Orations Worth Ovations: The Olive Branch as a Weapon

In “Orations Worth Ovations,” professional speechwriters analyze great speeches (real or fictional, historic or personal) and explain what makes them so good.


After an intense and grueling national campaign, an inaugural address provides an opportunity for a newly elected president to present their vision for the country while extending an olive branch to their opponents. But what happens when the fight was happening not only at the ballot box but on the battlefield?

These were some of the questions that President Lincoln faced in the days leading up to his second inaugural address in 1865, an event that was in itself something of a surprise. The Union Army had lost several major battles the previous year, and smart political analysts — including Lincoln himself — were betting that he would lose the presidency to General George B. McLellan. But the tides of war eventually changed. As the election drew closer, the Union Army made its way from one victory to another. And so, on November 8, 1864, one week before Sherman marched to Atlanta, Lincoln marched back into the White House with a victory of his own.

Five months later, on March 4, 1865, the re-elected President Lincoln appeared in front of the Capitol. Before him stood a crowd of nearly 40,000 people, many trying, and failing, to avoid the massive mud puddles scattered across the National Mall after several days of rain. Among them were notable local residents such as Walt Whitman, ardent abolitionists like Frederick Douglass, and even a few disgruntled southerners, including the actor John Wilkes Booth. You can imagine Booth glaring at the Union Army delegation, which included the first black soldiers to ever participate in a presidential inauguration.

They had all come to hear the President speak, even if they were unsure what exactly he would say. Some might have expected to hear how Lincoln planned to end the war. Others might have anticipated a declaration of victory. Most certainly wanted an explanation of where the country was headed.

What they got, instead, was a short sermon.

At about 700 words, the speech that Lincoln wrote and delivered that day is one of the most concise inaugural addresses ever delivered (it’s roughly half the length of this post). But its brevity belies its scope. As Robert C. White points out, the speech invokes “God fourteen times, the Bible four times, and prayer three times.” It was only the second time in American history that an inaugural address quoted scripture. Standing before the Capitol, Lincoln sounded less like an embattled President and more like an emboldened preacher.

Lincoln knew that religion was one of the few remaining universals in 19th century America. The language of Christianity provided an opportunity for him to engage people of all races, regions, and creeds. And it offered a rhetorical tool for delivering a carefully honed message.

Democratic politics is normally about action, or at least the suggestion of it. Politicians want to take credit for their achievements and to criticize the designs and deeds of their opponents. But if political speech emphasizes action, Christian language emphasizes submission, downplaying individual achievements as a way of highlighting God’s influence over human affairs.

That distinction often manifests itself through sentence structure. Where JFK tells us to “ask what you can do for your country,” Jesus tells us to “ask and it will be given to you.” In other words, the difference between political and religious rhetoric is often the difference between active and passive voice.

As a political leader delivering an ostensibly political speech, we might have expected Lincoln to project the agency, authority, and strength of the active voice. Instead, the man Ted Sorensen once called “the best of all presidential speechwriters” wrote a speech with so many passive sentences that it would flunk a modern AP composition class. But that’s part of its brilliance. Lincoln’s second inaugural shows how passive language can speak strategically to different audiences.

Summarizing his first term in office, Lincoln recalls how the atmosphere at his first inauguration was one in which “all thoughts were anxiously directed towards a civil war.” Slavery was a political interest that “was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union.” What happened next? As the president stated simply, “the war came” — surely one of the most significant understatements that a president has ever made.

Historians have traditionally explained this passivity as a way for Lincoln to send a national message of unity in anticipation of an extended and painful period of reconstruction. By using passive language to frame the conflict, Lincoln could appeal to both Northerners and Southerners. He could blame slavery for starting the war without blaming the South for defending it.

But Lincoln’s language in the second inaugural isn’t passive so much as it’s passive aggressive. It threatens as much as it soothes. It delivers condemnation as much as it minimizes culpability.

Throughout the speech, the spirit of reconciliation gives way to exasperation. Even while making the sympathetic point that both sides pray to the same God, Lincoln scornfully notes: “It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged.” When he exclaims later that “The Almighty has his own purposes,” you can almost imagine a sarcastic shrug.

In a section of passively structured descriptions, these actively structured rebukes are a striking show of force — an olive branch wielded as a club. And they reveal a subtle but significant insight into Lincoln’s perspective on the conflict.

Lincoln’s passive descriptions may disperse blame for four years of bloody conflict, but his active descriptions create a moral justification for the South’s present destruction. Even as he underscores that: “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away,” he announces his resolve to finish the war, even if it means continuing until “all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid.” And since God’s will had ordained this outcome, Lincoln’s determination would carry the sanction of divine authority, since “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

Thus, while he treats the recent past with a pastor’s remove, he talks about the present with a politician’s resolve. Essentially, Lincoln is saying: God sometimes works in mysterious ways, but this time is not one of them. If you don’t surrender, we will crush you. Welcome back to the Union.

It’s natural to think of the second inaugural in terms of Lincoln’s relationship with the South, but, when reading these lines, it is important to remember the other apprehensive audience he was addressing. It took centuries of toil, four years of war, and hundreds of thousands of lives before the thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery in the United States. Now black Americans faced a hopeful but uncertain future: What would happen after the war? Would the government actually enforce the personhood that they had gained? Would the South?

Lincoln’s second inaugural is not so much a message of forgiveness as it is one of warning. His words were meant to soothe black Americans as much as they were meant to intimidate Southern Americans. His call to action — to forge a lasting peace “with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right” — refers to the treatment of both groups. And by using passive, religious language, Lincoln could communicate that message to all of his different audiences.

But while everyone heard that message, people reacted to it differently. With malice toward one and the firmness that he was in the right, John Wilkes Booth assassinated Lincoln one month later. After hearing the news, Walt Whitman wrote one of America’s greatest elegies. And Frederick Douglass — who had received Lincoln’s favorite walking stick after the president’s death — planned a march. On July 4th, 1865, Douglass led a group of protestors through the streets of Washington, DC. God’s ways had become even more mysterious since Lincoln’s death, but the protestors carried signs bearing Lincoln’s words, and they were determined to fight for a lasting peace.

Raul Quintana