Jan. 16, 2009
March 4, 1865
The Capitol dome now finished; it was topped by a 19-foot Statue of Freedom. Those young black men who first muscled that statue into storage were slaves in the District of Columbia. But by the time they hoisted her into position atop the Capitol, they were free. Four long and bloody years had accomplished this much, and so much more. Not all the President's hearers had come to applaud. John Wilkes Booth can be seen in grainy photographs of the event.
President Lincoln, defying all expectations (including his own), had been powerfully re-elected the previous November. Four years after appealing to "the better angels of our nature" to avoid civil war, 620,000 young Americans had fallen in a war of brother against brother.
Suddenly, at noon on that overcast Inauguration Day, the sun broke thought the clouds. Seeing victory in sight, Lincoln sounded no note of triumph, gave no hint of self righteousness. The war came, he said, and it was a judgment of heaven upon north and south alike. God could have given the victory to either side, many times. But it was not His perfect will. It would be our task, the President said, "to bind up the nation's wounds." He continued: "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."
The seven hundred and one words of Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address have been carved in stone in his memorial. Every American should read them every year. After the ceremony, Frederick Douglass, the great abolitionist orator and editor, went to the President's House. He wanted to shake Lincoln's hand. He was the first black man invited to a Presidential Inaugural. Barred from entry by an officious policeman, Douglass simply climbed through an open window. Lincoln spotted him in the receiving line and called out to him: "There's my friend, Douglass." The President asked for his opinion of the speech, and Douglass replied: "It was a sacred effort." And so it remains. Just weeks later, Abraham Lincoln would belong to the Ages.