Lincoln's first inaugural address

Lincoln's first inaugural address

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Abraham Lincoln's first inaugural address was delivered by President Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States, serving from March 1861 until his assassination in April 1865. He successfully led his country through a great constitutional, military and moral crisis – the American Civil War – preserving the Union, while ending slavery, and...

, on Monday, March 4, 1861, as part of his taking of the oath of office
Abraham Lincoln 1861 presidential inauguration
The first inauguration of Abraham Lincoln as the 16th President of the United States took place on March 4, 1861 on the eve of American Civil War...

 for his first term as the sixteenth President of the United States
President of the United States
The President of the United States of America is the head of state and head of government of the United States. The president leads the executive branch of the federal government and is the commander-in-chief of the United States Armed Forces....

. The speech was primarily addressed to the people of the South, and was intended to succinctly state Lincoln's intended policies and desires toward that section, where seven states had seceded from the Union and formed the Confederate States of America
Confederate States of America
The Confederate States of America was a government set up from 1861 to 1865 by 11 Southern slave states of the United States of America that had declared their secession from the U.S...

. Indeed, the new flag of the Confederacy—the Stars and Bars
Stars and bars
Stars and bars may refer to* The first official flag of the Confederate States of America* A graphical method used to derive the formula for multiset coefficients and other combinatorial theorems* A 1988 film starring Daniel Day-Lewis...

—had been adopted and raised over Montgomery, Alabama
Montgomery, Alabama
Montgomery is the capital of the U.S. state of Alabama, and is the county seat of Montgomery County. It is located on the Alabama River southeast of the center of the state, in the Gulf Coastal Plain. As of the 2010 census, Montgomery had a population of 205,764 making it the second-largest city...

, on this same day.

Written in a spirit of reconciliation toward the rebellious states, Lincoln's inaugural address touched on several topics: first, his pledge to "hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the government"—including Fort Sumter
Fort Sumter
Fort Sumter is a Third System masonry coastal fortification located in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. The fort is best known as the site upon which the shots initiating the American Civil War were fired, at the Battle of Fort Sumter.- Construction :...

, which was still in Federal hands; second, his argument that the Union was indissolvable, and thus that secession was impossible; and third, a promise that while he would never be the first to attack, any use of arms against the United States would be regarded as rebellion, and met with force. The inauguration took place on the eve of the American Civil War
American Civil War
The American Civil War was a civil war fought in the United States of America. In response to the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States, 11 southern slave states declared their secession from the United States and formed the Confederate States of America ; the other 25...

, which began soon after with the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter
Fort Sumter
Fort Sumter is a Third System masonry coastal fortification located in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. The fort is best known as the site upon which the shots initiating the American Civil War were fired, at the Battle of Fort Sumter.- Construction :...


Lincoln denounced secession as anarchy, and explained that majority rule had to be balanced by constitutional restraints in the American system of republicanism
Republicanism in the United States
Republicanism is the political value system that has been a major part of American civic thought since the American Revolution. It stresses liberty and inalienable rights as central values, makes the people as a whole sovereign, supports activist government to promote the common good, rejects...

"A majority held in restraint by constitutional checks and limitations, and always changing easily with deliberate changes of popular opinions and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people."

Desperately wishing to avoid this terrible conflict, Lincoln closed the address with this impassioned plea:

"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 battlefield 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."


Lincoln was chosen
1860 Republican National Convention
The 1860 National Convention of the Republican Party of the United States, held in Chicago, Illinois at the Wigwam, nominated former U.S. Representative Abraham Lincoln of Illinois for President and U.S. Senator Hannibal Hamlin of Maine for Vice President...

 to be the Republican
Republican Party (United States)
The Republican Party is one of the two major contemporary political parties in the United States, along with the Democratic Party. Founded by anti-slavery expansion activists in 1854, it is often called the GOP . The party's platform generally reflects American conservatism in the U.S...

 candidate in the 1860 presidential election
United States presidential election, 1860
The United States presidential election of 1860 was a quadrennial election, held on November 6, 1860, for the office of President of the United States and the immediate impetus for the outbreak of the American Civil War. The nation had been divided throughout the 1850s on questions surrounding the...

