Vengeance is His

Lincoln 1I have long thought that Lincoln’s second inaugural address was one of the most powerful pieces of English prose ever written.  I still think that.  But I am beginning to wonder whether I have misunderstood his message.  Here is the passage I want to think about today.  I would be happy to have whatever help you can give me.

Yet, if God wills that it 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, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

It is always wise, when considering a passage beginning with the word “yet,” to look at what came before it.  Here it is: “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.”  We want this war to end quickly, says Lincoln.

But “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether,” so even if it costs the Confederacy unmeasureable blood and unmeasureable treasure, that would be only fair.  That is what it looks like to me.  Here is my argument, such as it is.  Two very nearly rhetorical questions.

Who received the wealth piled up by the slave’s labor over the 250 years of servitude?  As a factualLincoln 2 matter, it wasn’t the slaves.  As a matter of political sensitivity, it also wasn’t those Northerners who made a lot of money on the slave trade.  Lincoln doesn’t mean either of those two groups.  He means Southern slave holders.  If the war continues, says Lincoln according to this interpretation, until the Southern slave owners have lost as much money as their slaves made for them in two and a half centuries, we see God’s justice in that outcome.

Whose blood is going to be spilled if this war continues?  The correct answer is that all the soldiers are going to have to pay.  At this very late state of the war, the Union was losing three men for every two the Confederacy lost.  That was a winning margin for the Union.  But the question of God’s justice calls into question only the blood of Southerners, as I see it.  Who drew blood with the lash?  Owners of slaves.  Whose blood will be spilled, if God’s true and just judgments are to prevail?  Owners of slaves and those armies that defend the practice.

So Lincoln is saying, as I read it, “No matter how much it costs you, God says you deserve it.”

The passage I quoted isn’t the most familiar part of the Second Inaugural and it has never been my favorite part.  Here is my favorite part.

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.

I don’t see “malice toward none” and “charity for all” in the passage we considered first.  What I see in that passage is, “You are getting what God says you deserve.”  That’s why I titled this post “Vengeance is His.”  So what does this second paragraph mean?

Looking at it in the light of my (brand new) understanding of the first paragraph, I’d say that this is Lincoln’s Union paragraph.  “Let us strive on to finish the work we are in” would be directed at General Grant.  “Malice toward none” and “…bind up the nation’s wounds” are directed at the Radical Republicans, who weren’t sure that the Lord’s vengeance would really be enough.  Similarly, “all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves” is Lincoln’s program for the post-war years.

So this last paragraph of the speech sets out Lincoln’s standards for the post war years.  The earlier paragraph sets out God’s standards of justice as it applies to the South.  It is of such havoc as General Sherman wreaked on the south that Lincoln says, “…still it must be said that the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

Now…I confess that I have never heard anyone say this and I haven’t done a lick of research to see if any of the avalanche of Lincoln books touches this question. I don’t know if it is a startling new insight or something every Lincoln scholar has known for years.

And I don’t care.  I’m a dilettante.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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4 Responses to Vengeance is His

  1. Really fascinating, Most Political historians will always focus on that second excerpt of Lincoln’s inaugural instead of the first passage you quoted. I’m not really too sure of what President Lincoln meant, maybe he said those words to reaffirm many of his Republican friends that wished to punish the South once the war ended. I think most historians will focus on the “With malice toward none…” because it plays more into the belief that states Lincoln as a President who believed the south was as much a part of the union as the north, and would do anything, even war, to bring them back. Very interesting article, thanks!

    • hessd says:

      Thanks for helping me push this boulder up the hill, Michael. People seem to have such an interest in canonizing St. Abraham. I think he was a wonderful president, but I also know he was forced persistently to triangulate with his friends and enemies. He invited the South to return to the Union in many ways, but this passage was not one of them, if it means what I think it means. The judgment and will of God seems to be that the South is going to get what they earned by defending their “peculiar institution.”

      • I consistently list Lincoln as one of our greatest if not the greatest, yet it would be a disservice to students of history if we were to paint him as a saint. Lincoln was an avid reader in his day, and I think he would be shocked to read some of the things people have written about his legacy. An incredible president, but obviously not a perfect person. An incredible man to study up on though.

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