Abraham Lincoln served as the 35th president of the United States. The President's Second Inaugural Address was delivered near the end of the American Civil War in which the Union forces were triumphant over the Southern Confederate forces. A month after he gave the speech, Abraham Lincoln became the first American President to be assassinated while in office. The speech was based on the anxiety about the effects of the war. He offered reconciliation to the South, rather than a wholesome condemnation, as he shares the blame for the institution of slavery between both the North and the South. In the speech he also speculated that the war may have been a result of divine judgment of Americans for evils, including the institution of slavery. An analysis of the speech reveals that Lincoln used literary devices such as allusion, juxtaposition, and diction to advance his arguments against slavery, war, and divine judgment.
There was probably no worse time for any president to address the nation than when the country was greatly divided. With the second inaugural address, Lincoln, rather than delving into the oratory and politics, delivered a short and precise statement which had only about 700 words. The brevity enforced the somber mood of the speech. The speech was also impactive as it did not involve a long and flowery language but focused on the main points, while invoking God in several instances. Its all-time appeal is a result of its historical significance. The circumstances of its delivery and Lincoln's doom mean that the speech attained more importance in the American history.
The president’s eloquence lives till the present days, and this Second Inauguration Speech is no different. The speech is full of literary techniques that make it not just worth listening to but also resonating with that generation of Americans and still continue to be relevant in the present world. Juxtaposition is one of the styles most prevalent in speeches (Bertens 29). Lincoln uses juxtaposition several times in the address. He introduces his speech by juxtaposing his first inauguration ceremony with the second one, which he notes needed a more extended approach than the first. One can trace the reason for this juxtaposition to the fact that at the time of the first inaugural address, there was an impending civil war. However, at the second inaugural address, the war was practically over. He also juxtaposes the Confederate with the Union. By this, he is determined to explore the foundational difference between the two parties and the reason the country went into war. He notes that while both parts could have avoided the war, “but one of them would rather make war rather than let the nation survive” while “the other would rather take the war rather than let it perish" (James and Merickel 626). While Lincoln avoids directly blaming any part of America for the war, with this clause he explicitly puts the blame for starting the war on the South.
Furthermore, Lincoln’s speech employs Biblical allusion. Biblical allusion is common in speeches where the population is deemed to understand the Bible or the majority are Christians (Bertens 57). This is apparent in several places, either affirming divine punishment or asking for divine intervention, while in the contemporary world this might be out of place because the nation has grown in religious diversity, back in times the nation was more religiously uniform. Lincoln notes the uniformity of religion across the U.S. by noting that both sides "Read the same Bible," and moreover "pray to the same God" and that both ask for his (James and Merickel 626). He notes that he is astounded that men can seek the assistance of God who is just in "wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces." This is an allusion from the Fall of Man in Genesis where God tells Man that he would have to work for his upkeep after man loses his place at the Garden of Eden. Linkoln beseeches his listeners "not to judge, so that we may not (God) many not judge us" (James and Merickel 626). On divine punishment, he says that "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must need to be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh" (James and Merickel 626). This way he explains that the war might have been divine punishment for the sins of both the North and the South. He notes that "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether"(James and Merickel 626). Lincoln used religious allusion to build up his credibility’s as a speaker and to show that the North fought a just war. The Biblical illusion also serves to add context to the speech.
Another striking feature of the speech is the use of passive voice. In the speech in which one seeks to avoid gloating or laying the blame as much as possible, this was a useful technique (Bertens 61). Lincoln states that at the previous inauguration, “the course to be perused seemed fitting and proper” (James and Merickel 626). Thus, he avoids self-gratification. Passive voice is used as well in statement “public declarations have been called forth to every course and point of the great contest” (James and Merickel 626). With this paragraph, he fails to place the blame for the war on either the North or the South.
