Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address: Constitution and Union

I inaugurated my blog two weeks ago on March 4, pointing out the now mostly forgotten historical significance of that date in US history: it was on that date in the year 1789 that our Constitution went into effect and our government took on the form it still has today, and it was also the date on which our Presidential inaugurations took place until the year 1933.

It is therefore not at all surprising that when President-elect Abraham Lincoln took the oath of office on March 4, 1861 – seven of the 15 southern States having recently seceded from the Union to form the Confederate States of America and the other eight threatening to leave as well – the Constitution was first and foremost in his mind. He referred to the Constitution itself or to constitutional rights, questions, etc. 34 times in his speech (the only inaugural address with more constitutional references was William Harrison’s in 1841, with 39, but his speech was more than twice as long).

Lincoln’s theme that day was essentially the following: in light of the Constitution and laws of our country, what was he going to do in response to the current crisis? He attempted to strike a seemingly impossible balance: persuade the South to voluntarily turn back from the path it had taken without compromising the integrity of the Constitution and system of government. The Constitution turned 72 years old that day, approximately the human lifespan. Was this great document, and the country it governed, also nearing its end? It certainly seemed so.

Lincoln first carefully repeated his new administration’s very clear stance on the slavery issue, in order to reassure the South. He would not interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it already existed and was protected by the Constitution – “I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so” – including upholding the controversial fugitive slave law (returning escaped slaves to their masters).

Lincoln then laid out his case that the Union was perpetual, that no State could leave the Union without the consent of the others. This would be true whether viewed from the perspective of a national government (“It is safe to assert that no government proper, ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination”) or as a contract (“One party to a contract may violate it – break it, so to speak; but does it not require all to lawfully rescind it?”). And since the Union was actually older than the Constitution, it would certainly be true when viewed from the perspective of that document, one of whose objectives was ‘to form a more perfect union’:

But if destruction of the Union, by one, or by a part only, of the States, be lawfully possible, the Union is less perfect than before the Constitution, having lost the vital element of perpetuity. It follows from these views that no State, upon its own mere motion, can lawfully get out of the Union … I therefore consider that, in view of the Constitution and the laws, the Union is unbroken …”.

The remainder of Lincoln’s address that day laid out further arguments against secession mixed with further appeals to reason and self-restraint. He noted that both secession and minority rule lead down the path to anarchy. He spoke of the benefits, memories, and hopes of ‘our national fabric’, and about ‘the restoration of fraternal sympathies and affections’. The present crisis could still be overcome, he claimed, through ‘intelligence, patriotism, Christianity, and a firm reliance on Him, who has never yet forsaken this favored land’. He reasoned that if the South did go to war, they could not fight forever, and after great losses on both sides, they would still have to deal with the same questions as before.

On some points, Lincoln did take a firm stand; the Constitution, after all, required him to ensure that the laws were respected in all of the States. Specifically, he said that the Federal government would use its power to maintain possession of government installations in the South (read: Fort Sumter), and to collect taxes; yet it would do nothing else which might provoke any feelings of an invasion.

Would all of this be sufficient to avert war? Lincoln left that up to the South, while still maintaining a firm stance on his own obligations:

In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict, without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in Heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to ‘preserve, protect and defend’ it.

Lincoln’s drafts had ended with a dramatic question for the South: “Shall it be peace or sword?” On the suggestion of Secretary of State William Seward, however, Lincoln dropped this combative ending in favor of one last conciliatory appeal to their shared history and experiences:

“I am loath to close. 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.”

Why was Lincoln so ‘loath to close’? It would seem to be that he believed this was his last, best chance to save the Union without war. One senses that he felt that as long as he continued talking, they would presumably be listening, and possibly open to turn back. Yet as soon as he closed his remarks, there would be an ominous finality to the whole dreadful situation. If he hadn’t persuaded them by that time, it would then be too late. Unfortunately for our country – as fate, or providence, would have it – this would prove to be the case.

