On March 11, 2015, the Carolina Lowcountry and Atlantic World Program joined with the Bully Pulpit Series and Friends of the Addlestone Library to present, through the generous support of Wells Fargo, the Wells Fargo Distinguished Public Lecture for this semester. In commemoration of the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, Dr. Richard Carwardine presented a lecture entitled “The Religion and Politics of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.” Carwardine is the President of Corpus Christi College, Oxford University, where he studied as an undergraduate. He has written prolifically on American political and religious life in the nineteenth century, and his work includes a biography of Lincoln that won the Lincoln Book Prize in 2004 and was published in the U.S. as Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power (2006). Carwardine was introduced by the Dr. Orville Vernon Burton, the executive director of the CLAW program. Burton is Creativity Professor of Humanities, Professor of History and Computer Science at Clemson University, and he is also the director of the Clemson Cyber Institute. Burton is also a prolific scholar, having authored and edited twenty books, including The Age of Lincoln (2007), which won the Chicago Tribune Heartland Literary Award for Nonfiction and was nominated for a Pulitzer.
In his lecture, Carwardine argued that the address provides a view into the connected world of politics and religion in nineteenth-century America. While the opening paragraph of the speech is rather matter-of-fact about the war situation, the remaining paragraphs are amazingly nuanced. Carwardine pointed out that Lincoln chose to be even-handed, as he did not lay the blame for the fighting on one side or the other. Lincoln continued by stating that it was American slavery, allowed by both North and South to continue, that was the cause of the war. Then Lincoln’s address took a turn towards the religious. Scholars have long debated Lincoln’s exact religious beliefs, beginning shortly after his death. Carwardine believes while Lincoln exhibited what could be termed “rational religion” in his earlier life, it seems that during his presidency he turned toward a more spiritual piety. This shift is evident in the second inaugural, for Lincoln states that a living God may be using the war as a judgment on North and South for perpetuating slavery so long. Carwardine noted that Lincoln’s intensely religious language shows how interconnected religion and politics could be in the period. The last paragraph, beginning with the famous lines “With malice toward none, with charity for all,” made clear the political purpose of Lincoln’s address. He asked for an end to the war that would put aside bitterness and focus on a reconciliation that would be just. In his conclusion Carwardine pointed out that Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address was clearly a masterpiece of rhetoric and even American writing.
Following the lecture there was just enough time for Carwardine to answer a few questions. When quizzed about Lincoln’s view of American exceptionalism, Carwardine pointed out that at the time the United States was indeed a special case among nations. He added that Lincoln indeed saw the American struggle in international terms as a major part of the international struggle for freedom and human dignity. On a more hypothetical note, one audience member asked Carwardine what Lincoln’s reconstruction would have been like had he lived to carry it out. While there is no way to say for sure, Carwardine himself believes that while it would have been much different from Andrew Johnson’s, Lincoln’s effort would still have run against opposition in Congress. Thanks to all who came for making this commemorative event a rousing success!