The Negative Capability of Abraham Lincoln: The First American Pragmatist? your right is an historic picture. A picture of the occasion on which Lincoln gave what he thought was his best speech. The Second Inaugural. There he is reading from his notes. In surfing around the subject when I posted my piece on Obama’s rhetoric – Obama described Lincoln, as “a tall, gangly, self-made Springfield lawyer” who “tells us that there is power in words” and “tells us there is power in conviction” – I came upon this piece about the Second Inaugural. It’s sadly lacking in its subject’s concision, but it’s full of interesting tidbits nevertheless.

Along with Gettysburg the Second Inaugural is one of the great speeches of the ages. Of all the great orators it seems Lincoln was one of the most original: One of the most modern. His speeches did not just rouse the spirits of those in his audience. In fact they often didn’t rouse their spirits but undermined their certitudes and invited reflection. Of all the great speechifiers (that I know of) he is by far the most downbeat. And his two great speeches are deliberately, provocative, indeed subversive in several ways.

They are extraordinarily short. But where the odd Churchill speech was short to make a point – “blood sweat and tears” was a quick few casual remarks to the House on taking office – Lincoln’s brevity is also making another point – about the inadequacy of words. Gettysburg is 272 words long when he had plenty of time and plenty to say. And the points he was making were far from simple – they were complex and profound. But the brevity – and the provocation of such brevity – is part of the point – invariably a negative point about what really can be said or done – something that then finds itself expressed and repeated in the words. “People will little note, nor long remember” “we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground”.

Lincoln’s second inaugural wouldn’t quite fill the space John Hewson gets each week in the Fin. It was 703 words long. And he had lots to say. At a time when the whole world wanted to know the gories about the war, how things were going – whether ‘the surge’ was working – Lincoln distanced his audience, beginning in a peculiarly distant voice. And though it’s a short speech, as in the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln actually makes his points in a surprisingly prolix way.

At this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement somewhat in detail of a course to be pursued seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all.

Then, the first zinger.

With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.

I wonder if there is any other great and remembered speechifier whose diffidence knows as few bounds as Lincoln’s. Can anyone think of any examples in a famous speech that look at all like that last sentence? Perhaps there are, but if there are, they would, I suggest be rather ostentatious about the point of their ignorance – not expressed in a few words in the passive voice at the end of a short sentence.

His message was deeply sceptical of man’s capacity to ever understand what the hell was going on – or as he put it – what was God’s will. This was the great lesson that the frequently depressed and morose Lincoln learned from the war. That’s what he wanted to confront and to affront his audience with.

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. 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 a just 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. ‘Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.’ 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?

Lincoln’s message – cognate with his desire for reconciliation between North and South – was one of sufferance and forbearance in the humble recognition of our own ignorance. Not surprisingly it was met with some puzzlement, though it seemed to bring an air of dignity after a drunken Andrew Johnson had got things off to a rocky start by planting a slobbering kiss on the bible.

In a subsequent letter to Thurlow Reed Lincoln claimed that the speech was as good as he’d done, he concluded:

I believe it is not immediately popular. 1. Men are not flattered by being shown that there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them. To deny it, however, in this case, is to deny that there is a God governing the world. It is a truth which I thought needed to be told; and as whatever of humiliation there is in it, falls most directly on myself, I thought others might afford for me to tell it.

That had me scurrying for my copy of The Metaphysical Club a Pulitzer Prize winning (but to me disappointing) popular history of American pragmatism. Just as ideas like freedom of conscience and of speech grew from the horrors of the Europe wide string of civil wars that followed the Reformation, so it seems that the spirit American pragmatism might have been born during the civil war. The Metaphysical Club begins with discussions of slavery and abolitionism and goes on to recount the experiences of the early pragmatists and ‘proto-pragmatists’ trudging through the battle grounds as combatants in the civil war.

And Abraham Lincoln’s central message in the second inaugural strikes me as being of precisely the same temperament as the temperament of American pragmatism. Pragmatism looks upon the search for ultimate answers as a temptation that is at best futile and at worst mischievous. It banishes ‘truth’ from the pantheon of philosophical concepts and plumps instead for usefulness. It calls, like Lincoln did, for a turn away from grand imaginings that one is on God’s side (or the side of truth) in favour of more modest and practical measures. A very human philosophy resigned to human inadequacies.

If Lincoln was, as he often was, morose or depressed about his lot, and about how the crowd didn’t necessarily ‘get’ what he was on about or if they did, weren’t that happy about it, I can report with pleasure and relief there was one person who got it – who it seems to have given Lincoln succour on that day. The reporter from the New York Herald said this.

