The Timely Lesson from Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address: Binding Up Wounds

In honor of Abraham Lincoln and his second inauguration on March 4, 1865, Brooks Brothers, the venerable New York clothier, created a magnificent greatcoat for the 16th president. The masterfully crafted garment of “wool finer than cashmere” bore the design of an eagle boasting Daniel Webster’s declaration, “One Country, One Destiny.” For the nation’s towering leader, who would pledge to “bind up the nation’s wounds,” it was an inspiring piece of sartorial elegance.

By the late winter of 1865, the nation “had passed through one of the hottest furnaces of trial known to national life.” The bloody Civil War had claimed more than a half-million lives, destroyed thousands of miles of landscape, and wounded the nation’s soul. Yet, its people were hopeful. The long and tearful nights of civil strife were passing, and the “full sunrise of peace,” expressed a local daily, was imminent. Indeed, President Lincoln’s second inauguration was the “holiday of gladness” that the badly wounded nation had longed to embrace.

For those who had longed to be free, the president’s inauguration was particularly meaningful. The nation’s twentieth inaugural ceremony was the first time that African Americans were invited to participate in the celebration. Decades after the Declaration of Independence had proclaimed “that all men are created equal,” they gathered by the thousands to witness the inauguration of their liberator, friend, and leader. “You are free — free as air,” the Great Emancipator would say, weeks later, to a group of African Americans in Richmond. “You can cast off the name of slave and trample upon it; it will come to you no more. Liberty is your birthright.”

After the marshal quieted the joyous cries from the diverse crowd and the thousands of soldiers, many of whom were “pale from unhealed wounds,” the 16th president affirmed his oath and kissed his Bible. The Good Book, which his widow later said was “very dear to him,” was opened to Isaiah’s fifth chapter, verses 27 and 28. Shortly after the president’s lips touched the sacred pages, he echoed the text’s prophetic words, “None shall be weary or stumble among them,” when he asked the nation to “strive on to finish the work”:

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 a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.

Lincoln’s brief address, which a Boston preacher later hailed as the “consummate flower of executive orations,” highlighted a profound and historic inaugural ceremony. The most hopeful thought connected with this event, said the widely read Harper’s Weekly, “is that its next repetition will find us a united and happy people.”

The uniting declaration sewn inside President Lincoln’s coat is as relevant today as it was in 1865. Once again, our nation is passing through “one of the hottest furnaces known to national life,” and there have been many long, sorrowful nights. Derision, strife, and a crippling pandemic have wounded our hearts, alienated our souls, and spoiled our convictions.

Yet, we can be hopeful. Thanks to a unified commitment to eradicate a novel disease, a full sunrise of promise is dawning. The countless among us, who work or serve in laboratories, intensive care units, grocery stores, and government, have joined with untold others to “strive on to finish the work.” Through their diversity, these unsung heroes have united in caring for those who have “borne the battle.” And through their hearts, regardless of politics or dogma, they continue to beat together as one.

May their selfless acts inspire us — one country — to follow President Lincoln’s call to bind up wounds, care for others, and cherish peace. We can be hopeful that 2021 will be the holiday of gladness we have longed to embrace.

© Reignette G. Chilton

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Reignette Chilton

Reignette Chilton

Author of “Lincoln’s Greatcoat: The Unlikely Odyssey of a Presidential Relic”