Memorial Day and the Second Inaugural Address

Memorial Day and the Second Inaugural Address

Memorial Day for a long time in my life didn’t mean much of anything; I came of age in the 1970s just slightly too late for the Vietnam war, remembrance of which was all too weird for a long time, and anyhow there weren’t that many wars going on, at least not ones that I was aware of. So it is only, really, with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars that Memorial Day turns into a combination of remembrance and picnic. We’re holding a neighborhood picnic for a family next door moving out of state; I am shortly going to light the charcoal and start the grills. I hope all of you Americans celebrating this holiday do a little of both, remembrance and celebration, and I hope everyone has a wonderful day.


I recall how surprised I was, a few Novembers ago, to see my London friend, John, show up at a meeting in New York with a small cloth poppy in his lapel. Armistice Day. The poppy had belonged, I think he told me, to his grandfather or great grandfather. I didn’t think that people of the cosmopolitan class, equally at home in London, New York, Nairobi, Sudan, Rio, went in for that sort of thing. But this friend of mine is equally cosmopolitan in the sense of Peter’s post-national-identity book, but also an English left patriot, in the great tradition of George Orwell. It has an equivalent in the United States, the tradition of what my friend Larry Solum once called the “Left Burkeans” – the late Christopher Lasch, for example. There is indeed a distinction between patriotism, nationalism, and national chauvinism. But the gesture of the poppy went back to a time when the First World War was still known as the Great War.

The Great War in American memory is the Civil War. It is what this holiday brings home to me – Gettysburg and the Second Inaugural – and the latter, for me, especially. I grew up in California at precisely the moment of the collapse of public school standards in a then-radical public high school in a college town; I was rather left to fend for myself when it came to the humanities: my primary high school history course was not on American history, but covered world revolution: the Russian Revolution, the Chinese revolution, and Vietnam. I still have never read more than a little Dickens or Austen or Melville or even very much Twain (still, I read lots of French, German, Russian, and Japanese literature from high school, and I think it more than compensated, actually). But not much American of British literature. In history, at seventeen, I could tell you everything you ever wanted to know about the KMT, had read from Lenin, Trotsky, Marx and Engels, Rosa Luxemburg, and the New Left, but had no clue about the Civil War. And living in Los Angeles, there were not a lot of local geographical references to it. It wasn’t until after law school, living on the East Coast, that I started seriously to read American history and began to appreciate the centrality of the Civil War.


I am not a sophisticated constitutional theorist or even an unsophisticated one. I do not hold to the “living constitution” as the ideal form of interpretation, nor do I hold to any strict originalism. Without any particularly persuasive way of defending it, I take roughly Lincoln’s view that the constitution is to be interpreted through the lens of the Declaration of Independence and, I would add to that, a handful of other documents that all derive from Lincoln himself and the re-birth of the Republic in the Civil War: of those two, Gettysburg, the First Inaugural, and above all the Second Inaugural are canonical in a literal sense. I understand that today, if you are someone like me who does think that not everything can be interpreted every which way, but also find yourself in a period in which common standards of interpretation have essentially disappeared, it is dangerously open ended to allow anything other than some form of originalism. Introducing the Declaration of Independence could still be understood as not completely open-ended, in Lincoln’s day and in his understanding of it: that is hardly the case in our day. But I’m not a judge and I’m not even a con law professor, so in my entirely unofficial way, I feel quite happy to understand the constitution in the way that makes the most sense to me: in light of the Declaration, but also in light, not of an endlessly accumulating new body of canonical materials, but a body that derives from a specific historical- and, we pray, non-recurring- circumstance, the war that constitutionally remade the United States.

What, then, of the Second Inaugural Address? There are two wonderful books devoted wholly to the Address – Ronald C. White’s Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural and James Tackach, Lincoln’s Moral Vision: The Second Inaugural Address. Both books are from 2002; I reviewed them along with several other Lincoln books for the TLS in 2003. But while each of those books devotes itself extensively, and for clear reasons, to the question of slavery and the war, neither book gives much examination either of the way that war is seen as such in the Address or the ethics of war as such implicit in the Address. Let me make three brief points.