It was not strictly an inaugural address…. It was more like a valedictory…. Negroes ejaculated “bress de Lord” in a low murmur at the end of almost every sentence. Beyond this there was no cheering of any consequence. Even the soldiers did not hurrah much.

The great ex-slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass was nearly turned away from the reception by White House guards, but he made it in whereupon Lincoln saw him. Douglas recounted what happened then.

Recognizing me, even before I reached him, he exclaimed, so that all around could hear him, “Here comes my friend Douglass.” Taking me by the hand, he said, “I am glad to see you. I saw you in the crowd to-day, listening to my inaugural address; how did you like it?” I said, “Mr. Lincoln, I must not detain you with my poor opinion, when there are thousands waiting to shake hands with you.” “No, no,” he said, “you must stop a little, Douglass; there is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours. I want to know what you think of it?” I replied, “Mr. Lincoln, that was a sacred effort.” “I am glad you liked it!” he said; and I passed on, feeling that any man, however distinguished, might well regard himself honored by such expressions, from such a man.

Andrew Jackson Johnson, the drunkard southerner whom Lincoln had accepted as Vice-Presidential candidate would assume the Presidency. At the Inaugural Lincoln had pointed out Douglass to Johnson. Douglass recorded the moment.

The first expression which came to his face, and which I think was the true index of his heart, was one of bitter contempt and aversion. Seeing that I observed him, he tried to assume a more friendly appearance, but it was too late; it is useless to close the door when all within has been seen.

Apparently Lincoln’s assassin-in-waiting John Wilkes Booth can be seen in the picture reproduced above. Five weeks later he would achieve his goal. Johnson became President and the reconstruction of the South became an endless howl of hate and despair. I wonder what Lincoln might have thought, having pinned so much in his speech on God’s mysterious ways, having wondered aloud whether whether the suffering would go on “until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword”.

I guess he would have concluded the penultimate paragraph of his speech as he did in any event. But some of us might wonder. “As was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether'”.

  1. Like the Gettysburg Address[]
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16 years ago

Thanks Nick.

I too admire Lincoln, very very much. It is perhaps hard to tell with the passage of a century or so whether he has been overly hagiographised, but I haven’t seen any suggestion of it.

As a child I had to learn, amongst others, the Gettysburg address off by heart. I enjoyed it thoroughly, even then.

And maybe you are right about American pragmatism. After all there is Lincoln’s response to being informed that Grant drunk a bottle of whisky a day (then send all my generals a case of it!). And there is the sheer horror and carnage of that war – if America had fought any of its subsequent wars with such ferocity and ruthlessness as Sherman burnt the South, they would have been much shorter and far more devastating.

Not to mention the mental challenge of adjusting to the new status quo – for both sides of both conflicts (North/South; White/Black).

Fertile grounds for pragmatism.

But then again, and Lincoln is one of my all-time political heroes, how terrible that pragmatism was. Would a more pragmatic George Bush have simply burned the Middle East from the Gulf to the Caspian? Or was Lincoln in part a product of his time, and only in human measure able to surpass it and its unfathomable daily quotient of misery?

16 years ago

“Andrew Jackson, the drunkard southerner…”

Andrew Johnson.

16 years ago

Heh. I still remember Peter Ryan quoting the conclusion Lincoln gave in a book review one time: “In the end, this is a book that some people will enjoy, and other people will not enjoy.” Just perfect – perfectly infuriating, that is!

A bit misleading about the Churchill speech; his most famous remarks are from long speeches, and although he did originally make the remark ‘Blood, toil, tears and sweat’ on Cabinet, he later expanded upon it substantially, and some of the other remarks made in this speech are almost as famous:

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16 years ago

I came to Lincoln very late, I admit, having just read my first book ever about him: Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals. I found it a very enjoyable book and would recommend it others.

16 years ago

TimT, the actual Lincoln quote is:

“People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.”

16 years ago

Hmmm, it was a long time ago Nabakov, that’s my excuse – thanks!

16 years ago

People who make that kind of excuse are the kind of people who make that excuse.

16 years ago

Possibly early examples of the political radio grab? (I have read that the speeches were sometimes read out on BBC radio by an actor.)

After encountering the Churchill speeches on Simon Schama’s history of Britain documentary a few years ago, I was inspired enough to go out and borrow a copy of Churchill speeches from the library, and was a little surprised by the length of them.

Ingolf Eide
16 years ago

Thanks, Nicholas.

I can’t vouch for its historical accuracy (although I’d guess it’s probably pretty good) but Gore Vidal’s “Lincoln” is a wonderful read.