Abraham Lincoln's first inaugural address was delivered on Monday, March 4, 1861, as part of his taking of the oath of office for his first term as the sixteenth President of the United States. 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.
Written in a spirit of reconciliation toward the seceded 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, which was still in Federal hands; second, his argument that the Union was undissolvable, 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, which began soon after with the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter.
Lincoln denounced secession as anarchy, and explained that majority rule had to be balanced by constitutional restraints in the American system of republicanism:
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 ended with this impassioned plea:
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 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 to be the Republican candidate in the 1860 presidential election, which he won on November 6 with 180 electoral votes. Between this time and his inauguration on March 4, seven Deep South cotton states—South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas—would secede from the Union. Lincoln's predecessor, James Buchanan, 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, using four basic references: Henry Clay's 1850 speech on compromise, Daniel Webster's reply to Hayne, Andrew Jackson's proclamation against nullification, and the United States Constitution. Lincoln's Secretary of State, William Seward, later made suggestions that softened the original tone somewhat, and contributed to the speech's famous closing. Lincoln for his part took Seward's draft of the closing and gave it a more poetic, lyrical tone, making changes such as revising Seward's "I close. We are not, we must not be aliens or enemies but fellow countrymen and brethren" to "I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies."
An entourage of family and friends left Springfield with Lincoln on February 11 to travel by train to Washington, D.C. for his inauguration. This group included Lincoln's wife, three sons, and brother-in-law, as well as John G. Nicolay, John M. Hay, Ward Hill Lamon, David Davis, Norman B. Judd, and Edwin Vose Sumner.
For the next ten days Lincoln traveled widely throughout the North, including stops in Indianapolis, Columbus, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Buffalo, Albany, New York City, 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, 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, Lincoln traveled through Baltimore, Maryland 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:
- Slavery: Lincoln stated emphatically that he had "...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, and I have no inclination to do so."
- Legal status of the South: He asserted that as he had just taken an oath "to preserve, protect, and defend the United States Constitution", this oath enjoined him to see that the laws of the Union were faithfully executed in all states—including those that had seceded.
- 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.
- Secession: Referring to words in the preamble to the Constitution, Lincoln stated that the Constitution was established "to form a more perfect union" than the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union 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.
- Protection of slavery: Lincoln explicitly stated that he had no objection to the proposed Corwin Amendment to the Constitution, which had already been approved by both houses of the United States Congress. This amendment would have formally protected slavery in those states in which it already existed, and assured 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.
- 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.
- The postal service: The U.S. Mails would continue to operate throughout the South, "unless repelled."
- Federal offices in the South: With no professional civil service in operation during this period of American history, Lincoln promised that he would not use the spoils system to appoint Northern office-holders to federal offices, such as postmasterships, located in the Southern states. Instead, he said he would "forego the use of such offices" rather than force "obnoxious strangers" upon the South.
Lincoln concluded his speech with an 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, North Carolina, Tennessee and Arkansas—seceded from the Union and joined the Confederacy.
Modern writers and historians generally consider the speech to be a masterpiece and one of the finest presidential inaugural addresses, with the final lines having earned particularly lasting renown in American culture. Literary and political analysts likewise have praised the speech's eloquent prose and epideictic quality.