Although not very prevalent, Lincoln uses understatement as a stylistic device in the speech. This style is used in cases when the author or speaker wants to downplay enormity of an issue (Bertens 65). He says that “All knew that this interest (slavery) was somehow the cause of the war.” Furthermore, “if we shall suppose that American slavery…”, this sentences understate the role slavery played in the war, though it was the primary cause of the war. Lastly, Lincoln uses personification in the speech. He gives the nation a human quality by saying that American sought to “tend the nation’s wounds.” He aims at making the nation less of an abstract entity, and more of a present and living reality for Americans worth the blood and sweat that the Union forces had poured towards the Civil War.
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Additionally, Lincoln uses appeal to emotion to great effect in the speech. The listing of the ravages of the war, the evils of slavery and divine judgment serve to arouse his audience emotionally to see his point of view. The use words that have emotion is an aspect of oral speeches that acts as a rallying call to the public. In this instance, the allusion to God, the examination of a war that is as a result of God judging American from both sides of the slavery debate and the call for patriotism all serve as a way not only enhance the speech but would have received a rousing approval in the audience of the day.
The speech has a somber mood. This is due to the President’s choice of words (diction). Most of the content words in his speech are decidedly subdued, sounding even fatalistic at some point. In spite of the fact that the Union forces were about to win the war, he notes, in a rather subdued tone, that the Union has high hopes for the future, but can venture to no production in this regard. He says that “woe unto the world” and continues to say “this terrible war” which he then qualifies to a “scourge of war.” In the second last paragraph, the somber mood turns almost vengeful with Lincoln asserting that he prays for an expeditious end to the war. However, Lincoln also notes that he would be prepared for the war to continue until the wealth from “250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk” and that “every drop of blood…shall be paid with another” (James and Merickel 626). This serves as a warning to the South, as the Union was ready to fight the war Lincoln considers as a just one to the bitter end. The Biblical references in this point give his speech an air of finality. By invoking God’s will, the speaker hopes to convince the audience that in spite of the decidedly somber mood due to the Civil War, the Union is on the just side, and the Union will win the war, with the help of almighty God.
The President used the techniques listed above to convey certain arguments. The first argument is that the war was a result of mistakes both the South and the North made. Thus, rather than spending triumphant, he seeks to co-opt the South into his plans as part of one union with the North. He seems to suggest that while the South instigated the war through the slavery and secessionist tendencies, the North should have found the means to solve the conflict without war. Another enduring argument in the speech is that the war is divine judgment for Americans. This appears to be a recurring theme in the speech. He alludes to the Bible "Woe unto the world because of offenses"(James and Merickel 626). He supposes that slavery is one of the vices which God punishes Americans for through the war that led to the death of thousands. He notes that if God wills the war to continue, so that is because slave masters to be punished for all the unrequited labor that slaves had been forced to provide for two hundred and fifty years, or for the blood that slave drivers had drawn from the backs of slaves using a lash. In this case, "judgments of the Lord are true and righteous” (James and Merickel 626).
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Briefly, the argument also rallies against slavery as evil. Lincoln, although he notes that he is unwilling to judge, deems it strange that one may ask for God help in enslaving others. This marks his view that slavery as an institution is evil. He further notes that slavery has led to the war, and without it, there is a possibility the war would not have happened (Lincoln 35). He also notes some of the most prevalent and malevolent practices of slave owners. This is a rallying call towards the end of slavery.
Lincoln presents the arguments in his speech in an effective way. The speech is not only captivating but the arguments are apparent. The arguments are also joined to form a convincing speech. Lincoln also uses emotion as significant effect in the speech. For instance, the use of religious allusion and imagery must have struck most of the people in the country as a significant majority were religious. The use of literary techniques including juxtaposition made his arguments and his position much easier to decipher for the audience since he presents alternative views on an issue.
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In conclusion, Abraham Lincoln’s speech used allusion, juxtaposition and diction as the literary techniques to advance his arguments. The juxtaposition is apparent in various parts of the speech in which he places the South against the North. The Biblical allusion is rife throughout the speech to express the ideas of divine judgment, condemn slavery and justify the war. Diction is apparent as Lincoln chose the words that build a somber mood due to the historical circumstances in which President Lincoln gave the speech. These techniques made the speech compelling both to the audience, it was originally given to, and the present generation.