A thoughtful historical, cultural, and literary meditation on President Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural address.
Author and editor of several books examining America’s social and religious history (The Social Gospel, not reviewed, etc.) and dean of the San Francisco Theological Seminary, White is well qualified to analyze Lincoln’s powerful Second Inaugural address—a 701-word speech that took an essentially religious approach to political issues. The author begins by introducing readers to the Civil War’s turbulent closing days: wounded Union soldiers swamp the nation’s capitol; Vice President Andrew Johnson publicly drinks himself into a stupor; John Wilkes Booth observes the proceedings with quiet malevolence. Amid this chaos, White presents Lincoln’s address as a statement that transcends the politics of the day and offers both a diagnosis and a cure for a US to overcome the deep national rift caused by the Civil War. Reflecting on each paragraph of the Second Inaugural separately, he argues that Lincoln ultimately understood the Civil War in religious terms, by recognizing the horrors of slavery and battle as sins requiring a national healing rather than bloodthirsty vengeance against the Confederate states. White reminds us that while the popular American press of the time gave a tepid response to Lincoln’s call for charity for the soon-to-be-defeated South, more visionary members of his audience—like Frederick Douglass, the Cabinet, the Supreme Court, and others—hailed the speech as an important step toward a true post–Civil War union. This contrast, between the president’s sincere love for the nation and the vengeful hatred that permeated American society in early 1865, effectively illuminates the greatness of Lincoln’s perceptive intellect and formidable character.
Well researched, wonderfully written, and at times extraordinarily moving. White’s relatively small volume comes closer to finding the true spirit of Abraham Lincoln than many of the more celebrated biographies.