|LINCOLN'S GREATEST SPEECH|
April 22, 2002
RAY SUAREZ: The book is "Lincoln's Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural." The author is Ronald White, Dean and Professor of American Religious History at San Francisco Theological Seminary.
Just to refresh your memory, the setting is the U.S. Capital, March 4, 1865. After four bloody years, the Civil War is coming to an end. Abraham Lincoln, the war President, is looking forward to being a President of peace and to reintegrate the country. Why don't we begin by hearing a little bit of what you call Lincoln's Greatest Speech?
RONALD WHITE: Let's read the last paragraph. "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 to cherish a just and a lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."
RAY SUAREZ: Now, when you're standing at the foot of Daniel Chester French's monumental sculpture of Lincoln and the Lincoln Memorial, if you look to your left there is what might be considered Lincoln's best known speech, the Gettysburg Address, and on the right, in the walls of the monument are what you just read. Why do you consider it his greatest speech?
RONALD WHITE: Well, Lincoln thought it was his greatest speech. Lee received a congratulatory letter, and 11 days after his speech he replied, "I believe it's my best effort." But then he added these words, "but it's not immediately popular." I think it's his best effort because I think it sums up for him what was the meaning of the Civil War. He brings surprisingly for many to the speech some theological as well as political thinking, and casts it in religious language that makes it quite singular and unique. And then the words that we just read I think call out the best of us to move beyond division and bloodshed to compassion and reconciliation. This is Lincoln at his best.
RAY SUAREZ: You use the text of the speech almost to give us an intellectual biography of Abraham Lincoln, sort of taking it paragraph by paragraph, and walking us through the text. Did you get any surprises out of the activity of pulling it apart yourself?
RONALD WHITE: Well, I did. I... C.S. Lewis once said, "That which separates ourselves from previous generations is rhetoric." And Lincoln... we don't use the word rhetoric, but Lincoln was an artist with words. And I found myself amazed at his ability to construct, to put together words, words of many levels of meaning.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, that's the funny thing about an inaugural. I mean, you're standing there in usually crummy weather, or often crummy weather, and in this case it was a very bad day.
RONALD WHITE: Yes.
RAY SUAREZ: And this was before satellites and microphones and loud speakers. Most people would have read this speech rather than heard it, wouldn't you?
RONALD WHITE: They would have read it, but I argue that Lincoln wrote for the ear whereas most people today write for the eye. He always read out loud to the consternation of his law partner, Willie Herndon. And I suggest that he understood the meaning and the sound of words, and therefore the various devices that he uses-- for example, alliteration, where you repeat the sound of a consonant over and over again-- brings real symmetry to his speech.
RAY SUAREZ: Do you have an example of that?
RONALD WHITE: I do. In the second paragraph he says, "While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted all together to saving the union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it, seeking to dissolve the union, to divide effects by negotiation, both parties deprecated war. Eight times he uses the consonant "D." And then towards the end he says, "Fervently do we pray, fondly do we hope"-- again, the use of alliteration. He was fond of that. He did it in the first inaugural, also.
RAY SUAREZ: So poetry, lovely, evocative language, but something of a tipping of his hand to show his mind at the end the war looking forward to reconstruction.
RONALD WHITE: Yes, I struggled to find what are the antecedents of this speech. Most of his other speeches you can find them in previous public speeches. But I suggest that the antecedents here are in letters to individuals, interviews, and then in an unknown meditation he wrote for himself-- it was only found after his death-- where he really does reveal himself, more of his emotion and his spirit than he usually did in his speeches.
RAY SUAREZ: Did he understand or did he write this thinking that this was an important summing up, a pivotal moment in the life of the country and his life as President, so that he needed to sort of distill a lot of these ideas into one declaration?
RONALD WHITE: I believe he did, but we would make a mistake, and it's understandable, if we see this only as at the end of his life. In 41 days he was dead. I believe this was the platform for the next four years. And gamblers in the street were betting he would be elected for yet another four years. So this was his hope and vision for the future, although that future was never fulfilled by himself.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, you do spend some time in the book speculating on what a second Lincoln Administration would have meant to, for instance, the work of reconstruction, the work of national reconciliation. How do you think it would have been different?
RONALD WHITE: Well, Lincoln had a wonderful capacity to understand the best intentions of those with whom we disagree. In this case, it was the South. So this speech is already tipping his hands to giving them their best due. And I believe if there's one word that would describe Lincoln, it would be magnanimous. He wanted to reach out to those who had been, so to speak, our enemies. Now, not taking anything away from how difficult this might have been, but yet I think he had a sense of how the nation could come together in reconciliation.
RAY SUAREZ: A lot has been written speculatively about Lincoln's religious life. A lot of attention paid to the fact that he wasn't regularly churched, not brought up within the walls of a particular denomination. But you place him squarely in a denomination, under the influence of specific preachers and teachers of the time. This is a real departure from what previous people have written about Lincoln's religious life.
RONALD WHITE: It is. And I did not start there, but as I sought again to ask the question, "what are the antecedents, what are the sources for this speech?" I came especially to discover that the minister here at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, Phineas Densmore Gurley, was a forgotten resource. And I was able to place Lincoln at several of Gurley's sermons where we have the complete text of the sermon, and ask, what was he preaching? And I'm suggesting that Lincoln's gravitation to the meaning of providence, we can see much of this in the preaching that Lincoln heard.
RAY SUAREZ: And really it's less of a mystery what his mind was religiously...
RONALD WHITE: It's less of a mysterious. I have... when I teach at UCLA, my students would say I'm spiritual but not religious. Well, perhaps Lincoln was theological but not religious. For whatever reasons, he did not identify himself as a member of a denomination, but he did attend two Presbyterian churches where he heard a rather consistent, thoughtful approach to the theme of providence.
RAY SUAREZ: Now here's this speech that you've written this wonderful illumination on, hung a great deal of importance, a great deal of store by and to deliver it took how long?
RONALD WHITE: It took six to seven minutes. Lincoln spoke very slowly, 105 to 110 words per minute.
RAY SUAREZ: Yet he gets a lot of work done.
RONALD WHITE: Some people have said to me, well, I guess we have a new plug for shorter speeches.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, inaugurals are more like an hour.
RONALD WHITE: Traditionally long. Lincoln's first inaugural was 35 minutes.
RAY SUAREZ: What would you want people to keep in mind when they revisit this? Because probably people will start figuring out at home if they've got a copy. What do you want them to pay attention to?
RONALD WHITE: Well, first I suggest they read it or say it out loud, to listen to the words -- then to see the speech whole. You asked me and I was glad to comply to read the last paragraph. That's usually the only words that are printed in the American history textbook. But Lincoln saw this speech whole. And I suggest the last paragraph has an unvoiced sort of "therefore"-- "this is what we therefore are to do." But if we don't understand the indicative, the first three paragraphs, we will not be able to appreciate the imperative, what we are to do. And then just linger over the beauty of these words. Let those words kind of percolate in our spirits.
RAY SUAREZ: "Lincoln's Greatest Speech." Ronald White, thanks a lot.
RONALD WHITE: Thank you.
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