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

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