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Litigation Journal

Fall 2020: Standards

Tuning the Final Paragraph of Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address

George D Gopen


  • You can improve your own prose—no matter how good it might now be—by putting some of Mr. Lincoln’s music to work in your legal documents.
  • Choose a single paragraph that seems particularly important and work on it musically.
  • Balance rhythmically what seems to need to be balanced intellectually.
Tuning the Final Paragraph of Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address
Bruce Yuanyue Bi via Getty Images

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Dear Readers: Please find Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address online and read all four of its paragraphs. This essay concerns only the final paragraph, the one everyone knows best. I haven’t space to reprint the whole speech here. For an explanation of the technique below that I call colometrics, see “What Have the Muses Got to Do with Legal Writing?,” 46 Litigation 20–22 (Spring 2020).

Are you writing briefs, memos, and letters? Can you learn something from Abraham Lincoln about elegance and power? Yes, you can.

Most Americans have encountered and can recall the first eight words of the final paragraph of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural: “With malice toward none, with charity for all.” Many have called the Second Inaugural Lincoln’s greatest speech. The first paragraph contained 131 words, the second 98, the third 393, and the final one 74. Though the final paragraph is relatively short, it is all one sentence—one final, sustained flight. Let us take a look at how Lincoln makes his lyrical ending soar—into what the ancient rhetoricians called a peroration.

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

His final paragraph had to be written in a different music from the rest of the speech. Its job was to inspire: It needed to sing. It had to achieve by its end cadential closure in a major key. One should leave the concert hall humming his main tune. He achieved all this memorably and magnificently.

Although a given reader or listener probably is not consciously aware of it, Lincoln uses a technique regarding word choice that he borrowed from Shakespeare, who, when trying to get to the very essence of a message, greatly favored one-syllable words. Here is Antony in the marketplace, grieving over the death of Caesar:

I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke,

But here I am to speak what I do know.

You all did love him once, not without cause.

What cause withholds you then to mourn for him?

Thirty-five words (discounting the name of Brutus); 32 monosyllables—91.4 percent monosyllables. Simple, essential, ringing. In his first public speech (in 1832), Lincoln used 58.1 percent monosyllables. In passages taken at random from four books of historians writing about Lincoln, which happen to be lying about on my desk, the monosyllable percentages ranged from 39 percent to 48 percent, with one outlier at 61 percent. In his Second Inaugural, Lincoln’s monosyllable rate for the first three of its four paragraphs is a high 70.6 percent; but for this lyrical final paragraph, it is a remarkable 82.4 percent. Of the 74 words, 61 have but a single syllable.

But, of course, word choice tells us nothing by itself. The difference between the final paragraph and its predecessors lies mostly in Lincoln’s prose rhythms, which support his grammatical structures. The difference lies in his music. If this passage is memorable, it is because he has made it so memorizable. Rhythm promotes memory. (What song did you use as a child to learn the alphabet?) His rhythms help us recognize and deal with structures as we pass through them: We rely on balances; we experience a crescendo; we arrive at a satisfactory sense of closure.

The first three paragraphs of the address (to be considered in the next two essays in this series) dealt with serious, somber, complex matters of history and morality. They called for different musics, varying from a staid sense of exposition to a baroque sense of interweaving balances and repetitions. In the final paragraph, it was time for him to lift the audience’s spirits and begin to face the future with an open heart.

He chose for his opening line not the 4-beat line that had long been his standard default value starting place, but rather the quietest and simplest line he could find—a well-balanced 2-beat line: C1

The preposition-noun combination of the first beat is balanced by the same combination for the second beat. To retain, maintain, and extend the purity of this quiet simplicity, he repeats the music of that line with different words, varying it (quietly) with some standard rhetorical devices: C2

This colometric fragment allows us to see the vertical balances that have been added to each line’s horizontal balances. Both lines begin with “with.” “Malice” and “charity” talk to each other—not only because both are abstract nouns but also because of the sound repetition in their “a” sounds. (Sound repetition with vowels is called assonance.) And, following the standards for rhetorical expansion (but not yet too much expansion), “charity” has three syllables, compared with the mere two of “malice.” (Shakespeare often did this kind of syllable counting.) All the rest of the words are monosyllables—“toward” being pronounced then as a one-syllable word. “Toward” and “for” are not only both prepositions, but they also provide a second occasion for assonance, the “o” in “toward” sounding like the “o” in “for.” The two lines resolve in the grammatically similar but semantically contrasting “none” and “all.” The negative emotion (“malice”) resolves in a negative exclusive (“none”); and the positive emotion (“charity”) resolves in a positive inclusive (“all”). No wonder these two lines are so easy to recall.

Proceeding, Lincoln gives us yet a third 2-beat line, thus firmly establishing 2 beats as the “home” rhythmic value for this sentence-paragraph. That rhythm is going to function as a tonic chord does for a popular song or a symphony: We shall want to return to it at the end in order to achieve our final moment of closure. C3

For a third straight time, we have a 2-beat line that begins with the word “with.” This is a favorite rhetorical figure of speech for Lincoln, anaphora—the repetition of a word to mark the beginning of several consecutive units. The repeated “with” suggests we might expect the same sort of musical line we have already experienced twice.