, which he won on November 6 with 180 electoral votes. Between this time and his inauguration on March 4, seven states—South Carolina
South Carolina
South Carolina is a state in the Deep South of the United States that borders Georgia to the south, North Carolina to the north, and the Atlantic Ocean to the east. Originally part of the Province of Carolina, the Province of South Carolina was one of the 13 colonies that declared independence...

, Mississippi
Mississippi is a U.S. state located in the Southern United States. Jackson is the state capital and largest city. The name of the state derives from the Mississippi River, which flows along its western boundary, whose name comes from the Ojibwe word misi-ziibi...

, Georgia
Georgia (U.S. state)
Georgia is a state located in the southeastern United States. It was established in 1732, the last of the original Thirteen Colonies. The state is named after King George II of Great Britain. Georgia was the fourth state to ratify the United States Constitution, on January 2, 1788...

, Florida
Florida is a state in the southeastern United States, located on the nation's Atlantic and Gulf coasts. It is bordered to the west by the Gulf of Mexico, to the north by Alabama and Georgia and to the east by the Atlantic Ocean. With a population of 18,801,310 as measured by the 2010 census, it...

, Alabama
Alabama is a state located in the southeastern region of the United States. It is bordered by Tennessee to the north, Georgia to the east, Florida and the Gulf of Mexico to the south, and Mississippi to the west. Alabama ranks 30th in total land area and ranks second in the size of its inland...

, Louisiana
Louisiana is a state located in the southern region of the United States of America. Its capital is Baton Rouge and largest city is New Orleans. Louisiana is the only state in the U.S. with political subdivisions termed parishes, which are local governments equivalent to counties...

 and Texas
Texas is the second largest U.S. state by both area and population, and the largest state by area in the contiguous United States.The name, based on the Caddo word "Tejas" meaning "friends" or "allies", was applied by the Spanish to the Caddo themselves and to the region of their settlement in...

—would secede
Confederate States of America
The Confederate States of America was a government set up from 1861 to 1865 by 11 Southern slave states of the United States of America that had declared their secession from the U.S...

 from the Union. Lincoln's predecessor in office, James Buchanan
James Buchanan
James Buchanan, Jr. was the 15th President of the United States . He is the only president from Pennsylvania, the only president who remained a lifelong bachelor and the last to be born in the 18th century....

, had deplored secession as illegal, but had insisted that the Federal government could do nothing to stop it. The entire nation, together with several interested foreign powers, awaited the President-elect's words on what exactly his policy toward the new Confederacy would be.

Lincoln's speech was an effort to answer this question, as well as an attempt to reach out to what he called his "dissatisfied fellow-countrymen" in an effort to avoid the coming conflict. He had held to a strict policy of silence during the months leading up to his inauguration, carefully avoiding making any statements that could be misconstrued by either North or South, prior to becoming the legal leader of the nation. Lincoln's intention was that no statement of his specific policy toward the South should be made available before he had taken office. Those privy to the speech's possible contents were sworn to silence, and Lincoln's draft was kept locked in the safe of the Illinois State Journal newspaper.

Lincoln composed his address in the back room of his brother-in-law's store in his hometown of Springfield, Illinois
Springfield, Illinois
Springfield is the third and current capital of the US state of Illinois and the county seat of Sangamon County with a population of 117,400 , making it the sixth most populated city in the state and the second most populated Illinois city outside of the Chicago Metropolitan Area...

, using four basic references: Henry Clay
Henry Clay
Henry Clay, Sr. , was a lawyer, politician and skilled orator who represented Kentucky separately in both the Senate and in the House of Representatives...

's 1850 speech on compromise, Daniel Webster
Daniel Webster
Daniel Webster was a leading American statesman and senator from Massachusetts during the period leading up to the Civil War. He first rose to regional prominence through his defense of New England shipping interests...

