Wartime speeches aren’t business-as-usual speeches. They aren’t meant to be. Were we to examine the speeches of Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, or other dignitaries whose sole job was to give meaning and courage to those struggling with conflict and fear, their words might not be relevant for a business conference. However, sometimes speakers are called upon to address people in times of crisis and to provide encouragement and meaning. Words have to be thoughtful and carefully measured; “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver,” Proverbs 25:11. Abraham Lincoln’s “Second Inaugural Address” is one such speech that deserves some attention. Find it here.

Lincoln speaks to the American people, he gives a message of hopeful reconciliation, and he reflects on what he believes to be the overall significance to the Civil War. Though the beauty of his language, rhetoric, and ideas defies over-analysis and calls us simply to reflect on one of the most important eras of our nation, we will nevertheless attempt to help other speakers to engage this master speaker in one of his highest achievements.

Integrity and Character Drive the Message

Many speakers find themselves in situations that demand profound words. Only a person of integrity and character can assemble the content needed during such times. Lincoln had steered the Union through one of its most difficult moments, and at the time of his second inauguration he had to set a new course for the country. Of course, he had made mistakes along the way, but he had to put his own mistakes behind him. As he thought about unifying a divided nation, he incorporates numerous rhetorical devises that not only clarify his message but also make them memorable.

Memorable Phrases

Who can forget his ardent desires for the war to end? “Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.” Expressions like this could remain in the nation’s consciousness. His implied plea to the citizenry is bound up in another memorable phrase. “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right.” Such parallelisms carry a certain force to aid us in remembering his words.

Parallel Thought

In a speech as well as a written text, parallelisms provide needed emphasis, and Lincoln employs them. In the third paragraph he notes, “Neither party expected . . . Neither anticipated . . . Each looked for . . .” In the closing sentences he employs the same structure with dramatic effect. “. . . let us strive to finish the work . . . to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle . . . to do all which may achieve and cherish a lasting peace . . .” This verbal form of a musical flourish concludes the entire speech with power and emotion.

Authoritative Sources

Quoting sources of integrity reflects one of Aristotle’s three pillars of rhetoric, “ethos.” Though Aristotle refers to the speaker’s personal integrity, Lincoln steps back from reflecting on himself and provides a what he considers a more trusted source. To understand justice, the evil of slavery, and the punishment resulting from such an evil, he quotes passages from the Gospel of Matthew and the Book of Psalms.

It may come as a great surprise to those who’ve never read this speech that Lincoln quotes the Bible to make his point that somehow God’s purposes may be seen in what has happened. At times any speaker must draw on a higher, proven, and even ancient source of wisdom. Though many have pointed out that Lincoln was not likely a very religious man, much less a professing Christian, he draws on what he believes to be a trusted source.


Lincoln utilizes numerous techniques of good rhetoric, but the wisdom he shares is more than good rhetoric; he probes deep into the nature of evil and into the meaning of events. Should speakers find themselves speaking to a crisis, by integrity and words fitly spoken, the possibility of a new direction, forgiveness, and renewed hope can emerge.

© 2024 Robert T. Weber, Words Done Right LLC and The Lazarus Chronicles