The American Civil War Erupts: The Attack on Fort Sumter
Teaser Image

Lincoln's First Inaugural Speech: American Civil War

Title: Inauguration of 1861
Button: Click to display an enlarged version of the image.
President Abraham Lincoln's first address as head of state was delivered on March 4, 1861, in front of the nation's still-unfinished Capitol building. Avoiding empty flights of rhetoric, free of the clichés and platitudes customary on such occasions, Lincoln's inaugural address presented, in a lawyer's logic, a plea for national unity. Conciliatory yet firm, it set forth the policies that the new president would follow during his term in office.

Because of the growing sectional divide and fears of assassination, Lincoln's inauguration was well guarded by U.S. cavalrymen, sharpshooters on rooftops, and artillerymen with howitzers ready for action. Plainclothes detectives ranged through the crowds as well. By March 1861, the issue of slavery and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 had torn the country into two factions. Seven Southern states had already seceded from the Union, and a Confederate government had been established in Montgomery, Alabama.

Several days earlier, speaking to townsfolk as he was leaving Springfield, Illinois, for the nation's capital, Lincoln had acknowledged the daunting task before him as "greater than that which rested upon [George] Washington." The major themes of the inaugural address—conciliation and resolve—had already been worked out in his earlier debates with Stephen A. Douglas and in his Cooper Union Address. Despite Lincoln's personal aversion to slavery, he had no intention of imposing abolition on dissenting states but was determined to preserve the Union at almost any cost.

First, Lincoln tried to calm Southern fears. He acknowledged a constitutional necessity to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law. Denying that the right of any state had been violated, he recognized no just cause for secession. He promised that he would never "force obnoxious strangers" on unwilling localities, and he would send the mails "unless repelled." Military action, he promised, would only be defensive.

Yet the speech forcefully expressed his resolve to defend federal installations and preserve national unity, which he viewed as "perpetual," older than the Constitution itself, formed by the Articles of Association of 1774, and "matured and continued" by the Declaration of Independence of 1776. Accordingly, secession was unlawful, and the president's oath of office committed him to execute the laws of the Union. Secession could only lead to tyranny and anarchy, Lincoln asserted, as fragmentation of the country would continue until the North American continent would become an assortment of feeble, cantankerous, disassociated states.

Lincoln, a skilled lawyer, made his primary appeal to reason. Allusions to God, the Bible, or religion—which would become more prominent in later speeches—were largely absent from the first inaugural speech. Thus, at the beginning of his presidency, Lincoln made no grandiose promises and looked for no miracles. He fervently believed that the hopes of all humankind rested on the success of the democratic experiment in the New World. Now he simply asked his fellow countrymen to live up to the promise of their nation's founders.

Photographs and firsthand reports suggest something of Lincoln's comportment at the lectern. His law partner, William Herndon, reported that Lincoln always began speeches tentatively but gradually warmed to his message and audience. His voice was reportedly thin and high-pitched, even falsetto, yet it carried well because he pronounced words clearly and slowly. Earlier speeches had frequently been delivered without notes. Now, however, Lincoln read a carefully constructed text after putting on his steel-rimmed spectacles and handing over his hat and cane to Illinois senator Stephen Douglas.

Unlike later presidents, with their staffs of speech writers, Lincoln composed his own speeches, this one included. He did, however, submit drafts of the first inaugural to several friends and associates, most notably to his secretary of state, William H. Seward. Especially responsive to Seward's suggestions, Lincoln added a few of the flourishes that would soon come to characterize Lincolnian rhetoric. For example, Seward had suggested a concluding reference to "the guardian angel of the nation." Lincoln substituted simply, and famously, "angels of our better nature."

With his strong awareness of the auditory power of words, Lincoln was able, even in this pragmatic speech given under great duress, to effectively employ alliteration, assonance, and parallel structure of words, sentences, and thoughts. Biographers have noted that in his youth Lincoln had access to few, though excellent, books and was thus spared the reading of mediocre publications. The King James Version of the Bible was his chief influence, although later, as an enthusiastic theatergoer, he would savor the Elizabethan glamour of William Shakespeare's language. From these sources and from the homespun yarns he had heard growing up in the hinterland, Lincoln had developed a poetic and rhythmic style that would set him apart from other American leaders. When he finished his speech, he immediately left the dais and returned to the White House.

Allene Phy-Olsen


Further Reading
Geulzo, Allen C. Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999; White, Ronald C., Jr. The Eloquent President: A Portrait of Lincoln through His Words. New York: Random House, 2005.
 

©2011 ABC-CLIO. All rights reserved.

  Maps
  Reference
  Documents
  Images
ABC-cLIO Footer