's reply to Hayne
Webster-Hayne debate
The Webster–Hayne debate was a famous debate in the U.S. between Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts and Senator Robert Y. Hayne of South Carolina that took place on January 19-27, 1830 regarding protectionist tariffs...

, Andrew Jackson
Andrew Jackson
Andrew Jackson was the seventh President of the United States . Based in frontier Tennessee, Jackson was a politician and army general who defeated the Creek Indians at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend , and the British at the Battle of New Orleans...

's proclamation against nullification
Nullification may refer to:* Nullification , a legal theory that a U.S. State has the right to nullify, or invalidate, any federal law that a state has deemed unconstitutional....

, and the United States Constitution
United States Constitution
The Constitution of the United States is the supreme law of the United States of America. It is the framework for the organization of the United States government and for the relationship of the federal government with the states, citizens, and all people within the United States.The first three...

. Lincoln's Secretary of State, William Seward
William Seward
William Seward may refer to:*William Seward, English anecdotist, 1747-1799*William H. Seward, United States Secretary of State, 1861-1869*William H. Seward, Jr., his son, banker, Civil War general...

, later made suggestions that softened the original tone somewhat, and contributed to the speech's famous closing.

Journey to Washington

An entourage of family and friends left Springfield with Lincoln on February 11 to travel by train to Washington, D.C.
Washington, D.C.
Washington, D.C., formally the District of Columbia and commonly referred to as Washington, "the District", or simply D.C., is the capital of the United States. On July 16, 1790, the United States Congress approved the creation of a permanent national capital as permitted by the U.S. Constitution....

 for his inauguration. This group included Lincoln's wife
Mary Todd Lincoln
Mary Ann Lincoln was the wife of the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, and was First Lady of the United States from 1861 to 1865.-Life before the White House:...

, three sons, and brother-in-law, as well as John G. Nicolay, John M. Hay, Ward Hill Lamon
Ward Hill Lamon
Ward Hill Lamon was a personal friend and self-appointed bodyguard of the American President Abraham Lincoln. Lamon was famously absent the night Lincoln was assassinated, having been sent by Lincoln to Richmond, Virginia....

, David Davis
David Davis (Supreme Court justice)
David Davis was a United States Senator from Illinois and associate justice of the United States Supreme Court. He also served as Abraham Lincoln's campaign manager at the 1860 Republican National Convention....

, Norman B. Judd
Norman B. Judd
Norman Buel Judd was a U.S. Representative from Illinois, and the grandfather of U.S. Representative Norman Judd Gould of New York....

, and Edwin Vose Sumner
Edwin Vose Sumner
Edwin Vose Sumner was a career United States Army officer who became a Union Army general and the oldest field commander of any Army Corps on either side during the American Civil War...


For the next ten days Lincoln traveled widely throughout the North, including stops in Indianapolis
Indianapolis is the capital of the U.S. state of Indiana, and the county seat of Marion County, Indiana. As of the 2010 United States Census, the city's population is 839,489. It is by far Indiana's largest city and, as of the 2010 U.S...

, Columbus
Columbus, Ohio
Columbus is the capital of and the largest city in the U.S. state of Ohio. The broader metropolitan area encompasses several counties and is the third largest in Ohio behind those of Cleveland and Cincinnati. Columbus is the third largest city in the American Midwest, and the fifteenth largest city...

, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Buffalo
Buffalo, New York
Buffalo is the second most populous city in the state of New York, after New York City. Located in Western New York on the eastern shores of Lake Erie and at the head of the Niagara River across from Fort Erie, Ontario, Buffalo is the seat of Erie County and the principal city of the...

, Albany
Albany, New York
Albany is the capital city of the U.S. state of New York, the seat of Albany County, and the central city of New York's Capital District. Roughly north of New York City, Albany sits on the west bank of the Hudson River, about south of its confluence with the Mohawk River...

