Lincoln’s First Inaugural and American History

When Abraham Lincoln took the oath of office as President of the United States, he faced an unprecedented crisis. Seven states had already formally seceded from the Union, set up their own government in Montgomery, Alabama, and were actively recruiting more states to join them in forming a rival national government. Lincoln’s inauguration speech has often been admired for its moderation. The new President stated clearly that he would “hold, occupy, and possess” the federal government’s buildings and forts in the seceded states, but also that “there will be no invasion, no using of force against or among the people anywhere.” Lincoln tried to speak past the fanatics to “those who love the Union.”

We can admire Lincoln’s calm restraint, yet in retrospect Lincoln would seem to have misjudged the temper of the times and the resolve of the Southern whites. At the core of Lincoln’s first inaugural address was his assertion that “plainly, the central idea of secession is the essence of anarchy.” Hundreds of thousands of white southerners disagreed, of course, and saw their nation as an independent republic, fully justified in peaceable separation from the Union. Lincoln asserted that “one section of the country believes slavery is right and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong and ought not to be extended.” Although he knew well that many Northerners found little wrong with slavery, Lincoln claimed that “physically speaking” the country could not be separated. And in his beautiful and poignant closing, calling on the “mystic chords of memory” and “the better angels of our nature,” Lincoln hoped Americans would set “passion” aside and renew their bonds of affection in the Union.

Lincoln had reason to believe in these feelings for the Union and that they might avert the looming conflict and violence; indeed, he probably had to have this faith on that day. His personal qualities and his political calculation led him to take a position of open invitation to the white South to return their hearts to the Union. He hoped time would cool off the angry response to his election, and with this expectation his inaugural address was genuinely offered as an attempt at reconciliation. Despite the elegance of his rhetoric, Lincoln’s idea that the American continent could not be physically separated into two or more republics was an assertion unsupportable by history or logic. Various empires had controlled large parts of the American continent and national identities in other parts of the world constantly changed the maps and atlases.Lincoln, however, challenged his “dissatisfied countrymen” to think twice about their actions. He vowed to uphold the constitution and his oath to defend the government, and he said that they in choosing secession bore the responsibility for a civil war. Most of all, Lincoln urged that both sides take time and move deliberately. With time, he hoped, these sad divisions might heal.

The difficulty Lincoln faced was in convincing white Southerners that these sentiments mattered. Few were listening. What happened to make such a distance of feeling, such alienation, possible? Lincoln likened the separation to a divorce, but all such analogies fail. Lincoln’s inaugural address, brave and elegiac as it was, was speaking into a hurricane. The white South in spirit and identity left the Union long before March 4, 1861. The divergence is difficult to time and locate in American history. Too often, our histories have followed Lincoln’s logic that separation was impossible, secession was a “sophism,” and the civil war was the product of discontented extremists–a set of arguments most forcefully made in his message to Congress on July 4, 1861. We might reconsider, however, the national purpose of the Confederate South and its origins. Historians, such as Drew Gilpin Faust, Anne S. Rubin, Peter and Nicholas Onuf, and Edward L. Ayers, have helped us see the white South’s national identity as deeper and more complex that Lincoln might have admitted. These historians and others suggest a white South whose Confederate national loyalties proved durable, even advanced and logical, drawing on the same sources of American nationalism in the Revolution and early national history. They knew what they were doing. We need to retain Lincoln’s sense of historical contingency, for he (almost alone) in his inaugural held out the possibility that things might be different, that persuasion and good will might be reciprocated, and that a reservoir of Unionism might save the nation from war and bloodshed. But we also might consider how sectionalism reinforced its own logic by slowly recasting forms of national identity, and in the process how two modern nations of Americans emerged ready to fight one another on modern scale of conflict. Then we might understand how Lincoln’s eloquent first inaugural fell on deaf ears.

About William Thomas

William G. Thomas III is a professor of history at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the John and Catherine Angle Professor in the Humanities. He teaches digital humanities and digital history, 19th century U.S. history, the Civil War, and the history of slavery.
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