Sunday, August 13, 2023

Lincoln"s Second Inaugural and Moral Meaning


Lincoln’s Second Inaugural and Moral Meaning

Peter Schultz


            In reading The Destructive War, by Charles Royster, there occurs this passage that Royster cites in which Lincoln was commenting on his Second Inaugural Address, explaining why he didn’t think it would be immediately popular: “Men are not flattered by being shown that there is a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them. To deny it, however, in this case, is to deny that there is a God governing the world.”


            Royster then comments: “In this comment [Lincoln] implied, as he had done in the address, that the war, viewed solely as the work of human minds and deeds, had grown incomprehensible. Because the war thwarted the designs, confuted the explanations, and absorbed rather than obeyed the efforts of those who had made it, to say that it acted out men’s purposes alone was to say human activity had no ultimate moral meaning, that there is no God, no cosmic design to events. If, instead, the course of the war were God’s doing, He could reconcile its contradictions, explain its surprises, and validate its bloodshed in some cosmic logic or divinely weighed justice whose clarity and consistency were inaccessible to human minds. There was no other way to believe that what had happened made sense.” [292]  


            How to make sense of violence, the inhumanity, the obscenity of the Civil War? Some writers, soldiers and veterans, “did not want to keep to themselves an incommunicable knowledge of the war’s moral structure. They wanted to share widely held notions of what their combat has accomplished. One of their ways of doing so was to tell others what they had done.” [276]


            But other “narratives…sought to show how combat had defied or destroyed the conventional workings of perception and thought. These writings offered…what looked like abrogations of laws that people had always trusted in – the logical connection of cause and effect, the continuous existence of matter, the validity of consciousness.” [275]


            To cover over, to hide the latter possibilities, romanticizing the war helped. “Romanticizing the war…, exalting a great general…kept the story from becoming one wherein destructiveness ruled all and destruction was the war’s all-important object and result.” [276]


            Romanticizing political life requires “heroes” and “villains,” “good guys” and “bad guys,” where the bad guys lose, because then politics “makes sense.” Of course, much of political life involves deciding who are the good guys, who are the bad guys, and elections are held to sort these things out. But such romanticizing seems to lead political life to war as well, whose outcomes are thought to determine who are the good guys, who are morally virtuous, and who aren’t. One interesting feature of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural is that he does not characterize the North as morally to superior to the South. Nor does he predict the outcome of the war. He refers, however, to the Almighty’s “justice” as something to be meted out to both North and South. To think otherwise would be “to deny that there is a God governing the world.”   


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