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The Five Best Inaugural Addresses of the 19th Century

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Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address Was the Best of the 19th Century
Abraham Lincoln in 1865

Abraham Lincoln in early 1865, showing the strain of the presidency

Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress

Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address has been called his greatest speech. That is extremely high praise when you consider other contenders, such as the speech at Cooper Union or the Gettysburg Address.

As Abraham Lincoln prepared for his second inauguration, it was obvious that the end of the Civil War was near. The Confederacy had not yet surrendered, but it was so badly damaged that its capitulation was all but inevitable.

The American public, weary and battered from four years of war, was in a reflective and celebratory mood. Many thousands of citizens streamed into Washington to witness the inauguration, which was held on a Saturday.

The weather in Washington was rainy and foggy in the days preceding the event, and even the morning of March 4, 1865 was wet. But just as Abraham Lincoln rose to speak, adjusting his spectacles, the weather cleared and rays of sunshine broke through. The crowd gasped. An “occasional correspondent” for the New York Times, the journalist and poet Walt Whitman, noted the "flooding splendor from heaven's most excellent sun" in his dispatch.

The speech itself is brief and brilliant. Lincoln refers to “this terrible war,” and expresses a heartfelt desire for reconciliation, which, sadly, he would not live to see.

The final paragraph, a single sentence, is truly a masterpiece of American literature:

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.

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