March 1865

Four more years — President Lincoln’s second inauguration

On March 4, 1865, Abraham Lincoln stood at the east front of the U.S. Capitol building and took the oath of office to begin a second term as president of the United States. As U.S. army troops cut through Confederate forces in the Carolinas supporters of the war effort looked forward to closing a final victory and beginning to secure a peace.

Feelings in Lincoln’s home state
Illinoisans split on their feelings about a second Lincoln administration, much as they had differed on the actions of the first. The Democratic press seemed resigned but ready for further political combat. When on February 1, 1865, the Illinois General Assembly ratified the proposed Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, strongly supported by President Lincoln, Springfield’s Democratic Illinois State Register expressed hope that other states would fail to do likewise, preventing the amendment’s final adoption.

Republicans of course felt differently. Following the suggestion of a February meeting in New York City, Lincoln supporters in some Illinois cities planned celebrations for March 3 and 4. Couples in Rockford could attend a “Grand Terpsichorean Festival” to be held on the third at Brown’s Hall. In Peoria the Women’s National League considered “the propriety of giving a dinner on the occasion of the rejoicings of March 4th. – The calls for aid for our soldiers come upon us thick and fast, and our treasury is in need of replenishing to enable us to answer these calls.”

Most other cities in the end saw no organized community events, but many citizens celebrated nevertheless. As always, the celebrations’ sizes and meanings were debated. A Rock Island correspondent of a Chicago newspaper wrote that “Flags are flying, the military are out, the stores closed, and every one is jubilant.” On hearing this, the town’s Democratic newspaper declared that to celebrate some local small-scale war profiteers “displayed a few flags….fired a few guns; negroes had a dress parade and robbed a beer saloon….”

In Springfield the Republican newspaper noted that residents of the city “had special reasons for rejoicing on that day, for the man thus honored was, for many years, a citizen of this place and personally known to them.” Although the city saw no single, planned observance, “everybody seemed to consider it a holiday…” Flags flew from the statehouse, the arsenal, many stores, and even private residences. A procession led by a band marched through the streets as a “national salute” of thirty-six guns was fired at the arsenal. At the Soldiers Home (a facility for in-transit military personnel) local ladies served a special dinner in honor of the day. Across town “there was a general rejoicing in every loyal heart, on account of the events transpiring in Washington….Every body celebrated on their own account….It was, in fact, a day of general rejoicing.”

Lincoln’s speech
The speech delivered by President Lincoln on March 4 is today widely looked upon as a masterpiece. Such was not the case in the days that followed its delivery. A typical Democratic view is found in the Ottawa Free Trader: “President Lincoln seems to take great pride in doing nothing like any body else. The misfortune is….his innovations are so seldom improvements. The country certainly had a right to expect from him….a word in reference to the situation, and possibly a word of hope or cheer for the future. Nothing of the kind is vouchsafed.” Instead, Lincoln hinted that further bloodshed was willed by God as a just punishment for the nation’s history of slavery. Apparently missing the speech’s famous “With malice toward none, with charity for all,” the editor went on to comment, “would not it have seemed more fitting in the President to have said a word about ‘forgiveness,’ and ‘charity’….instead of so self-righteously and blasphemously imputing to heaven only designs of vengeance against the erring brother?”

The Republican press generally celebrated the speech for its brevity but especially for the very “recognition of the moral and religious elements involved in the contest” that Democrats found so upsetting.

As best we can tell none of the Illinois editors who expressed opinions on the address took part in the event-actually attended the ceremonies and heard Lincoln deliver his speech. A correspondent of the Waukegan Lake County Gazette, however, had been present on the capitol grounds on March 4. He provided striking analysis of meanings of the speech, of Abraham Lincoln, and of the cataclysmic war which was coming it its end:

The great day has come and gone, and the nation has entered upon the second term of a Republican administration, and a man who has stood immovably upon the conviction that “slavery is wrong,” has been, by the mightiest nation on earth, a second time entrusted with the execution of that nation’s will upon that which has hitherto been the bane, the blight of that nation’s life.

How the nation has grown, and how he, her loved and trusted representative, has grown likewise. Four years ago he offered to return fugitive slaves under the forms of law, and in less than four years he informed the people that if they desired the re-enslavement of emancipated slaves, another, and not he must be the instrument. Four years ago Congress offered to so amend the Constitution that slavery could not be molested anywhere. Now they have so amended the Constitution that, when the act is complete, slavery cannot live anywhere. Then traitors were entreated, reasoned with, besought not to lift parricidal hands against the Government; now they are calmly told that if the war shall continue until all the wealth wrung from unpaid toil for 250 years is sunk, and every drop of blood drawn by the lash is atoned for by one drawn by the sword, as was said 3,000 years ago, so still it must be said “The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” How grandly is the whole contest summed up in that one sentence! What a sublime acknowledgment of God’s agency in the Judgment Day, which has come to our land. When I heard that sentence read, it fell upon me like an inspiration from above. Nothing in any State paper, ever affected so sublimely. Surely, though I, if the Constitution lacks a sufficiently clear and decisive recognition of God as the Ruler of “all the earth,” there is no lack of it in this God sinking the wealth made by unpaid toil! God avenging the blood drawn by the oppressor’s lash!! Was ever so much abolitionism compressed into so few words? Would all the sermons ever preached by mitred priest or plain habited minister, turn out under the most perfect condensing process, more piety, more truth than that!…

How sublime was that scene in its simplicity; how exceeding its moral grandeur. A man habited in simple citizen’s attire, utterly devoid of the gilded trappings so usually the symbol of power, by a simple ceremonial assumes the immeasurable representative of executing the will of the mightiest people, known as yet in all history, and in such a time! That nation is just emerging from the throes of its second – its diviner birth. Just as that nation with stalwart arm and resolute will is lifting to its place Justice, the “chief cornerstone” of its liberties, as the sure guaranty of its own and of the world’s final emancipation, and the people were there. The true royalty; with hardened hand and homespun coat, the man of toil, the subduer of the earth and the savior of mankind, and God’s little ones. His chosen were there. The children of centuries of injustice and oppression were there, were everywhere, on the steps on the ground, on the platform, within the marble walls, among the lofty columns, everywhere they went and no man said aught to disturb or offend them! – Some of them were in the “army blue” with glittering bayonetted muskets in their hands, right before the President, the post of honor. There they stood “our defenders and our saviors,” and all through the throng were the bright faces and the ragged apparel of the recently escaped freedmen. Blessed be God, we’ve had an inauguration at last where every eye that beheld it was the eye of a freeman, and when from that proud dome no slave soil could be seen. O Sirs, are we dreaming? Is this – can it be real? Yes it must be…

What a glorious thing to live in this day and time and to be a loyal citizen of the American Republic! What a glory will shine upon the ages from these deeds of ours…

Interested in learning more?
The manuscript copy of the Second Inaugural Address from which Lincoln read that day can be found at A fine walk-through analysis of the speech is “‘With Malice Toward None: With Charity of All,'” chapter 11 of Ronald C. White Jr., The Eloquent President: A Portrait of Lincoln Through His Words (2005).