Kevin J. Wood

March 18, 2015

The Fourth of March: A Most Fitting Day to Inaugurate My Blog

For today’s average US citizen, even a decidedly patriotic one, the date of March 4 probably holds little meaning, especially in comparison to July 4. Yet this wasn’t always the case.

While July 4, 1776 – the date of the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence – is deservedly regarded as the birthdate of our nation, the date of March 4, 1789 was just as significant. On that day, the US Constitution went into effect, the former Congress under the Articles of Confederation dissolved itself, and the first session of the very first new US Congress began in New York City (although without a quorum of members). No longer were we simply a loosely-linked confederation of independent States; now we were truly the United States, a “more perfect union”. In short, March 4, 1789 marks the beginning of our country with our form of government as we know it today. If July 4 was our birthday, perhaps March 4 marks our confirmation or bat mitzvah: our coming of age and formal introduction to an inquisitive world still not sure what to make of us.

In addition, March 4 would be the Inauguration Day for our Presidents for the next 150 years, from George Washington’s second term in 1793 all the way until Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first term in 1933. As a result, March 4 has seen more than its share of significant moments, such as the year 1797 when a remarkable (for that time) transition of power took place. On that day, an immensely popular President Washington, who likely could have remained in that position for the rest of his life had he wanted to, instead stepped aside as John Adams became our second President. Washington would not be king, nor even the permanent head of government; he would not be corrupted by power. And it would not require a coup, war, or political intrigue in order to pass the reins of power from one common citizen to another. We take such peaceful transitions of power for granted today; back then it was truly revolutionary. What’s more, in a highly symbolic gesture, once Adams and new Vice President Thomas Jefferson were inaugurated, Washington also stepped aside literally to allow the new leaders to leave the room first; he was, after all, now just a private citizen.

Over the next century and a half, many more March 4 inaugurations would come and go, some marking other important – or not-so-important – firsts. There was the first inauguration in our brand new capital city of Washington, DC (Jefferson in 1801); the first to be followed by a ball (Madison in 1809; tickets: $4); the first to take place while the country was at war (Madison in 1813); the first in which the President wore long trousers instead of knee breeches (J. Q. Adams in 1825); the first in which a “man of the people” would ascend to the presidency (Jackson in 1829); the first in which African-Americans participated (Lincoln in 1865); the first to be recorded on a movie camera (McKinley in 1897); the first in which the President-elect arrived by automobile (Harding in 1921); and the first to be broadcast nationwide by radio (Coolidge in 1925).

The highlight of every inauguration is, of course, the inaugural speech. Some of these would defend past actions, such as Jefferson in 1805 explaining his controversial decision to double the size of the country in one fell swoop by purchasing the vast Louisiana Territory from France. Others would lay out bold new policies, such as Monroe in 1821 telling the European colonial powers that the various peoples of America could and would govern themselves just fine without any more help from across the pond, thank you very much (for the record, the 1821 inauguration wasn’t actually held until March 5 since the fourth was a Sunday).

The tradition of March 4 inaugurations went out in style as the last one to take place on that date was a very memorable one. The country was in the grips of the Great Depression when Franklin D. Roosevelt strove to both calm and embolden the people in 1933: “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself …”. In the same speech, FDR would outline his “good neighbor” policy for foreign relations with Latin America.

The 1933 inauguration would be the last to take place on March 4 because after that the 20th Amendment to the Constitution took effect, changing its date to the now-familiar January 20. And with that, the historical importance of March 4 would begin to slowly recede from our nation’s collective memory.

With this context and history of the date of March 4 in mind, one can better understand the import of two of Abraham Lincoln’s best-known speeches, his first and second inaugurals. Both took place on momentous occasions, the first with the nation on the verge of civil war, and the second (150 years ago today) as the nation prepared itself for the difficult task of reuniting after a terribly divisive war. I will turn my attention to those two speeches in subsequent blogs.

Now you will also understand why I felt that March 4 would be a particularly fitting day to inaugurate my new Lincoln blog, “Loath to Close … Still!

Kevin J. Wood (“Mr. Lincoln”)

March 4, 2015