“A Sacred Effort”: Lincoln’s Second Inaugural and the Problem of Justice

The forthcoming article “‘A Sacred Effort’: Lincoln’s Second Inaugural and the Problem of Justice”  by Richard S. Ruderman is summarized by the author below. 

At a time when growing numbers of Americans are concerned that we are headed toward a new civil war, it is well worth re-examining Abraham Lincoln’s efforts to bring the original to a close in such a way as to avoid the recidivism so often associated with civil wars. Lincoln’s Second Inaugural has both impressed and perplexed audiences since its initial delivery. While most have been deeply moved by his call for “malice toward none” and “charity for all,” they have often been equally puzzled and even put off by the stern religiosity on display in the paragraph prior to his peroration. He was even accused, at the time, of “substituting religion for statesmanship.” In this article, I argue that it is his statesmanlike use of religion—indeed, of a new hybrid (still unnamed) religion, Judeo-Christianity—that provided the moral and psychological ground for overcoming the “malice” that so often attends the end of wars. Unlike the essentially post-religious (and uncharitable) statesmanship of the Allies in World War One that contributed in no small measure to the outbreak of World War Two, Lincoln’s statesmanship in the Second Inaugural provides a model for how to keep the “settling of scores”—the desire for punitive justice—from snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Above all, we can learn from Lincoln that the punitive aspect of justice constitutes a moral and even philosophical “problem.” By this, I mean that Lincoln moved beyond our understanding of “the problem of justice”—namely that an action, law or policy may not live up to a (or “our”) standard of justice—to the deeper question of whether and how responsibility for an injustice can be assigned. Discerning Lincoln’s answer requires us to resolve the puzzle he inserts at the start of the speech, whereby he makes, in quick succession, the arguments that both sides are responsible for the war and that neither side is responsible. Finally, Lincoln offers the unusual argument that punishment must chiefly serve the purpose, not of punishing past injustice, but of laying the necessary ground for future “charity for all.”

About the Author: Richard S. Ruderman is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of North Texas. Their research “‘A Sacred Effort’: Lincoln’s Second Inaugural and the Problem of Justice” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.