One of the greatest speeches ever concludes with the phrase, “With Malice Toward None, With Charity For All.” These words were spoken by Abraham Lincoln in his Second Inaugural Address. People who heard it that day said the President’s address sounded more like a sermon than a political speech. It drew heavily from scripture. It was exactly what our divided Nation needed to hear at the time. It still speaks to our deeply polarized Nation today. President Lincoln, whether he was aware of it or not, was acting as divided America’s “Pastor-in-Chief.” Lincoln’s goal was to console and heal a wounded nation suffering from a deep, self-inflicted wound. Lincoln concluded his Inaugural Address with these soaring, gracious words that transcended everyone’s expectations: “With malice toward none, with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds,...to do all which may achieve a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.” The power of his address comes from its immediate historical context.
America had been at war with itself for 4 years. Our uncivil, Civil War had cost 625,000 American lives. Nearly every town and every family on both sides lost loved ones. The losses in terms of death and destruction to our nation were devastating. The number of those killed in all of our subsequent wars is equal to the number killed in our Civil War.
At Lincoln’s 2nd Inauguration the end of the war was in sight. But Americans on the winning side were very bitter and angry. Any joy at the near prospect of victory was drowned out by a raging desire for revenge. The strong sentiment in the North was that the Secessionist Rebels must pay dearly. The hot spirit of retribution was widespread. There was talk of treason trials and imprisonments.
The newspapers which had been very critical of Lincoln’s leadership in the early stages of the the war now praised his strong, steady leadership as it drew to a close. This would be the greatest moment of his presidency. They fully expected the President to boast about this great national triumph, and about his personal success as commander-in-chief of the victorious Union forces.
But the president sounded no note of triumphalism. Not a word of self congratulation. No swagger or boasting. No personal attacks directed at his critics in the media. No dancing on the graves of the defeated dead. No demeaning or disparaging remarks about his defeated foes. He did not characterize his opponents as evil. He did not call for revenge. He did not claim that God was on his side. Instead he called on his fellow victors to walk humbly. “Let us judge not that we be not judged.”
The president did not pretend to know God’s will, but he did speculate that on the slavery question there was plenty of blame on both sides. Perhaps Providence prolonged this conflict “until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.” He concluded his address by inviting his fellow Americans to turn away from the anger of war and proceed in the post war period, “with malice toward none, with charity for all.”
Lincoln was assassinated six weeks later—shot on Good Friday, April 14, 1865. He died the next day—and many remembered these powerful words, “With malice toward none, with charity for all.” Lincoln’s hope for one nation, undivided by race or region was not realized, but this appeal to forgiveness and reconciliation became an inspiration and beacon for generations of Americans ever since who have sought to transcend partisan politics.
“With malice toward none; with charity for all” sums up Lincoln’s legacy to the American people. These words defined Lincoln’s vision for a post–Civil War America. Sadly, his words were not heeded by that generation. A great opportunity was missed. But Lincoln’s words have outlived the shortcomings of Reconstruction. His words have have endured because they embody America’s, and humanity’s highest ideals. We need to heed them now just as much as when they were first spoken.
Lincoln’s generation fought to preserve the Union. Lincoln knew that only forgiveness and love could redeem it.
“With Malice Toward None, With Charity Toward All” is the heart of the Gospel. These words capture the spirit of Jesus Christ and define the rule by which he lived. They are the golden rule that can make our nation great in the eyes of God. They are the words, if we heed them, that will make us a glittering city on a hill to all people everywhere. Amen
Pastor Norm Erlendson