Teaching Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address

Sorry, teachers, for not posting any lessons the past few weeks. (That’s to all 3 of my followers.) However, I’ve been swamped with researching David Coleman’s impact on reading. In doing so, I’m reminded of his lesson on Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and his insistence that we should consider “far longer amounts of classroom time spent on text worth reading and rereading carefully, a kind of diligent close attention” (Coleman, 2011, p.16). To emphasize his point, Coleman (2011) created an exemplar lesson for Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” that “is for three days of instruction on those three paragraphs and that is not by bringing in other resources yet. That’s by focusing on the text itself” (p. 16). Three days? My kids would hate me and Lincoln by day two.

However, I do think that Lincoln’s speeches are worth looking at rhetorically, and having the students question the text in ways that deepen their understanding of argument and persuasion is essential. (You really only need one day, though, and I recommend creating some context for the students, another big no-no by Coleman–a guy, mind you, who has never seen the inside of a k-12 classroom.)

So I give you Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, as it is prompted in the 2002 AP exam. I’ve also included my own analysis below, from which the questions in the lesson came. I recommend analyzing the speech yourself so that you can write your own questions, which will allow you to be better prepared for the class discussion. However, if your reading of the speech matches mine, then all the work is below. Enjoy.

The Lesson:

Content Objective: Today we will analyze the rhetoric within Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address by working through text dependent questions in small groups.


  • Hook/Context: Read aloud “War is Kind” by Stephen Crane (see below) and ask students to respond in their writer’s notebook for 2-3 minutes. Lead a discussion about how Crane feels about war.
  • Introduce students to Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address by discussing the context given in the AP prompt–Lincoln “contemplated the effects of the Civil War and offers his vision of the future of the nation.”
  • Read the speech aloud all the way through, asking students to simply read along.
  • Read the speech again, asking students to note parts of the speech that they wish to discuss.
  • Lead a whole class discussion on what students noted.
  • Break class into small groups, and ask them to go through the following questions:
    • How does Lincoln present himself?
    • What intended impact would the use of “great contest” instead of “war” and “interest” in place of “slavery” have on the audience?
    • What does the parallel structure attempt to distinguish?
    • How does the use of personification help in understanding that the war will end?
  • From here, you can facilitate a whole class discussion, and then ask that students respond individually to one of the questions in writing as a ticket out.

The Analysis:

Lincoln begins his second inaugural address by creating himself as a trustworthy and humble speaker. He concedes to his audience repeatedly, sharing that he understands they do not want to listen to a lengthy self righteous speech at this point, he cannot give them any new information, and “with high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.” By showing great understanding and sympathy for his audience, he lets them know he is on their side and will not lead them astray. If he were to predict outcomes the audience would be well aware that the war had not proceeded as any of them had predicted. Making claims such as this could make him easily lose his credibility, which would be detrimental at the beginning of his speech. Lincoln is hoping to end the war and convince his listeners to extend a nonjudgemental and forgiving hand to their Southern brethren to help reunite the country. By calming his audience and making them feel they are in trustworthy hands, he is setting them up to hear his logic and do as he wishes.

Throughout the speech Lincoln carefully chooses his words. He does not want to begin his speech using negative words or to openly and radically condemn the South. He uses the term “great contest” instead of war. The word war has many negative connotations that drum up fear, anger, and apprehension. Lincoln in no way wants to foster these feelings in his audience. His argument is logical, so he wants his audience thinking as logically as possible. A “contest” has relatively neutral connotations, so he is not fueling the already strained emotions of the crowd. While speaking of the past and present Lincoln again uses milder terms to not incite more anger in his audience.

In the 3rd paragraph he admits slavery was indeed a main factor causing the war, “these slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest.” He then continues to repeat the word “interest” instead of slavery. The term slavery, as the term war, has many negative connotations and would easily rehash the highly emotional topic of slavery. Since many in the audience did not consider slavery to be the exact cause of the war, but the economic importance of the cheap work force, Lincoln acknowledges that the true issue was the interest, not human rights exactly. But again he trades the highly negative term for a neutral one in order to keep his audience listening with a discerning ear, instead of an irrationally emotional one. Lincoln also refers to the Southerners as “insurgents.” Not the whole South or all Southerners. Insurgent is a negative term, but it is used for a similar purpose. He does not condemn all of the South, he specifies the insurgents. He must acknowledge that Southerners did attempt to work against the government in order to retain credibility, but the crowd hears that “insurgents” did this, not the South. He does not condemn the whole South because this would again only foster hate and anger. Again, Lincoln is hoping to end the war and convince his listeners to extend a nonjudgemental and forgiving hand to their Southern brethren to help reunite the country. His careful use of diction helps him do just that.

Lincoln conceded that “both parties deprecated war,” but then parallels the statements “but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish.” While this shows the south as the aggressor, the parallel structure gives a sense of responsibility to both sides, since the north “would accept war.” Lincoln also personifies the war and the nation by claiming that one side “let the nation survive,” and then ending the statement with “the war came.” The personification here gives the war and the nation a quality of mortality and ability to heal. The idea that the “war came” suggests that the war had a mind of its own, and that the nation had no choice. Moreover, this sense of mortality allows the audience to believe in its end, or the death of the war. Lincoln concludes the speech by asking the audience to “bind up the nation’s wounds,” referring again to this mortality and the ability to heal.

***You can also get student samples here from College Board.

from War is Kind

By Stephen Crane


Do not weep, maiden, for war is kind.
Because your lover threw wild hands toward the sky
And the affrighted1 steed2 ran on alone,
Do not weep.
War is kind.

Hoarse, booming drums of the regiment3,
Little souls who thirst for fight,
These men were born to drill and die.
The unexplained glory flies above them,
Great is the battle-god, great, and his kingdom —
A field where a thousand corpses5 lie.

 Do not weep, babe, for war is kind.
Because your father tumbled in the yellow trenches,
Raged at his breast, gulped and died,
Do not weep.
War is kind.

 Swift blazing flag of the regiment,
Eagle with crest6 of red and gold,
These men were born to drill and die.
Point for them the virtue of slaughter,
Make plain to them the excellence of killing
And a field where a thousand corpses lie.

 Mother whose heart hung humble as a button
On the bright splendid shroud7 of your son,
Do not weep.
War is kind.


  1. frightened
  2. horse
  3. army unit
  4. train in the military
  5. dead bodies
  6. unique insignia or design used by some group (originally crests decorated shields and helmets)
  7. burial garment in which a corpse is wrapped

2 thoughts on “Teaching Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address

  1. Very good dissembling of Lincoln’s second inaugural speech – and it a provides an accurate, valid data point in the argument against statues honoring “heroes of the Southern army,” who were this country’s traitors – insurgents – as Lincoln defined them. (As a writer, I hope the poster changes “it’s” to the proper use – its throughout.)

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