Standing against the backdrop of that awful war, Lincoln outlined some of the forces that fueled the war, especially the topic of slavery:
One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease.But one of the most profound things about Lincoln's address is what it does not explain. He ponders the mystery of all that bloodshed and the unfathomableness of the spectacle of human suffering. He wonders at the understanding of a divine purpose in the terrible war:
If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. 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 Civil War came, Lincoln says, and he and his fellow countrymen had to suffer through the consequences of that coming.
Lincoln closed the Second Inaugural with a call to continue in the enterprise of the Republic:
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.The task of defending the Republic is in part the work of striving on: to not succumb to pride or despair, to continue to try, to grow, to care, and to believe.
In the aftermath of the Civil War's bloody flood, Lincoln urged his listeners to set about the business of rebuilding the Union. It is our obligation to continue that enterprise of civil renewal in the name of freedom, justice, virtue, and happiness.