First, the conception of war in the Second Inaugural, reflecting Lincoln’s hard won experience in bloody and prolonged war, has a remarkably Clausewitzean sense to it. I do not mean by this the most famous passage of Clausewitz, war the continuation of politics by other means. I mean the discussion in Clausewitz of ‘friction’ in war and, as a consequence, the inability to control where war will go, how its aims will shift, and how the unleashing of this antinomy of animal passions and the great rational machine of armies leads into directions not necessarily foreseen. The Address expresses a dual sense of dolorous wonderment that the conflict spilled over, in aim and method, so far beyond anything either side contemplated.

Second, the Address seeks to steer a difficult path between moral absolutism about the war, and pure relativism about its rights and wrongs. In referring to absolutism, the issue is not only the Northern abolitionists for whom the responsibility for the war was entirely, on account of slavery, upon the South, and to whom Lincoln addresses himself in some of the most explicitly religious parts of the Address, putting the moral burden of slavery upon the Republic as a whole. It is, in addition, a particular ethics of war, apart from slavery alone, that, conceiving of natural law and natural justice in absolute terms, saw both slavery and secession as a violation of natural law in which the war, and whatever was part of it and went with it, was simply the natural order of things. This was Sherman’s view, expressed in his Memoirs (and very, very different from the meaning usually ascribed to his famous ‘war is hell’ phrase), in which his own actions were expressed as something very close to physics, the opposite and equal moral reaction that restores the natural order of things. That way leads to a war without limits, in pursuit of a sort of ‘super-justice’, and Lincoln is concerned to reject it.

Third, the Address raises, but then finally rejects, a form of moral relativism that – noting that men on each side invoke the same God and read the same Bible – can lead either in the direction of moral quietism or war without limits. After all, if there are objective no rights or wrongs, just relations of power being battled out between the sides, then why involve oneself at all? But ominously, there is another direction relativism can take, specifically as an ethics of war: if there are no objective rights or wrongs in war, then it is simply a matter of convention and power, and I may as well impose my will if I am able to do so. That way, too, leads to the possibility of war without limits.


The Address rejects each of these, the moral absolutism and the varieties of relativism as an ethic of war. Instead Lincoln abjures his listeners to “finish the work we are in” – which meant still more bloody battles and many dead – before one could get to the part of the Address most remembered, “With malice toward none; with charity for all.” But this abjuration comes with a dual command: to finish the work we are in “with firmness in the right,” but also, not just as we see the right, or even as God sees the right, but “as God gives us to see the right.” It is a formulation that seeks to avoid either the assertion that one knows God’s will, or that one’s own will is enough, but which places a burden to seek to know God’s will – and to act on it, both firmly and yet with a certain moral modesty, without the claim of absolute moral knowledge because one cannot achieve certainty.

It is an ethic of war that begins, then, with a question logically prior to where most discussions of just war and war’s ethics begin. Instead of starting with the questions of whether resort to force is ever justified and how, or what the just conduct of war is, the Address begins with the question that, after so many dead, was uppermost in Lincoln’s mind: how to know if the work one was in was justified. Lincoln’s answer to this question relies upon God as the transcendental premise that allows both the possibility of objective moral knowledge about the rights and wrongs of war but also forces a certain modesty that precludes absolute knowledge of God’s intentions. Whether such an answer in the ethics of war is available to us in this secular age, I do not know. But we do not usually start with questions of absolutism and relativism, and the possibility of objectivity of moral knowledge, in just war theory. The Second Inaugural suggests that perhaps we should.

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Benjamin Davis
Benjamin Davis

Memorial Day Memo: Honor Those Who Stood Up Against Torture

is a Memorial Day Memo that I hope is of assistance.



Diplomatic Gunboat
Diplomatic Gunboat

Thank you both.

May we not give up on these foundational principles of the American experiment.