The 150th Anniversary of Lincoln’s Inauguration

Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865)

This Friday, March 4, will mark the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s first inauguration. In reflecting on his momentous address, I suppose I could simply repeat the most frequently quoted sentences. But why not have a more in-depth look at the address as a whole?

I doubt there was ever an inaugural address given in such desperate times. Lincoln’s election the previous fall being the last straw, by March, seven states had seceded from the Union. The U.S. Army garrisons at Fort Pickens in Pensacola and Fort Sumter in Charleston were surrounded by the provisional Confederate Army and bloodshed looked imminent. A supply ship attempting to deliver relief to Fort Sumter had been fired upon and turned away…so it could be argued that the shooting had already started. In the hectic days before the inauguration, Lincoln, recently arrived in Washington, had met with delegates from border states and upper South secession conventions. States such as Virginia and North Carolina had not yet voted for secession, but were eagerly waiting to see what Lincoln would do when he stepped into the presidency. The meetings did not produce any encouraging results. And Lincoln had, just days earlier, settled on his Cabinet, a stressful trial in dealing with a group of…well…prima donnas.

March 4 dawned cloudy. But by the time the inaugural procession made its way to Capitol Hill, the sun was shining. Rumors of would-be assassins in Washington were rife and General Winfield Scott had deployed soldiers seemingly everywhere. Lincoln delivered his address in front of an unfinished Capitol building, the dome then under construction.

Wasting very little time with preambles or pleasantries, Lincoln stated flatly, “I do not consider it necessary at present for me to discuss those matters of administration about which there is no special anxiety or excitement.” Instead, he got right to the point.  “Apprehension seems to exist among the people of the Southern States that by the accession of a Republican administration their property and their peace and personal security are to be endangered…I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so…”

The evolution of Lincoln’s views on slavery have been written about extensively. And it was just that…an evolution. Clearly, at the time of his inauguration he is still firmly taking the “Free-Soiler” position…leave slavery alone where it is but do not let it spread to the “free soil” of the West. This would change to a very different stance consistent with what the radical William Lloyd Garrison called, “immediate emancipation, gradually achieved.”

I do think it’s important to note that, right out of the gate, he’s talking about slavery, acknowledging that this was the central issue prompting secession and Civil War. And in case this seems like moralistic criticism, I would quickly point out that the entire nation was complicit in the institution of slavery. For instance, just last fall, I learned that the Yankee merchant who built the historic house in which I work chartered out one of his vessels to transport slaves. What a unsettling revelation that was!

Moving to his next point, Lincoln assured the nation that the Fugitive Slave Law, legislation which maddened abolitionists and many Republicans, should be enforced. He added an interesting caveat, though, stating that federal and state governments alike had a responsibility “…to conform to and abide by all those acts which stand unrepealed…” No endorsement, then, of the Fugitive Slave Law, but an assertion that, so long as it was law, it must be enforced.

Describing the national strife, he pointed out that there had never been an inauguration quite like his, commencing, “under great and peculiar difficulty.” And then came to the ultimate question of secession. “I hold that, in contemplation of universal law and of the Constitution, the Union of these States is perpetual…no government proper ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination.”

“It follows from these views that no State upon its own mere motion can lawfully get out of the Union…and that acts of violence, within any State or States, against the authority of the United States, are insurrectionary or revolutionary…” Strong words. Words that Secretary of State William Seward had tempered in his suggested revisions. Lincoln had originally included the word “treasonable” here.

He assured all that there would be no violence, “unless it be forced upon the national authority.” He would protect federal property, but, “there will be no invasion.” Sadly, that turned out to be false.

Then, he appealed to cooler heads. Although, he said, there might be radicals wholly committed to secession, there were moderates among the secessionists as well. “To those, however, who really love the Union may I not speak? Before entering upon so grave a matter as the destruction of our national fabric…Will you hazard so desperate a step while there is any possibility that any portion of the ills you fly from have no real existence?…Will you risk the commission of so fearful a mistake?”

Secession, he warned, was simply a step towards chaos. “If a minority in such case will secede rather than acquiesce, they make a precedent which in turn will divide and ruin them; for a minority of their own will secede from them…Plainly, the central idea of secession is the essence of anarchy.”

Lincoln's First Inauguration, March 4, 1861

He stated simply the essence of the crisis, “One section of our country believes slavery is right, and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong, and ought not to be extended. This is the only substantial dispute.” While the question of extension remained in dispute, Lincoln pointed out that, as far as he was concerned, the question of preserving slavery in the South where it currently existed had been settled. He brought up the Corwin Amendment, just approved by Congress, which would expressly prohibit Congress from abolishing slavery in the South. This might have become the 13th Amendment if not for the fact that Civil War erupted and states simply ignored it. Technically, it still hovers out there in the legal ether, awaiting ratification by the states, although now completely moot.

Lincoln’s stance on the Corwin Amendment is interesting, again indicating that at this stage of the game he was willing to compromise on slavery. “I have no objection,” he said, “to its being made express and irrevocable.”

In wrapping up, he begged secessionists to slow down and think. “My countrymen, one and all, think calmly and well upon this whole subject…there still is no single good reason for precipitate action.”

He might have left it on that note with a few more soothing words. But he wanted something to be very clear. It was a point Seward had tried to re-draft using rather bland language. Lincoln did adopt some of Seward’s less bellicose wording, but he further re-worked the conclusion, applying his own concise and powerful tone.

“In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war…We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

We all know that the better angels of our nature did not prevail. Four years of war lay ahead. Despite its failure to persuade, this address remains a noble example of plainspokeness and sincerity from a President seldom surpassed in American history.

[Sources: Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address; Stephen B. Oates, With Malice Toward None (1977), 231-237; Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals (2005), 323-329.]

About Patrick Browne

I am a PhD candidate in History, former historical society and museum director of roughly 20 years, an author, sometimes Civil War reenactor. I specialize in early American History, particularly the Civil War era. View all posts by Patrick Browne

2 responses to “The 150th Anniversary of Lincoln’s Inauguration

  • Hondo69

    It is unclear to me why the election of Lincoln spurred several state to secede. His campaign speeches deftly avoided the topic of slavery and stressed the importance of State’s Rights. Maybe because he was the first Republican president and Republicans were free-soil proponents. Maybe any candidate elected from the North would have been the final straw. Or it could be Southern states were on the brink of secession anyway and any spark is all was needed. I’d sure like to learn more on this topic.

    • Historical Digression

      Hondo, it seems to me that it was a combination of all these things that you mention…and more. Many secessionists felt that a Republican President was a grave threat. No matter how much Lincoln assured them that he intended to leave slavery alone where it was, many felt that a Republican President would mean the death of slavery. Most Lincoln biographers cover this theme. My personal favorite is Stephen Oates’s biography “With Malice Toward None.”

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