Lincoln’s Greatest Speech

Ronald C. White

As the day for Lincoln’s second inauguration drew near, Americans wondered what their sixteenth president would say about the Civil War. Would Lincoln guide the nation toward “Reconstruction”? What about the slaves? They had been emancipated, but what about the matter of suffrage? When Lincoln finally stood before his fellow countrymen on March 4, 1865, and had only 703 words to share, the American public was stunned. The President had not offered the North a victory speech, nor did he excoriate the South for the sin of slavery. Instead, he called the whole country guilty of the sin and pleaded for reconciliation and unity. In this compelling account, noted historian Ronald C. White Jr. shows how Lincoln’s speech was initially greeted with confusion and hostility by many in the Union; commended by the legions of African Americans in attendance, abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass among them; and ultimately appropriated by his assassin John Wilkes Booth forty-one days later. Filled with all the facts and factors surrounding the Second Inaugural, Lincoln’s Greatest Speech is both an important historical document and a thoughtful analysis of Lincoln’s moral and rhetorical genius.


“In lucid prose, White explores each level and places the Second Inaugural in a broad historical and theological context.” — James M. Mcpherson “Professor White’s book on the preparation, delivery, and influences of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address is a significant addition to Civil War literature.” — Shelby Foote, author of The Civil War: A Narrative “[Lincoln’s Greatest Speech] is going to have a wide impact on Lincoln scholarship.” — David Herbert Donald, author of Lincoln

About Lincoln’s Greatest Speech

After four years of unspeakable horror and sacrifice on both sides, the Civil War was about to end. On March 4th, 1865, at his second inauguration, President Lincoln did not offer the North the victory speech it yearned for, nor did he blame the South solely for the sin of slavery. Calling the whole nation to account, Lincoln offered a moral framework for peace and reconciliation. The speech was greeted with indifference, misunderstanding, and hostility by many in the Union. But it was a great work, the victorious culmination of Lincoln’s own lifelong struggle with the issue of slavery, and he well understood it to be his most profound speech. Eventually this “with malice toward none” address would be accepted and revered as one of the greatest in the nation’s history. Ronald C. White’s compelling description of Lincoln’s articulation of our nation’s struggle and the suffering of all — North, South, soldier, slave — offers new insight into Lincoln’s own hard-won victory over doubt and his promise of authority and passion. These words, delivered only weeks before his assassination, were the culmination of Lincoln’s moral and rhetorical genius.

Reviews for Lincoln’s Greatest Speech

“Ronald C. White’s elegantly written study of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address offers a close examination of both the form and the substance of Lincoln’s address. In tracing the development of Lincoln’s literary artistry, White shows how deeply his ideas were rooted in his profound religious beliefs.  A book both learned and accessible, Lincoln’s Greatest Speech is going to have a wide impact on Lincoln scholarship.” ―David Herbert Donald, author of Lincoln “Professor White’s book on the preparation, delivery, and influences of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address is a significant addition to Civil War literature.  I find it hard to say which is more commendable, the research or the explication; both are admirable, and we are all greatly benefited by the result.” ―Shelby Foote, author of The Civil War “Those who think it is not possible to say anything fresh about the life and convictions of Abraham Lincoln will be surprised by this book.  Careful attention to the complex layers of Lincoln’s own actions and beliefs leaves Ronald White with a rich harvest of political, religious, and social insight concerning what truly was Lincoln’s Greatest Speech.” ―Mark A. Noll, author of America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln “White is very good on Lincoln’s rhetorical techniques. . .  He shows us how such rhetorical devices reveal character and create meaning. . . He also has a good eye for vivid quotations.” ―Max Byrd, The New York Times Book Review “This is the very best book on the most famous of all inaugural addresses.” ―Frank J. Williams, chairman of The Lincoln Forum “A masterful mix of history, biography, and rhetoric . . . wise yet humble in its judgments.” ―David Reinhard, The Oregonian