"With malice toward none, with charity for all" is perhaps the best remembered phrase uttered by any American President . It is also the most misunderstood. President Lincoln’s immortal phrase has been wrongly used to argue that forgiveness is always the proper response to heal political and social wounds, from racism to the present day divisions that led to the violent occupation of our nation's capital. Yet, President Lincoln never intended sins such as slavery be simply forgiven. Instead, he called for the application of fair and proportional justice.
President Lincoln's second inaugural address, which contained the phrase, is nothing less than a masterpiece. In the shortest inaugural address ever given, President Lincoln eloquently set forth the broad outline for an enduring peace that was to follow a Civil War that had cost hundreds of thousands of lives and drained the nation's economy.
However, the speech was not given in a vacuum. To understand its meaning and impact, its words must be contextualized.
President Lincoln Evolves Into An Abolitionist
By the time of the speech, President Lincoln's views on slavery and the necessity to immediately and permanently end it had significantly evolved. President Lincoln had been opposed to slavery for a significant period of time before his presidency. That said, however, he was not an abolitionist as he did not believe that there was a Constitutional way to end that peculiar institution. In a letter from 1864, he wrote that "I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel. And yet I have never understood that the Presidency conferred upon me an unrestricted right to act officially upon this judgment and feeling."
In the 1860 presidential election, President Lincoln adopted the Republican Party platform which did not call for the immediate end of slavery, but for its restriction to the states in which it was legal at the time. President Lincoln believed that eventually this would led to the demise of slavery. In his first inaugural address, President Lincoln was clear and unequivocal that it was not his intent to immediately abolish slavery, but rather to limit it. He stated:
Apprehension seems to exist among the people of the Southern States that by the accession of a Republican Administration their property and their peace and personal security are to be endangered. There has never been any reasonable cause for such apprehension. Indeed, the most ample evidence to the contrary has all the while existed and been open to their inspection. It is found in nearly all the published speeches of him who now addresses you. I do but quote from one of those speeches when I declare that--I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.
That changed with the start of the Civil War. The practicalities required to win the war, the resultant service of 200,000 Black soldiers and the carnage that the War brought led President Lincoln to become an abolitionist. In September of 1862, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation; which guaranteed that any slaves currently being held in a state that was in rebellion would be freed once the territory came under control of Union troops.
President Lincoln's evolution can be seen in the differences between the 1860 and 1864 Republican Party platform. Unlike 1860, the1864 Republican Party platform called for the “utter and complete destruction” of slavery. After his reelection, President Lincoln threw his considerable political weight behind a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery. In April 1864, the Senate had passed the amendment, but it floundered in the House. When Congress reconvened after President Lincoln's reelection, he instructed his representatives to use all his resources to ensure that the House would pass the amendment. He reportedly told his supporters that “I leave it to you to determine how it shall be done; but remember that I am President of the United States, clothed with immense power, and I expect you to procure those votes.” A little more than a month before the Inauguration, the 13th Amendment, which permanently abolished slavery, was passed by Congress and submitted to the States for approval.
Critical events had also transpired on the military front. When President Lincoln gave his second inaugural address, it had been almost 4 years since the first shot was fired on Fort Sumter. The war was not over, but the Union was on the verge of a total victory. Nearly two years earlier Union armies had split the South in two with the capture of Vicksburg and had repelled Lee's advance into the North at Gettysburg. In September of 1864 Sherman had captured and burned Atlanta, and succeeded in his promise to "make Georgia howl." General Custer had all but evicted the South from the Shenandoah Valley. General Grant was about to begin the campaign that would lead to Lee's surrender at the Appomattox Court House a little more than a month after the speech.
President Lincoln's new dedication to ending of slavery can be seen in his Gettysburg Address. The speech, given in November 1863, did not directly mention slavery. But it did make clear that President Lincoln was not looking to reconstruct the same nation that existed before the war. He called for those present to dedicate themselves to a "new birth of freedom[,]" and he made clear that absent such a dedication the 100,000 Union Soldiers that had died at Gettysburg would have died in vain.
It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
With his evolution of thought on slavery, came a recognization of the barbarity practiced by some members of the Confederacy and the need to seek proportional retribution. The best example is President Lincoln's response to the massacre of 300 Black Union soldiers at Fort Pillow in Tennessee.
