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This Week in History
March 1-7, 2015

Abraham Lincoln’s Leibnizian "Second Inaugural" Speech Saturday, March 4, 1865

By David Shavin

I. Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address - 150 Years Ago

Abraham Lincoln.

We celebrate this week in history, the 150th 'birthday' of Abraham Lincoln's masterpiece of statecraft, his 2nd Inaugural Speech. On March 4, 1865, near the eagerly-anticipated end of the most bloody carnage in American history, the poet-statesman Lincoln struck a remarkable note:

…Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. 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. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully.

The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue 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 by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether...

Near the end of four years of bloody horror, could he make sense somehow of all the pain, toil, blood and sacrifice? For Lincoln, there could be no cheering, no mere celebration. But why not just take credit for the great accomplishment and bank it as 'political capital'? Why not 'strike a deal' with the population – patting all the victors on the back, while tacitly allowing them some sort of 'return to normalcy'?

Lincoln knew that a population that had extended themselves to take up an historic mission, needed a country with an equally intense mission, following the fighting, of fulfilling the promises of 1776 to one and all. These larger issues left unaddressed, it were inevitable that a hardened, embittered view of God would set in. And Lincoln was determined that a great moment in history not find a little people. [1] Rather, Lincoln's bold intervention was that humanity must change itself permanently for the better. He had introduced this theme at Gettysburg, with his classical inversion: "It is, rather, we the living..." Indeed, there is no proper dialogue with those who "gave their last full measure of devotion", short of allowing their actions to transform oneself into an instrument more powerful than the one no longer here.

Lincoln's Theodicy

Let's look a little closer. "The Almighty has His own purposes." There must be offenses, and, hence, woes; and to be an instrument of those offenses means to be a victim of woes. But why would a just God ever have allowed the institution of slavery - or, for that matter, have allowed only a partial victory over the British Empire, with the new republic half-slave and half-free? Is there any sense in which God's desire for a creature made in his own image, one capable of willful decisions, also includes the possibility of the horrible mistakes of that creature, mistakes that somehow, in the long run, would make mankind better? And in a way that could not have been done otherwise? This is indeed a curious relationship between Creator and creature.

So, perhaps the listener would be won over to Lincoln's uplifting theological view. Yet Lincoln renounces the "easier triumph" for a resultmore "fundamental and astounding: "Yet, if God wills" that the present efforts must continue indefinitely into the future, "so still it must be said 'the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'" Lincoln pushed forward: Don't agree with me because you are temporarily inspired, while silently you calculate that you've probably paid up what you owe your Maker. Instead, we do indeed have an historic mission, one that trumps all other personal calculations. Do not 'make book' on the workings of the Almighty.

Rather, root out of yourself whatever remnants of your antebellum identity that is still lurking. Then, and only then, will you find the appropriate charity in your heart for what is to come.

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, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Amongst all the recriminations, the could-have-beens and should-have-beens, the questions as to the fairness and extent of sacrifice, Lincoln is most deeply concerned that the population not internalize that hardened, embittered view of God. Whether it took much less or much greater sacrifice is not the proper calculation. The issue, rather, is whether the Creator has a mission for mankind, and whether we can wrap our mortal lives around that mission.

It is this that determines all other calculations. For example, it determines whether the population was prepared to have the republic's transcontinental Landbridge project free the world from imperialism. It determines whether there would be genuine and shared joy over the progress of the newly-freed slaves, a vast section of the American population that had previously been kept backward. It determines whether the sacrifice to rid the world of a great offense was wasted or not - so "that these dead shall not have died in vain."

II. Lincoln and Leibniz, 150 Years Prior

The 2nd Inaugural Speech is unmistakably infused with the theology of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716). Now, Lincoln's particular genius could have fashioned his theodicy, his justification of the ways of God toward mankind, without having worked through Leibniz's particular version Certainly, Lincoln's capacity to fashion his 2nd Inaugural could be accounted for, otherwise. Simply consider: Lincoln's readings of Shakespeare and of the King James Bible, along with a deep-seated optimism - reflected in his excitement for the power of discovery and expressed through his humor. Further, he had just led his country's historic battle against the British empire. Lincoln was well-situated to lead a nation with poetic statecraft, regardless of any 'smoking pistol' evidence regarding his relationship with Leibniz. However, it is appropriate to investigate the role of the ghost of Leibniz in this matter.

