Responding to the public debate that flared up last month about the legacy of the civil war, Meir Soloveichik suggests paying attention to Lincoln’s second inaugural address. There the sixteenth president suggested that the suffering and bloodshed of the Civil War—on both sides—was a divine punishment for the sin of slavery:
Standing on the Capitol steps in 1865, with Union victory a certainty, one would have expected a president to celebrate the valor of his soldiers triumphantly, to rejoice in the coming end of the war and in the justice of his cause. Yet Lincoln does no such thing. Instead, like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel during ancient Israel’s wars with foreign powers, he seeks to explain the designs of Providence in producing so much death and destruction. He finds the answer in what he believes is the sin of both North and South, a sin that lies in the origins of America. . . .
Lincoln’s most critical point . . . is that the compromises [that preserved both the union and southern slavery until 1861] were not to be celebrated. . . . Lincoln . . . asserts that compromise on slavery, even if it was required to create the union that he loved and fought to preserve, nevertheless implicated the country in a moral crime. America had compromised on slavery again and again; and in the wake of the war’s carnage, Lincoln came to the conclusion that in the case of slavery, America’s genius for compromise, however necessary the Founders felt it was to produce the United States, was also a source of divine wrath. And what Lincoln interprets as the resulting punishment is the tragedy at the heart of the miracle that is the American story.
But, since the war brought such an unquestionably good outcome, should it, as one liberal journalist recently contended, be seen as something other than tragic? Quite the opposite, writes Soloveichik:
We certainly should celebrate much of what the war produced: the abolition of slavery, and a renewed understanding of our identity as a nation conceived in liberty. Yet, Lincoln reminds us, the Civil War was tragic because it was a result of sin, and therefore the Union’s triumph must be marked not only with elation but also with humility.
Why have so many today forgotten Lincoln’s profound and prophetic insights? Because American society, once formed by the theological themes of the Hebrew Bible, now is in danger of losing the biblical perspective that made it unique.