By Stephen B. Oates
On the morning of March 4, 1865, heavy clouds moved over Washington, ranking the capital with tails of rain. At noon Lincoln made the traditional carriage ride up Pennsylvania Avenue, teeming with bands and spectators and clattering cavalry.
Ahead the new iron dome of the Capitol, crowned with a statue of liberty, moved against a somber sky. The inaugural platform stretched out from the east front of the Capitol; here Lincoln took his place, as clouds scudded across Washington’s horizon, rolling and turning in the wind. Below him, he noticed Frederick Douglass in the crowd. Behind him, on the platform and along the front of the Capitol, were various officials and spectators.
Presently Lincoln rose and stepped to the speaker’s stand; as he did so the sun broke through the clouds, flooding the entire gathering with brilliant light. Then the clouds closed in again. Lincoln began reading in “ringing and somewhat shrill tones, “said Noah Brooks, which “sounded over the vast concourse.”
It was a terse speech, succinct and lyrical, like his address at Gettysburg. Yet his words today blazed with religious eloquence as he reiterated what he’d told a delegation of Kentuckians in the darkening spring of 1864: in his search for the meaning of this vast struggle, he’d come to view it finally as a divine punishment for the sin of slavery, as a terrible retribution visited by God on a guilty people, in North as well as South.
When the war began four years ago, he sang out, neither side expected it to last as long or grow to such magnitude as it had. Neither side anticipated that slavery might perish in the flames, “that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease.”
No, Lincoln said, “each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.” And God’s perhaps was to will “this terrible war” on both North and South to remove “the offence” of slavery.
Fondly we do 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 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.’
And if it were God’s will, the country must see this grim purgation through to its Providential conclusion, when at last both sides might be cleansed and regenerated: “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 turned now, took the oath from Chief Justice Salmon Chase, and kissed and open Bible. Chase noted the spot – Isaiah 5:27 and 28. “None shall be weary nor stumble among them; none shall slumber nor sleep … Whose arrows are sharp, and all their bows are bent, their horses’ hoofs shall be counted like flint, and their wheels like a whirlwind.”
The President bowed to the cheering assembly, and an artillery salvo exploded on the wind. Then a huge procession escorted his carriage back to the White House, bleak against the clouds. Later Lincoln encountered Noah Brooks. “Did you notice that sunburst?” the President asked. “It made my heart jump.”
In a reception that evening, Lincoln stood in line in the White House, shaking hands with hundreds of well-wishers. In a moment somebody informed him that Frederick Douglass was at the front door, but that the police wouldn’t let him in “because he was a negro.” Douglass had come to congratulate Lincoln, contending that since black men were dying in battle for the Union, they had a right to come and shake the President’s hand like any other citizen: “if the colored man would have his rights,” Douglass said, “he must take them.”
Lincoln had Douglass shown in at once. “Here comes my friend Douglass,” the President announced when Douglass entered into the room. “I am glad to see you,” Lincoln told him. “I saw you in the crowd today, listening to my address.” He added, “There is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours. I want to know what you think of it.” Douglass said he was impressed: he thought it “a sacred effort.”
“I am glad you liked it!” Lincoln said, and he watched as Douglass passed down the line. It was the first inaugural reception in the history of the Republic in which an American President had greeted a free black man and solicited his opinion.