Gary Hoggatt's Reviews > Lincoln's Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural

Lincoln's Greatest Speech by Ronald C. White Jr.
Rate this book
Clear rating

's review
Apr 17, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: biography, all-non-fiction, history, audiobooks, civil-war-era, history-bio-19th-century

An entire book about a 703 word speech? Yes, and it's an excellent one. In Ronald C. White, Jr.'s 2002 effort Lincoln's Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural, White delves into the background of the speech, the context of the times, the resonance of its themes, and the origins of Abraham Lincoln's ideas. I already appreciated Lincoln's magnificent speech, and that appreciation has grown immensely with reading White's illuminating volume.

White begins with setting the stage of Inauguration Day, March 4th, 1865, describing the events of the day leading up to the inauguration ceremony, the parade, the composition of the crowd. It finitely helps to put the reader in the moment. The majority of the book, however, is a breakdown of the speech itself, and that is handled very well.

Breaking the speech into portions, White looks at every facet of Lincoln's words. My favorite sections are White's comparisons of the Second Inaugural to previous speeches and writings from Lincoln. The path of Lincoln's thought over the course of the war becomes clearer as White presents earlier speeches and private and public letters, several of which foreshadow arguments, ideas, and phrases used later in the Second Inaugural.

A major area White examines to explain critical portions of the speech includes religious thought. This is critical, given the several biblical quotes Lincoln uses in the Inaugural. In addition, White - showing his background as a religious scholar - explains how Lincoln's religious background, the style of sermons of the day, differences in meaning of words like "charity" and "offense" between the 19th century and now, bible distribution among soldiers, and even the content of specific sermons Lincoln is recorded as having attended, influenced the ideas and presentation of the Second Inaugural.

The other primary angle White looks at the speech from is the action of the war itself. Specific battles, and the response from Lincoln and the public, are shown to have guided Lincoln is adopting his conciliatory attitude and his unwillingness to boast of impending victory or call for harsh measures against the South.

White concludes with a section detailing reactions to the speech, from the North, South, and abroad. Given it's place in Lincoln's canon today, hearing what those of the time - who did not yet know it would be a farewell speech - thought of it is interesting. As Lincoln himself wrote, "I believe it is not immediately popular. Men are not flattered by being shown that there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them."

I listened to the audio version of Lincoln's Greatest Speech, as read by Raymond Todd. Todd delivered an excellent performance, giving the multiple readings of the speech, in whole or in parts, definite gravitas, and keeping the explanatory portions of the book brisk and flowing.

I highly recommend Lincoln's Greatest Speech to anyone interested in Lincoln, the Civil War, or speech writing. The book definitely has a narrow focus, but it hits its goal perfectly. I look forward to reading White's single volume biography A. Lincoln, and plan to read some of the other books focusing on specific Lincoln speeches such as the Gettysburg Address and the Cooper Union speech.
2 likes · flag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read Lincoln's Greatest Speech.
Sign In »

Reading Progress

April 17, 2012 – Started Reading
April 17, 2012 – Shelved
April 23, 2012 – Shelved as: biography
April 23, 2012 – Shelved as: all-non-fiction
April 23, 2012 – Shelved as: history
April 23, 2012 – Shelved as: audiobooks
April 23, 2012 – Finished Reading
May 18, 2012 – Shelved as: civil-war-era
May 21, 2012 – Shelved as: history-bio-19th-century

No comments have been added yet.