It was March 4, 1865, Inauguration Day, and the President had only 41 days to live.

The man who would soon end Abraham Lincoln’s dream—as laid out in the speech he was about to deliver—to reconcile the war-torn nation was in attendance. John Wilks Booth stood within firing range.

“What an excellent chance I had, if I wished, to kill the President on Inauguration day,” he later reportedly exclaimed.

A vicious racist and popular actor, Booth was the guest of his socialite fiancée, Lucy Hale, the daughter of Senator John Parker Hale. Ironically, Abraham Lincoln would appoint Mr. Hale to serve as Minister to Spain six days later. The two then happened to meet on the morning of April 14, the day Lincoln would fatefully attend Ford’s Theater. Unbeknownst to Lincoln, his guest’s daughter’s fiancée would lodge a bullet into his head a mere few hours later.

Perhaps even more ironic, Lucy Hale, Washington’s “It Girl,” had possible romantic connections with Lincoln’s oldest son, Robert. The two had once danced together, enraging Booth. Robert is also rumored to have sent her flowers, and Mr. Hale entertained the possibility that the two might marry.

But Lincoln was oblivious to the cruel irony that surrounded him when he stood to speak. He was unaware of the malice festering in the man who, pictures reveal, stood shockingly close to him.

Booth hated Lincoln before today and had already plotted to kidnap the president. After today, he would hate him even more. It was only a matter of time before Booth’s plans escalated from kidnapping to murder.

SEE ALSO: Lincoln the Miserable

Lincoln’s new vice president, Andrew Johnson, had just embarrassed them all with his drunken, rambling, sorry excuse for a speech. Lincoln later defended Johnson but admitted that the humiliating incident was a “bad slip.” Others, however, were not so understanding. At least two Senators called for the pro-Union Democrat to resign. Little did they know that he would soon become their president.

In retrospect, we interpret the day in light of Lincoln’s impending assassination. But at the time, although rumors of an assassination were not unheard of, Lincoln was resolved to lead the nation for four full years. He had his plans laid out. He knew what he would do.

“Fellow countrymen,” he began, “at this second appearing to take the oath of the presidential office, there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement, somewhat in detail, of a course to be pursued, seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention, and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself; and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.

SEE ALSO: A new birth of freedom – Great Speeches pt. 5

On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago, all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war—seeking to dissolve the Union, and divide effects, by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.

One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the Southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union, even by war; while the government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it.

Neither party expected for the war, the magnitude, or the duration, which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully.

SEE ALSO: Great men and why we need them

The Almighty has His own purposes. Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh! If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

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 a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

Although longer than his Gettysburg Address, the speech, at around six minutes in length, was remarkably short. But in those 700 words, Lincoln once again made history.

SEE ALSO: Lessons from Passover and Maggid

His speech was so biblically-influenced (replete with biblical allusions), Frederick Douglass famously commented that it sounded “more like a sermon.” If so, it was the greatest sermon in American history.

For four years, Lincoln had suffered. The nation had suffered. Yet Lincoln vowed to believe, no matter how long the war lasted, that God was just as true and righteous as ever. He would not quit. Nothing less than an assassin’s bullet would stop him from finishing the work God had called him to.

More than anything, Lincoln longed to see the Union restored. His incredibly gracious, “with malice toward none” approach to reconciliation with the traitorous South proved it. He, unlike other Republicans, did not want to punish the Confederacy or gloat over their impending defeat. From his 10 percent plan to Ulysses S. Grant’s shockingly lenient terms of surrender at Appomattox Court House, a Lincoln-led Reconstruction promised to be fair, just, and exactly what a post-war nation needed.

Unfortunately, it was not to be. The great tragedy of history is that malice ended the great man’s life; Booth’s bullet found its mark.

Historians have conjectured for generations how differently the American story would have played out if only Lincoln had lived and Andrew Johnson (arguably the worst president in our history) had not led Reconstruction. Most agree we would be incalculably better off today.

Nevertheless, as Lincoln himself would enjoin us, “[I]t must be said, “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” “The Almighty has His own purposes.”

Jakob Fay is a staff writer for the Convention of States Project, a project of Citizens for Self-Governance. 

About The Author