WITH MALICE TOWARDS NONE, WITH CHARITY FOR ALL….
The fourth of March, 1865, stated out to be dull and rainy. But later in the day it cleared; and it turned out to be pleasant after all for the President Abraham Lincoln’s second inauguration.
The streets were filled with milling crowds of people, with cavalry patrols and police. The inauguration platform had been built on the east front of the Capitol; and here there was a vast sea of humanity, stretching as far as the eye could see, filling the great plaza and flooding out into the grounds beyond. As the President appeared and took his place on the platform, a tremendous roar swept the crowd, rolling back like thunder to outer edges, loud and prolonged.
Abraham Lincoln had not expected such an ovation. He has not, in fact, expected to be re-elected at all. No man in American history had been so hated and reviled, so bitterly denounced, as he had been these past four years. They had been difficult years- years of great struggle and suffering, of agony and bloodshed. He had taken over the leadership of the country at a time of grave crisis, and had given his best efforts to maintaining and preserving the Union – the only thing that really mattered.
But he had been misunderstood, condemned, humiliated in public and in private, assailed alike by friend and foe. One newspaper had called him “the obscene ape of Illinois.” Horace Greeley had written an editorial demanding his withdrawal in favour of another candidate, declaring : Mr. Lincoln is already beaten. He can never be elected.” His life had been threatened over and over again. Even today, though every precautions had been taken, he knew there were many who feared for his safety.
No, he had not expected to be re-elected… not even with the high tide of the confederacy broken and victory at last in sight. With Grant’s vise closing on Lee, and Sherman moving up from the south, it was clear the war was almost over. But he felt no elation, either at the recent victories in the war or his unexpected victory at the polls. He saw the hand of God in both these events and was humbly grateful for the chance now given him to complete his great task. He harbored no resentments, had no slightest wish for retaliation against those who had cruelly slandered and abused him. He had one interest only : to conciliate the rebellious states and to rebuild the Union he had sworn to preserve.
The great crowd fell silent as he stepped forward to make his address. The sun, which had been obscured all day, suddenly burst through the clouds and flooded the scene with brightness. He spoke slowly and clearly, his voice vibrant with emotion, aware of the great importance of this moment and the potential influence of his words on the nation.
“On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago, all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war …. All knew that slavery was, somehow the cause of the war. …Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it had already attained … Each looked for an easier triumph … Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other… .. it may seem strange that any man should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not, that we be not judged… The Almighty has His own purposes…… “
The huge crowd listened without a sound. This was not a party language. This was not a political phraseology. Abraham Lincoln was talking out of the fullness of his heart, to a people and nation he loved, appealing for peace and tolerance, for understanding, for an end to sectional bitterness and strife.
There was no hint of self-aggrandizement anywhere in his speech, no boasting about his re-election, no praise for the administration and what it had accomplished. The Union was his main theme, his main interest . . . a strong, united, unbroken nation, firm in its loyalties and ideals. He wanted no gloating, no malice- above all no malice! The issues involved were too vast to admit of malicious dealing. His aim was to end all feelings of hatred and resentment between North and South, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to prevent – in so far as possible – the unhappy aftermaths of war.
He closed with this passage, which has been called “the purest gold of human eloquence.”
“With malice towards 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.”
Lincoln’s second inaugural address received high contemporary praise. Many newspapers called it the most inspiring speech ever made by an American President. Others declared it raised high hopes for the future, and congratulated the President on finding words so eloquent, and so adequate to his desire.
But it was the closing paragraph of Lincoln’s speech that had the greatest impact, that stirred the nation and the world. In these few words were condensed the essence of his philosophy, his abiding faith in the nation and its people, his dream of an America in which all were free, and in which even the most humble could find peace and happiness. They were words of infinite sympathy and compassion. Though he spoke out of the depths of his own heart, he spoke for millions of others who felt as he did, voicing their hopes and prayers for a lasting peace “with liberty and justice for all.”
It was a paragraph for ever memorable- and forever inspiring. The language was simple but there was a majesty to it, almost a Biblical quality. It was like a “sacred poem” wrote Carl Shurz. “No President had ever spoken words like these to the American people.”
Above all else, this famous closing paragraph was an expression of Lincoln’s won inherent character : his great courage and integrity, his humility, his love for his fellow man. “with malice towards none, with charity for all …… “ Lincoln did not believe in harboring resentments or bearing grudges. He never willingly planted a thorn in any man’s bosom, never did anything through malice or spite.
“Lincoln’s noble sentiment of charity for all and malice towards none was a specific for the Civil War,” declared Elihu Root. “It is a living principle of action.”
Few words have been so widely quoted; few words have had such tremendous and enduring influence on people all over the world. The late Earl Curzon, Chancellor of Oxford University, called it “One of the truly great treasures of mankind.” It has guided countless men and women in ways of greater tolerance and understanding.
“With malice towards none, with charity for all ……”
Generations of Americans still unborn will thrill to these words of love and compassion spoken by Abraham Lincoln at one of the most crucial hours in the nation’s history.