The Address is a vigorous defence of the Union’s War; yet it is tempered by a refusal, through recourse to God’s mysterious intentions, to put the blame for the War entirely on one side or the other. It instead puts the blame onto the whole of the polity, withthe result of profoundly binding the Union together in both the national shame of slavery and also its bloody expiation.
Likewise it is a general call upon all to the tasks of reconstruction and reconciliation – not out of some abstract humanitarianism, on account of our shared humanity merely, but instead because the whole land and people, North and South, are what and who we are. Finally, it is America’s most eloquent promotion of what the late Christopher Lasch called the “spiritual discipline against resentment”. “Let us strive on”, says Lincoln, “to finish the work we are in” – a call even at war’s end to win, by force of arms, the great and bloody war, without compromise of war aims or any surrender short of unconditional. There will be no negotiated peace. We are wont today, as Farber points out, mistakenly to see only the Lincoln “with
malice toward none; with charity for all”, the Lincoln of the promise of reconciliation, but miss the most determined, unyielding, stubborn war leader the United States has ever known.
Fight on, Lincoln abjures the Union, with “firmness in the right”. Yet he immediately qualifies this moral certainty to add, “insofar as God gives us to see the right”. It is a double injunction of moral subtlety and profundity, and it is what made Lincoln the greatest of all American leaders. This is not moral relativism – it is not to say, we see it this way and they that, and who is to say which is right? It is instead a call to the much more difficult, much more subtle and morally demanding virtue of anti-hubris. We do not have the luxury of not acting on our convictions; yet we know also that our convictions must always be partial. God, mysterious as it might seem to us, may give to others to see things differently. And therefore, notwithstanding that we must follow our consciences, it must always be with an essential spiritual forbearance and, finally, with modesty.