Leibniz's Prophecy and Lincoln

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz

In 1715, exactly 150 years before Lincoln's speech, Leibniz had initiated a particular intervention into the English-speaking world, with the first of what are titled the "Leibniz-Clarke Letters". He wrote to his student, and now political colleague, Princess Caroline. Leibniz was particularly concerned about the "very mean Notion of the Wisdom and Power of God" infecting the government, from Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) , John Locke (1632-1704) and Isaac Newton (1643–1727). Caroline had fought against the ostracism of Leibniz, the man who, in arranging the succession of the house of Hanover to the English throne, would have been the natural choice as a prime minister.[2] However, in 1714, King George I, Caroline's uncle, moved his court from Hanover to England, deliberately excluding Leibniz.

Caroline proceeded to challenge the imperial ideology built up around Newton, with a project to publish an English translation of Leibniz's 1710 Theodicy. In the fight to extirpate the Leibniz 'virus' from the new English ruling family, the Venetian, Antonio Conti, along with Isaac Newton, would spend many hours besieging Caroline to let this Leibniz matter go.

Earlier, around 1704/5, Leibniz had taken on the task of uprooting the destructive axioms imbedded in John Locke's ideological tract, “Human Understanding”, which tied man's mind as a slave to his senses. (Since each man had his own senses, this was, supposedly, a more liberal ideology than Hobbes' "king of the jungle" approach in his “Leviathan”.) Leibniz had taken up this project, as it was the only responsible role for a statesman who had intervened to put his patroness, Sophie, into the line of succession. There was an obvious “elephant in the room” , and Leibniz had to address the cultural shortcomings.

Leibniz's New Essays on Human Understanding benevolently, but systematically exposed Locke's destructive axioms. One particular passage came to be featured for American republicans of the 1840's by a political colleague of Lincoln (of whom, more below), with an ending echoed by Lincoln's 2nd Inaugural. This was Leibniz on the danger of the cynical philosophies of Hobbes and Locke: "I find that opinions bordering close upon license, which take possession of the governing minds of the great world and creep into works of polite literature, are preparing the way for the universal revolution with which Europe is threatened." The spiritual epidemic spreading amongst rulers is displayed when actual patriotism is scoffed at; when those who dare to champion universal aims are subjects of ridicule; and when a proper love for a future generation has turned into a cold disdain. Leibniz concludes that, while such cynical, 'end-of-an-era' ideologies will take themselves down, more importantly, in the process, they will forge a deeper determination to never again sink into such an inward spiral.

But it may happen that these persons will themselves experience the evils they suppose to be reserved for others. If they cure themselves of the spiritual epidemic whose pernicious effects begin to show themselves, they will perhaps escape these calamities; but if not, then will Providence heal society even the revolution which this disease must naturally end in. For happen what may, all things will finally work together for the best; although this result cannot take place without the chastisement of those who even by their evil acts have brought about a general good.

This passage from Leibniz held a special place in the first English-language biography of Leibniz, written in 1845 by John Milton Mackie. He introduced the above passage with: "His prophetic views on this point [of Leibniz's newly-assigned role for England] were expressed in his New Essays on the Human Understanding, as follows..." Leibniz's prophetic view, put a bit too bluntly: The Venetian Party may succeed temporarily in their takeover of England. However, in so doing, they were only making the American republic necessary. [3] Mackie's emphasis upon this prophecy, along with the language of the prophecy, was not likely to have been missed by Lincoln.