, New York City
New York City
New York is the most populous city in the United States and the center of the New York Metropolitan Area, one of the most populous metropolitan areas in the world. New York exerts a significant impact upon global commerce, finance, media, art, fashion, research, technology, education, and...

, and south to Philadelphia, where on the afternoon of February 21 he pulled into Kensington Station. Lincoln took an open carriage to the Continental Hotel, with almost 100,000 spectators waiting to catch a glimpse of the president-elect. There he met Mayor Alexander Henry
Alexander Henry (Philadelphia)
Alexander Henry was the mayor of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, during the American Civil War. He was prominent in the efforts to suppress Confederate sympathizers within the city early in the war, and helped organize civilians to assist in constructing earthworks to defend the city during the 1863...

, and delivered some remarks to the crowd outside from a hotel balcony. Lincoln continued on to Harrisburg.

During the trip, Lincoln's son Robert was entrusted by his father with a carpetbag containing the speech. At one stop, Robert mistakenly handed the bag to a hotel clerk, who deposited it behind his desk with several others. A visibly-chagrined Lincoln was compelled to go behind the desk and try his key in several bags, until finally locating the one containing his speech. Thereafter, Lincoln kept the bag in his possession until his arrival in Washington.

Because of an alleged assassination conspiracy
Baltimore Plot
The Baltimore Plot was an alleged conspiracy in late February 1861 to assassinate President-elect Abraham Lincoln en route to his inauguration. Allan Pinkerton, founder of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, played a key role by managing Lincoln's security throughout the journey...

, Lincoln traveled through Baltimore
Baltimore is the largest independent city in the United States and the largest city and cultural center of the US state of Maryland. The city is located in central Maryland along the tidal portion of the Patapsco River, an arm of the Chesapeake Bay. Baltimore is sometimes referred to as Baltimore...

, Maryland
Maryland is a U.S. state located in the Mid Atlantic region of the United States, bordering Virginia, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia to its south and west; Pennsylvania to its north; and Delaware to its east...

 on a special train in the middle of the night before finally completing his journey to the capital.


Lincoln opened his speech by first indicating that he would not touch on "those matters of administration about which there is no special anxiety or excitement". The remainder of the speech would address the concerns of Southerners, who were apprehensive that "by the accession of a Republican Administration their property and their peace and personal security are to be endangered". Lincoln emphatically denied this assertion, and invited his listeners to consider his past speeches on the subject of slavery, together with the platform adopted by the Republican Party, which explicitly guaranteed the right of each individual state to decide for itself on the subject of slavery, together with the right of each state to be free from coercion of any kind from other states, or the Federal government. He went on to address several other points of particular interest at the time:
  1. Slavery: Lincoln stated emphatically that he had " 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, and I have no inclination to do so."
  2. Legal status of the South: He asserted that as he had just taken an oath "to preserve, protect, and defend the United States Constitution
    United States Constitution
    The Constitution of the United States is the supreme law of the United States of America. It is the framework for the organization of the United States government and for the relationship of the federal government with the states, citizens, and all people within the United States.The first three...

    ", this oath enjoined him to see that the laws of the Union were faithfully executed in all states—including those that had seceded.
  3. Use of force: Lincoln promised that there would be no use of force against the South, unless it proved necessary for him to fulfill his obligation to "hold, occupy, and possess the property and places" belonging to the federal government, and to collect legal duties and imposts. However, if the South chose to actively take up arms against the Government, their insurrection would meet a firm and forceful response.
  4. Secession: According to Lincoln, the Constitution was established "to form a more perfect union" than the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union
    Articles of Confederation
    The Articles of Confederation, formally the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, was an agreement among the 13 founding states that legally established the United States of America as a confederation of sovereign states and served as its first constitution...

     had effected. Since the Union established under the Articles was explicitly perpetual in name and text, thus the Union under the Constitution was equally perpetual. He added that even if the Constitution were to be construed as a simple contract, it could not be legally rescinded without an agreement between all parties, meaning all of the states, North and South.
  5. Protection of slavery: Lincoln explicitly stated that he had no objection to the proposed Corwin amendment
    Corwin amendment
    The Corwin Amendment is a proposed amendment to the United States Constitution passed by the 36th Congress, 2nd Session, on March 2, 1861, in the form of House Resolution No. 80...

     to the Constitution, which had already been approved by both houses of the United States Congress
    United States Congress
    The United States Congress is the bicameral legislature of the federal government of the United States, consisting of the Senate and the House of Representatives. The Congress meets in the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C....

