a successful close. It is particularly interesting that “in a piece of only six paragraphs, four are devoted to stating the conditions of the situation. This is an important aspect of the speech since it demonstrates the care taken to set the stage and to prepare the audience” (Hahn and Morlado). Once he has set that stage and prepared the audience, Pres. Abraham Lincoln uses all the rhetorical talent at his disposal to deliver that grand indicative about God’s agency during the Civil War and what it meant in relation to the institution of slavery and the necessity to acknowledge it as the most important issue over which that war was fought and the most important issue at stake for the possibility for reunification.

Thus must be asserted that the goal for Lincoln in writing his second inaugural address was to acknowledge with a finality resulting from assured certainty (more than a century of failed and flawed arguments to the contrary notwithstanding) that the one singular issue identifiable as the cause of the war was slavery. “Through his speech (AGENCY) he equates (ACT) the plight of North and South in the midst of fighting the war. His PURPOSE was to pave the way for the eventual reunification of the North and South and an amicable reconstruction of the South” (Hahn and Morlado). If such can truly be identified as the purpose of the speech, then can there be any doubt that the rhetorical centerpiece and the intellectual climax of the speech is the following passage:

“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” (Lincoln).

Lincoln was taking a political gamble by relying upon the propaganda powers of Biblical construction and the idea that both north and south shared a common respect for the mysteries of God’s will. What the above paragraph essentially sets out to do is not so much remove the stain of southern culpability for the institution of slavery, but assign guilt equally throughout the nation for allowing its implementation and continuance while subtly pushing God to the forefront of that shared culpability. Lincoln’s ultimate goal in adopting a style of writing for this address that echoed with the feel of a sermon being delivered was to initiate a collective acceptance by all Americans that slavery is utterly oppositional to the very ideals upon which America was founded and that those who failed to fight for its abolition were no less guilty than those who fought to maintain its existence. If all Americans could be united in the common belief that slavery was an unimpeachable evil, then they could be equally united in the redemption and salvation brought about through its eradication. The key to stimulating such unity of acceptance of the guilt of fostering an unimpeachable evil, of course, was to recast the players taking the stage in the scene of its eradication. And so the “central affirmation in Lincoln’s model of cultural engagement—“The Almighty has his own purposes”—became the architectural and theological center of the Second Inaugural Address. After describing the actors in the war, including the soldiers, the generals, and himself as commander in chief, Lincoln announces that God is the central actor in the Civil War” (Farnsworth).

The effectiveness of Lincoln’s attempt to unify the techniques scriptural familiarity and rhetorical tools like parallelism and polysyndeton and weave them seamlessly together through the power of isocolon is beyond debate when applied to the argument of whether his second inaugural address is an example of masterful writing. The room for debate grows much wider when applied to the argument of whether it is a masterpiece of persuasion. If the evidence proves beyond a reasonable doubt that Lincoln’s goal in writing the speech was to persuade a nation that slavery was the unquestioned and unqualified singular issue over which the Civil War was fought, then history continues to prove that his writing style failed to persuade a great many people. Failure to meet that purpose by definition extends to failure to persuade on all the issues which emanate from that acceptance.

Works Cited

Farnsworth, Ward. Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric. Ed. David R. Godine. Boston, 2011.

Hahn, Dan F. and Anne Morlado. “A Burkean Analysis of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.” Presidential Studies Quarterly 9.4 (1979): 376-379. 27 February 2016. .

Lincoln, Abraham. “Pres. Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.” 4 March 1865. OurDocuments.gov. The Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress, Manuscript Division. 28 February 2016. .

White, Ronald C. “Lincoln and Divine Providence.” Response 29.3 (2006). 27 February 2016. .