Again the preposition-noun packages balance each other. As “malice” is extended to “none,” and “charity” is extended to “all,” “firmness” reaches out to its source—“the right.” Lincoln, having battled through the difficulties of the issues surrounding the Civil War in the earlier three paragraphs, will now stand firmly on his perception of righteousness in order to bring the speech to a triumphant closure.

To begin the slow crescendo to that end, he most subtly gives us three words in the right column instead of the two we experienced in the previous line—again a habit of Shakespeare’s. That produces a slight touch of emphasis for “in the right.”

The ancient rhetoricians also had a term for a slow rhetorical crescendo—auxesis.

Having firmly established the 2-beat line by giving us three of them in a row, he somewhat dramatically doubles that length with a 4-beat line: C4

This fourth line is not another pair of 2 beats: The line’s meaning and grammar do not admit a significant break in its middle. Imitating the third line, the fourth also ends with a repetition of “the right.” (The ancients called the repetition of the same word or phrase at the end of consecutive units epistrophe.) This feels like only the beginning of an auxesis because it lacks a sense of arrival at the end of the fourth line. It is still going somewhere, building further. And, of course, where the grammatical structure of the sentence is concerned, we have not yet reached the main clause of the sentence. With all this buildup of modifications, perhaps the main clause will be the climax that truly makes of this passage an auxesis.

When, in the next line, the main clause arrives, it produces a grammatical sense of arrival, but by no means full closure. There is no period here. (Lincoln’s semicolon would today be replaced by a colon, promising us a list of tasks to define “the work we are in.”)

Musically, it extends the crescendo by broadening to a full 5-beat line. Lincoln, surely in imitation of Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter lines, reserves 5-beat lines for important statements that need to stand out from their surroundings: C5

Here is his colometric rhythm of expansion to this point: C6

The rest of this sentence/paragraph/address is a list of the three tasks we must finish. Again Lincoln structurally organizes the journey—and keeps the auxesis going—by employing the organizational tactic of anaphora. This time the milepost word, which tells us a new member of this list of three has begun, is the infinitve marker “to.” It may sound like he has given us four things “to” do; but the first is just an umbrella for the other three. We can handle three. We couldn’t have handled four anywhere nearly as well. C7

This is a lot we are being asked to do. If we are to feel uplifted, not overwhelmed, by these new moral requirements, we must be aided—perhaps even transported—from one end of this list to the other. This is especially so because this extended main clause will bring the whole speech to a close. Such a writing challenge cannot, I would argue, be successfully met without the uplifting help provided by his choice of rhythms. The music must flow. It does: C8

From that expansive (and single) 5-beat line that establishes the list, Lincoln brings the auxesis to its well-earned conclusion by shaping each of the three tasks in continually larger and more complex units. The first, backwards-looking in time, is contained in a single 3-beat line. The second, looking to the immediate future, expands first to a 4-beat line and then adds an additional 2-beat line in order to cover all three of the focuses for our care. The third task expands yet further, reaching into the far future, as it repeats and balances the 4-beat line with which the second task began and then brings this peroration—and the speech as a whole—to closure that returns us, via a transitional 3-beat line, to two final 2-beat lines, which reproduce the rhythms with which the paragraph began.

The expanding of this final list of three tasks occurs in a number of ways: (1) We move through time from the present to the near future to the far future; (2) we expand our focus from the abstract wounds of the (now to be restored) nation to the wounds of three kinds of specific people to an important wave of the arm to the nations of the world, who are put on notice that we are back and we are strong; (3) and all of this is supported by his rhythmic control of each moment, balancing, moving, and thus uplifting. Looking at the complete colometric here, you can see that movement. You can feel the dance; you can even see its shape (see colometric 9 below). C9, below

In the next two On the Papers essays, we will explore how Lincoln uses all these techniques to handle all the thorniest of problems that confronted him in the other three paragraphs of this extraordinary address. In this final paragraph, we have seen him spread his wings, and we have heard him sing. He had much work to do in the previous three paragraphs to get himself and us ready for this final moment.

You can improve your own prose—no matter how good it might now be—by putting some of Mr. Lincoln’s music to work in your legal documents. You may not have the opportunity to give an inaugural address; but the quality of your writing always affects the effects your documents will have on your audience. To start with, choose a single paragraph that seems particularly important and work on it musically. Read it aloud. Did you stumble at one or more points? If so, it may be due to a malfunctioning rhythm. See if you can make a colometric of the paragraph. If the paragraph seems loath to succumb to such a procedure, your rhythms are probably working against you. Balance rhythmically what seems to need to be balanced intellectually. Can’t figure out where to go from there? Send me the paragraph. In exchange for your letting me use it as an example, I’ll see what I can do with it. [email protected].