III. Lincoln and John Milton Mackie

Mackie and Lincoln had shared a political intervention in 1848/9, in attempting to shape Zachary Taylor's campaign and presidency along the lines of a revival of the Washington/Hamilton alliance. In 1848, Lincoln campaigned for the Whig, Taylor, in Illinois, Delaware and Massachusetts, speaking for a government budget for internal improvements. The scholar, Mackie, published his The Administration of President Washington in the "American Whig Review", an extensive model for the new Taylor administration, based upon a return to the non-partisan leadership of an Alexander-Hamilton-led Washington administration. While Lincoln undoubtedly knew of Mackie's (1849) work on Hamilton and Washington, it is not known for certain what Lincoln knew of Mackie's earlier (1845) work on Leibniz.[4]

Between 1845 and 1848, Mackie had followed his work on Leibniz, by collaborating with Jared Sparks' efforts to educate Americans about the Founding Fathers, who had died out. Americans could learn that, before the debased populism of Andrew Jackson, there was a level of statecraft worth studying and emulating. Mackie went further, in his 1849 study of Washington's administration, to identify "Jacksonian Democracy" as descended from the Jacobinism of the French Revolution - and, most importantly, that this disease originated from the refusal by Jefferson and others to think through Alexander Hamilton's statecraft, through Hamilton's sovereign credit-generating methods.

Mackie argued that Andrew Jackson's Democratic Party had been born of "those Democratic Societies, which, fathered by Citizen Genet, approved of the excesses of the [French, 1794/5] Reign of Terror, and which Washington characterized as 'a most diabolical attempt to destroy the best fabric of human government and happiness that has ever been presented for the acceptance of mankind'. They boast of their popular name ['Democrat']; let them remember that, when first adopted in this country, the name of 'Democrat' was synonymous with that of 'Jacobin'." Further, that the key to Washington's administration was "the turning of all citizens from the corrupting speculations, and dissolute courses, which prevailed after the war, to the patient cultivation of the virgin soil, and to the prosecution of all those trades and arts." Hence, "the sterling integrity and transcendent abilities of Alexander Hamilton" were called upon to head the Department of Treasury. Could there be much doubt that Lincoln, the foremost advocate of Hamilton's internal improvements at the time, and Mackie, the leading Leibnizian in the United States, were colleagues?

Leibniz's Harmony of Interests

If Lincoln had also studied Mackie's 1845 Life of Godfrey William Von Leibnitz [5], what would he have imbibed? First, of no little significance, Mackie includes the first ever competent English-language account, after over a century, of the so-called 'Leibniz-Newton' controversy. However, for our purposes, the key is Mackie's account of Leibniz's 1714 design for England.

Mackie relates how, after Leibniz had negotiated the accession to the English throne of his patroness, Sophie of Hanover, her death a couple of months before that accession "annihilated his [Leibniz's] prospects of one day rending himself useful as the friend and counselor of a queen of England." Mackie relates that Sophie had written, two or three weeks before her death,

...a long letter on the affairs of England, [Mackie quoting Leibniz] 'as full of correct judgments as if written by the prime minister ' - Leibnitz favored, moreover, the views of the deceased Electoress respecting English affairs too much, to be a favorite with [her son] George Lewis [King George I...] She, also, was not inclined to follow so much the counsels of the whigs in England, as were the Elector and his minister, Bernstorf; but, in accordance with the views of Leibnitz, she preferred to endeavor to unite the more moderate members of both the great political parties of the country.

As Leibniz put it at the time, in a letter to John Ker, an advisor to the Court:

The king must by all means leave to his nation the free choice of the members of parliament; and oppose, also, the hateful intrigues and corruption which have existed under former reigns. Such a course of conduct will surround him with men of honor and ability, who will act from disinterested principles, and will have regard for the general welfare of the nation.

So far, so good.

But, how to accomplish this harmony? Mackie identifies Leibniz as the author of a 1714 pamphlet, "Anti-Jacobite", and characterizes Leibniz's strategy for England in that pamphlet: The writing style and the

... liberal spirit with which it advocated the reconciliation of the two political parties of Great Britain, leave no doubt of its having emanated from the pen of the great philosopher. The writer maintained with great clearness and force of argument, the importance of rendering such protection to agriculture, the basis of national prosperity, on the one side, and to manufactures and commerce, on the other, as to secure a harmonious development of these two conflicting interests. He also insisted on the importance of remedying the disorders which were then tending to diminish the influence of piety and morality upon the national character.

In 1845, or no later than 1849, Lincoln would have fully identified with Leibniz's strategy for an English-speaking republic, as presented by Mackie.

