Through the Lenses of Rhetoric: A Classical Look at Lincoln’s Second Inaugural

In 2021, I taught a course on the Trivium for the first time, and have taught it several times since. There is nothing like teaching for learning, and I have learned a great deal as I have taught, especially about rhetoric. I had taught small portions of Aristotle’s Rhetoric before, but remained ignorant of most of it, and I knew almost nothing about later traditions of rhetoric. I still think of myself as merely an advanced beginner in rhetoric rather than a professor of it, but I am becoming an amateur, a lover. Aristotle’s Rhetoric has educated me in the range of the orator’s understanding of the minds and hearts of ordinary people, while the traditional canons of rhetoric, its various figures, and the exercises of progymnasmata have improved my approach to speaking and to analyzing the speeches of others.

Though I have been a passionate as well as professional reader of great texts, I find I am gaining significant insight into and appreciation of historically great speeches. Getting to know the trees in the forest of rhetoric (especially through the Silva Rhetoricae website) has led me to ask certain questions habitually and in an orderly way, helping me get inside the mind of the author. I have learned to think about the occasion and the audience, distinguish appeals to logos and pathos and ethos, understand the flow of a speech and the choices made by its author through the canons of invention and arrangement. I am even beginning to become conversant with the common figures, tropes, and schemes.

It has been a particular joy to gain greater insight into Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. I have always loved the speech for its deeply moving conclusion - “With malice toward none with charity for all with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right….” Yet, in spite of having read it many times in my career, even studying it carefully on several occasions, I had still found it a difficult speech to follow. Lincoln seems to wander around from the conspiracies that took place at his first inauguration to slavery, prayer, and the Almighty, before his culminating exhortation “to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan….” But looking at it through the lenses of classical rhetorical techniques helped bring his order into focus for me.

The most general and encompassing ideas in classical rhetoric are those of Kairos and audience. The first, connected to the occasion giving rise to the speech, leads us to ask what sort of speech would seem appropriate to the formal occasion, as well as what opportunities it offers to the speaker for taking on larger issues. The second makes us ask what is the character and disposition of the audience he is facing? Is he addressing multiple audiences? What difficulties might they present for effective communication? How should he overcome them?

Referring to the formal occasion is often a great introduction, and allows the speaker to let his audience know what he wants to talk about. Lincoln’s first paragraph distinguishes the occasion of this inauguration from that of his first inaugural address; the first demanded a detailed account of how he intended to proceed in a time of crisis, but this does not. He does not tell them what he thinks this occasion really demands. However, he puts aside what his immediate audience might expect - that he would lead them in anticipatory celebrations of imminent triumph - with a gentle understatement: “The progress of our arms…is I trust reasonably satisfactory.” His audience is left wondering what can he say that will be timely now, what does he think they need to hear? Readers of the speech can tell from the conclusion that he wants to bring them to a place where they will put aside all malice and embrace charity for all, even for Southerners. We can imagine how unwelcome that might be.
Arrangement is another central rhetorical consideration. How has the speaker structured his speech? What are its constituent parts, and how does each contribute to his central point? Lincoln uses two structural techniques, the more obvious of which is parallelism. In the second paragraph Lincoln initiates a comparison between the two sides in the war that extends through the rest of the speech.

All dreaded it ~ all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war ~ seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. 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.

Parallel sentence structure creates antithesis, which highlights their different purposes: to save the union without war, to destroy it without war; make war rather than let the nation survive; accept war rather than let it perish. But he speaks of their areas of agreement as well as disagreement. They agreed in dreading war. Each recognized that if it had not been for the existence of slaves, there would have been no war. They each expected the war to be over quickly; neither expected the war would bring slavery to an end. Each prayed that God would aid them against the other.

While parallelism is woven throughout the main body of the speech, the speech naturally divides into two sections  according to a classical distinction particularly appropriate to a courtroom. First comes a statement of straightforward facts about a dispute (narratio), then comes the proof that establishes the speaker’s main point (confirmatio). The facts should be relatively uncontroversial, yet presented so as to prepare the ground for the controversial argument.

Lincoln presents the facts in a strikingly impersonal way. He does not speak in terms of “we” and “they,” but simply of one side and the other. Lincoln chooses to use the word “party” instead of side, as though bidding the audience to look at the dispute from the impartial standpoint of a judge, one who has seen many disputes in his days, and knows that there is usually plenty of blame to go around.

The second paragraph ends briefly, impersonally, soberly. And the war came. There is no human subject for that sentence, as though the war came on its own, inevitably, apart from any human decision. This ending naturally leads to a question, not “Who started the war? Which side is to blame?” but “How did the war come?” The existence of slaves was, somehow, the cause of the war. The commas in the text no doubt reflect a pause on “somehow”, helping the audience hear that the implicit question has only been vaguely answered. Although other issues were involved, all knew that in some way the war came because the two parties had different intentions with regard to slaves.

As Lincoln begins to move into the hard part, where he must bring his audience to conclusions they might not like, he brings in prayer, the Bible, and God. He references four different Scripture passages in seven sentences. He places his hope to persuade his audience on authority, the highest authority, the most powerful authority in the Union.

He begins by implying a question. No one expected the war to be so big, nor for slavery to cease before the war ended. Each looked for an easier triumph and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both sides prayed that God would be on their side; the magnitude of the war made evident that He was not fully on either side. In another brief, undecorated but powerful sentence, Lincoln expresses the key turn in thought he wishes his audience to have: The Almighty has his own purposes. Those who believe in a providential God must expect that they are not the primary agents in so great an event. The question becomes, not what did each party intend, but what did the Almighty intend?

Lincoln, with the rest of the North, can understand why God would not be on the side of those who prayed that slavery would be extended. Lincoln adapts the language of Genesis 3:19 to suggest the hypocrisy of Christian slave owners: It may seem strange that any should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces…. Yet he immediately invokes Matthew 7 so his audience can hear the warning of Jesus against indulging in such sentiments: “Let us judge not that we be not judged.”

The implicit heartfelt question of the Northern party is, “Why has He not been entirely on our side? Aren’t we the just ones in this dispute? Why have we suffered so much bloodshed and devastation?” Lincoln uses a hypothetical statement to respectfully suggest a providential purpose for the war: God is using it as a scourge to punish those responsible for the evils of slavery. He offers evidence from a Scriptural text: Woe to that man by whom the offenses come. By whom did the offense come? Lincoln must make his audience face the hard truth that both parties share in the guilt of slavery. Though at the beginning of the war, slaves were localized in the South, it had not been so from the beginning of America. …He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came. He names it now, not “Southern slavery”, but “American slavery”, which for 250 years, from the earliest days of the colonies, had brought wealth to the owners and unjust suffering to the slaves. He therefore bids his Christian audience, not to triumph as the just, but to follow Scripture in praising the Lord as they accept His scourge: “...As was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.

Lincoln educated himself to be a master orator through textbooks and Euclid and Shakespeare and years of advocacy and debate.  In this speech, we admire how, having laid the groundwork for his argument with lawyerly objectivity, he brings it home with the forcefulness of a revival preacher, a style that befits an American statesman (as does its brevity), preparing his audience, chastened in both mind and heart, to receive his gentle invitation to embrace a Christian attitude towards the suffering of friend and enemy alike:

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.