Fort Pillow had been captured by the Confederate Troops commanded by General Nathan Bedford Forrest, in April of 1864. The Fort was defended by several hundred Union troops, approximately 300 of whom were Black. After the battle ended with a Union defeat, Confederate soldiers summarily executed the surrendering Black soldiers.
When word of the massacre reached Washington D.C., President Lincoln's reaction was clear, unambiguous and not one of forgiveness. In an address, several days after the massacre the issue head on. He first acknowledged that exactly what had occurred at Fort Pillow was not yet known. But he was firm as to what should be expected if the actuality of the massacre was established.
We are having the Fort-Pillow affair thoroughly investigated; and such investigation will probably show conclusively how the truth is. . . If there has been the massacre of three hundred there, or even the tenth part of three hundred, it will be conclusively proved; and being so proved, the retribution shall as surely come. It will be a matter of grave consideration in what exact course to apply the retribution; but in the supposed case, it must come.
President Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address
With a complete Union military in sight, and the nation moving to end slavery, President Lincoln took to the podium to give his second inaugural address. President Lincoln put the blame for the war squarely on the shoulders of the South. He proclaimed that both the North and South "deprecated war but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came."
In the next paragraph, which contained the heart of the address, President Lincoln leaned heavily on his biblical views. He began by stating that the South's need to perpetuate and expand slavery was the cause of the war. He acknowledged that both sides prayed to the same God, but "[i]t may seem strange that any men 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."
President Lincoln then went on to the most important part of the speech. He proclaimed that God "gives to both North and South this terrible war" as the mechanism by which slavery will be abolished. He declared that it was the hope of all that the war would end quickly with the end of slavery. However, if it did not, then that was also God's will.
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."
The President decreed that the war had to continue until slavery's end was guaranteed, regardless of the devastation that it wrought. That was the restitution that God demanded for the original sin of slavery. All the wealth that was accumulated through slavery and the pain inflicted to obtain that wealth had to be repaid. Repaid dollar for dollar and lash for lash. It was only then that President Lincoln turned to the words for which the address is remembered. President Lincoln ended the address:
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.
President Lincoln's use of the phrase "[w]ith malice toward none, with charity for all' did not refer to the South but to "the right as God gives us to see" and the need to "strive on to finish the work we are in[.]" He was turning back to the words that he had spoken at the Gettysburg battlefield and "a new birth of freedom[.]" The right that the North was striving to achieve was the end of slavery. President Lincoln was not looking simply for peace with the South; rather he sought a just peace. And justice meant the permeant abolition of slavery.
That President Lincoln was not looking to unconditionally forgive the South and let them reenter the Union can be seen by the reaction to the address. Frederick Douglass, who has a frequent critic of President Lincoln's policies on slavery, described the address as "a sacred effort."
President Lincoln was willing do whatever was necessary to end slavery. Regardless of the blood that was spilled or the devastation wrought. That was the price that he viewed was required by God to cleanse the Nation in general, and the Confederacy in particular, of the sin of slavery. As part of the payment, President Lincoln demanded that those who had committed atrocities in the name of preserving slavery would be subject to retribution.
What the Address Should Teaches Us
The words spoken almost 156 years ago still have resonance today, but not for the reason that most people think. Our Nation faces a crisis that is not an exact parallel to that faced by President Lincoln, but it is close enough such that we ignore his words at our own peril. President Lincoln was always cognizant of the reality that the Union and the Confederacy were part of a single nation. While that thought was paramount when the war began, by the time he gave the 1865 address he understood that it was more important what that nation stood for.
The allowance of slavery was not a worthy price for unity. A nation that allowed slavery to exist was subject to the wrath of the Almighty. He refused to make peace with slave owners as long as they owned slaves or to allow those who committed atrocities to walk away without retribution.
He ended the address with a recognition that the Union should have the resilience and the “firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right” to carry on to complete the task of eradicating slavery. While the task needed to be completed without malice, it nonetheless needed to be completed.
That is the lesson that we should carry forward. It is not to treat those who espouse racism and white supremacy or participate in the violent occupation of our Capital buildings with charity regardless of their actions. Nor are we obligated to welcome them with a smile in the hope that they will change their ways.
To the contrary, one does not make peace with the living vestiges of slavery. They are to be confronted with all the tools in our legal arsenal until they are forever abolished.