In Summary: Lincoln's Poet-Statesman

Lincoln did right by Leibniz 150 years ago, on March 4, 1865.

Lurking in the crowd that day were members of the assassination team, including John Wilkes Booth. 'Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.' If we shall suppose that the British empire system is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both BRICS nations and non-BRICS nations this terrible showdown as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?

Today, 150 years later, there is no justice in the targeting and execution of President Lincoln, short of a flowering of Lincoln-esque statecraft - one that not only ends all empire systems, but one that conquers new frontiers with the proportionally-increased powers of human culture. Unless one chooses to fashion his or her identity around such basic truths, it is all a pathetic soap opera.

On that day in the not-distant future when imperial dinosaurs are extinct; when Lincoln's republic recognizes today's outbreak of classical 'American' methods, expressed in Chinese, in Russian, in Hindi and such; and when that republic decides, joyfully, to renew itself and join in - on that day, civilization may well breathe a big sigh of relief. But will a poet-statesman be able to strike a note that, in identifying and capturing for ourselves the insanity of what mankind has gone through, makes us permanently better? And so much better, that the reality of mankind at the helm, driving our solar system through the galaxy, will seem as child's-play to those that come after us? If so, Lincoln will smile, as we will have done "all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."


[1]. Friedrich Schiller's phrase, epitomizing the tragic shortcoming, after the American Revolution, of the French Revolution. (Curiously, the White House checked out of the Library of Congress a volume of Schiller's writings, in German, a couple of weeks before the 2nd Inaugural.)

[2]. Between 1711 and 1713, Leibniz had enraged Montagu's "Venetian" Party in London, with his appointments as Imperial Privy Counself both for Russia and for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his mission for centering those governments upon national scientific academies. If England were to fall under Leibniz's council at this point, the empire game might have completely toppled.

[3]. Leibniz's New Essays were under 'lock and key', on orders of the British Crown, until 1765. Their publication at that point directly resulted in Benjamin Franklin making a special trip to Hanover and Goettingen in 1766 to consult with Munchhausen, Raspe, and Kaestner - the revivers of Leibniz's work. Franklin's deliberations over those documents led to the triadic formulation in 1776 of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness". (In brief, happiness is a matter of the world being constructed such that liberty, or man's capacity for discovery and invention (actual human freedom), is necessary for the actual conditions of life. Any other constructed world - e.g., where a lack of inventivenes s required Malthusian genocide; or where life's necessities were met, as in the "Garden of Eden", automatically - fell short of the definition of Leibniz's happiness, or felicity.) This author recounts this story in "From Leibniz to Franklin on 'Happiness'"

[4]. Lincoln might well have read of Mackie's biography of Leibniz in the favorable review in Silliman's 1845 "American Journal of Science and Arts". (The same issue had extensive coverage of Charles Wilkes' 1838-42 Exploring Expedition - part of the geomagnetic measurement project that Leibniz had proposed to Peter the Great.) Edgar Allen Poe read Silliman's journal, and also made notice of the biography of Leibniz (in "Grahams' Magazine", volume 27, 1845).

[5]. The full title was Life of Godfrey William Von Leibnitz, on the Basis of the German Work of Dr. G. E. Guhrauer. Gottschalk Eduard Guhrauer was a Jewish scholar from Breslau, who studied philology and philosophy at Berlin's Humboldt University at about the same time, 1833/4, that Mackie studied there. As a young man, Guhrauer was selected as the editor of Leibniz's German writings. His 1840 Leibnitz's Deutsche Schriften was dedicated to Humboldt. Guhrauer followed that with the 1842 G. W. v. Leibnitz, eine Biographie, the work that Mackie both translated and somewhat re-wrote. Guhrauer died at the age of 44, shortly after completing the second volume of his Leben und Werke of Lessing. (Of note, Guhrauer had succeeded the editor of the first Lessing volume, Th. W. Danzel, who, himself, had died at 32. And Danzel was a close friend and political associate of Otto Jahn, the Mozart scholar - yet another of the 1830's Humboldt University students.) Mackie's Leibniz project in the United States might usefully be viewed as an offshoot of the Humboldt-Mendelssohn operations of the 1830's Berlin.