    . This amendment would formally protect slavery in those states in which it already existed, and assure to each state the right to establish or repudiate it. Lincoln indicated that he thought that this right was already protected in the original Constitution, and thus that the Corwin amendment merely reiterated what it already contained.
  6. Slavery in the Territories: Lincoln asserted that nothing in the Constitution expressly said what either could or could not be done regarding slavery in the territories. He indicated his willingness to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act, so long as free blacks could be protected from being kidnapped and illegally sold into slavery through its misuse.
  7. The postal service: The U.S. Mails would continue to operate throughout the South, "unless repelled".
  8. Federal offices in the South: With no professional civil service
    Civil service
    The term civil service has two distinct meanings:* A branch of governmental service in which individuals are employed on the basis of professional merit as proven by competitive examinations....

     in operation during this period of American history, Lincoln promised that he would not use the spoils system
    Spoils system
    In the politics of the United States, a spoil system is a practice where a political party, after winning an election, gives government jobs to its voters as a reward for working toward victory, and as an incentive to keep working for the party—as opposed to a system of awarding offices on the...

     to appoint Northern office-holders to federal offices, such as postmasterships, located in the Southern states. Instead, said he, he would "forego the use of such offices" rather than force "obnoxious strangers" upon the South.

Lincoln concluded his speech with a very eloquent plea for calm and cool deliberation in the face of mounting tension throughout the nation. He assured the rebellious states that the Federal government would never initiate any conflict with them, and indicated his own conviction that once "touched" once more by "the better angels of our nature", the "mystic chords of memory" North and South would "yet swell the chorus of the Union".


While much of the Northern press praised or at least accepted Lincoln's speech, the new Confederacy essentially met his inaugural address with contemptuous silence. The Charleston Mercury was an exception: it excoriated Lincoln's address as manifesting "insolence" and "brutality," and attacked the Union government as 'a mobocratic empire.' The speech also did not impress other states who were considering secession from the Union. Indeed, after Fort Sumter was attacked and Lincoln declared a formal State of Insurrection, four more states—Virginia
The Commonwealth of Virginia , is a U.S. state on the Atlantic Coast of the Southern United States. Virginia is nicknamed the "Old Dominion" and sometimes the "Mother of Presidents" after the eight U.S. presidents born there...

, North Carolina
North Carolina
North Carolina is a state located in the southeastern United States. The state borders South Carolina and Georgia to the south, Tennessee to the west and Virginia to the north. North Carolina contains 100 counties. Its capital is Raleigh, and its largest city is Charlotte...

, Tennessee
Tennessee is a U.S. state located in the Southeastern United States. It has a population of 6,346,105, making it the nation's 17th-largest state by population, and covers , making it the 36th-largest by total land area...

 and Arkansas
Arkansas is a state located in the southern region of the United States. Its name is an Algonquian name of the Quapaw Indians. Arkansas shares borders with six states , and its eastern border is largely defined by the Mississippi River...

—seceded from the Union and joined the Confederacy.

See also

  • Lincoln's second inaugural address
    Lincoln's second inaugural address
    Abraham Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address on March 4, 1865, during his second inauguration as President of the United States. At a time when victory over the secessionists in the American Civil War was within days and slavery was near an end, Lincoln did not speak of happiness, but of...

  • Abraham Lincoln 1861 presidential inauguration
    Abraham Lincoln 1861 presidential inauguration
    The first inauguration of Abraham Lincoln as the 16th President of the United States took place on March 4, 1861 on the eve of American Civil War...

External links