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Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural: Moral Courage in Public Life

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Terry Newell
March 7, 2017

On March 4, 1865, shortly after noon, Abraham Lincoln rose on the East Front of the Capitol to deliver his Second Inaugural Address. As the four year long Civil War, a conflict that would claim over 600,000 lives, finally appeared near an end, his audience wanted—and expected—a  celebration of the North’s success, an “on to victory” battlecry and perhaps details of what would come to be called “Reconstruction.” Lincoln would disappoint them.

In the 703-word address, Lincoln would conclude with the plea “with malice toward none; with charity for all.” It was a bold call for mercy and healing — “to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan…”

terryIf this surprised his audience, how he justified this plea for reconciliation no doubt shocked them more. The war, Lincoln said, was God’s punishment on both North and South for the sin of “America [not just Southern] slavery.” The bloodshed might not end, Lincoln warned, “until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.” In short, Lincoln said all Americans shared responsibility for the peace because all had been responsible for the war.

Lincoln harbored no illusions about the reception he would get. The audience received the address in what reporter Noah Brooks called “profound silence.” The South castigated him, and many northerners felt his kindness was unwarranted or would prolong the war. Writing to friend Thurlow Weed on March 15, Lincoln admitted his inaugural was “not immediately popular.”

Lincoln’s Moral Courage

The key to Lincoln’s inaugural emerged in the same letter to Weed, when Lincoln added, referring to his invoking God’s judgment, that “[I]t is a truth which I thought needed to be told.” For a president to tell followers—including the radical republicans in Congress who were central to his war coalition—what they do not want to hear was an act of moral courage.

Moral courage, as defined by Rush Kidder in his book of the same title, consists of the intersection of three things.

First, there must be a moral principle — for Lincoln the importance of mercy over revenge.

Second, one must realize there is danger in adhering to that principle. The danger can be to reputation, legitimacy, access to power and resources, one’s job or life. Lincoln risked all these.

Third, one must exhibit endurance—perseverance in service to principle and despite danger. Lincoln not only gave his inaugural but acted consistently with it as he set terms for the surrender of rebel forces, their repatriation and the reintegration of Southern states into the Union.

All three are required: principle and danger without endurance is timidity. Principle and endurance without awareness of the danger is foolhardiness. Danger and endurance with no moral principle at stake may be physical courage (a bank robber), but it is not moral courage.

What Can Public Servants Learn from Lincoln?

Here are five ways Lincoln’s story has meaning for those in public life:

  1. Lincoln told the truth, especially when it was hard. Public servants will find many cases where “going along to get along,” submerging dissent or lying will be attractive choices. Avoiding such behavior meets the demand of moral courage.
  2. Lincoln learned. When the war began, his only goal was to preserve the union. As the war dragged on, he kept asking himself: why? He concluded slavery was the true cause of the war and its end what morality—and God—demanded. One month before issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, he had told Congress: “The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise— with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.”
  3. Lincoln became a teacher. He shared what he learned — what the war meant and what peace required. He sought to help his followers learn. He served as an exemplar—so can all public servants who model moral courage for others.
  4. Lincoln exhibited political savvy. He waited for the right moment (the war’s outcome being decided and his power at its height) and only pushed for abolition when black soldiers had swelled the Union army by 200,000. His moral call had political power behind it.
  5. Lincoln was faithful to his Constitutional oath. His moral principles and his principled action aimed at, and were consistent with, the “more Perfect union” in the Constitution’s preamble.

Public service, viewed as a calling not just a job, demands that moral courage accompany technical proficiency. That was what Lincoln modeled.

Author: Terry Newell is President of his training firm, Leadership for a Responsibility Society and is the former Dean of Faculty of the Federal Executive Institute. This is the first of four quarterly columns exploring moral courage in public service. He can be reached at [email protected]

By Terry Newell
March 7, 2017

On March 4, 1865, shortly after noon, Abraham Lincoln rose on the East Front of the Capitol to deliver his Second Inaugural Address. As the four year long Civil War, a conflict that would claim over 600,000 lives, finally appeared near an end, his audience wanted—and expected—a  celebration of the North’s success, an “on to victory” battlecry and perhaps details of what would come to be called “Reconstruction.” Lincoln would disappoint them.

In the 703-word address, Lincoln would conclude with the plea “with malice toward none; with charity for all.” It was a bold call for mercy and healing — “to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan…”

If this surprised his audience, how he justified this plea for reconciliation no doubt shocked them more. The war, Lincoln said, was God’s punishment on both North and South for the sin of “America [not just Southern] slavery.” The bloodshed might not end, Lincoln warned, “until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.” In short, Lincoln said all Americans shared responsibility for the peace because all had been responsible for the war.

Lincoln harbored no illusions about the reception he would get. The audience received the address in what reporter Noah Brooks called “profound silence.” The South castigated him, and many northerners felt his kindness was unwarranted or would prolong the war. Writing to friend Thurlow Weed on March 15, Lincoln admitted his inaugural was “not immediately popular.”

Lincoln’s Moral Courage

The key to Lincoln’s inaugural emerged in the same letter to Weed, when Lincoln added, referring to his invoking God’s judgment, that “[I]t is a truth which I thought needed to be told.” For a president to tell followers—including the radical republicans in Congress who were central to his war coalition—what they do not want to hear was an act of moral courage.

Moral courage, as defined by Rush Kidder in his book of the same title, consists of the intersection of three things.

First, there must be a moral principle — for Lincoln the importance of mercy over revenge.

Second, one must realize there is danger in adhering to that principle. The danger can be to reputation, legitimacy, access to power and resources, one’s job or life. Lincoln risked all these.

Third, one must exhibit endurance—perseverance in service to principle and despite danger. Lincoln not only gave his inaugural but acted consistently with it as he set terms for the surrender of rebel forces, their repatriation and the reintegration of Southern states into the Union.

All three are required: principle and danger without endurance is timidity. Principle and endurance without awareness of the danger is foolhardiness. Danger and endurance with no moral principle at stake may be physical courage (a bank robber), but it is not moral courage.

What Can Public Servants Learn from Lincoln?

Here are five ways Lincoln’s story has meaning for those in public life:

1.      Lincoln told the truth, especially when it was hard. Public servants will find many cases where “going along to get along,” submerging dissent or lying will be attractive choices. Avoiding such behavior meets the demand of moral courage.

2.      Lincoln learned. When the war began, his only goal was to preserve the union. As the war dragged on, he kept asking himself: why? He concluded slavery was the true cause of the war and its end what morality—and God—demanded. One month before issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, he had told Congress: “The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must ris e— with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.”

3.      Lincoln became a teacher. He shared what he learned — what the war meant and what peace required. He sought to help his followers learn. He served as an exemplar—so can all public servants who model moral courage for others.

4.      Lincoln exhibited political savvy. He waited for the right moment (the war’s outcome being decided and his power at its height) and only pushed for abolition when black soldiers had swelled the Union army by 200,000. His moral call had political power behind it.

5.      Lincoln was faithful to his Constitutional oath. His moral principles and his principled action aimed at, and were consistent with, the “more Perfect union” in the Constitution’s preamble.

Public service, viewed as a calling not just a job, demands that moral courage accompany technical proficiency. That was what Lincoln modeled.


Author: Terry Newell is President of his training firm, Leadership for a Responsibility Society and is the former Dean of Faculty of the Federal Executive Institute. This is the first of four quarterly columns exploring moral courage in public service. He can be reached at [email protected]

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One Response to Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural: Moral Courage in Public Life

  1. James Butt Reply

    March 7, 2017 at 10:06 pm

    Nice job.

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