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President Lincoln’s Inaugural


March/April 1861

From The Missouri Democrat, Tuesday, March 5, 1861.

President Lincoln’s Inaugural.


[Telegraphed Expressly for the Missouri Democrat.]

FELLOW CITIZENS OF THE UNITED STATES: In compliance with a custom as old as the Government itself, I appear before you to address you briefly, and to take, in your presence, the oath prescribed by the Constitution of the United States to be taken by the President before he enters on the execution of his office.

I do not consider it necessary at present for me to discuss those matters of the Administration about which there is no special anxiety or excitement. The apprehension seems to exist among the people of the Southern States, that by the accession of a Republican Administration their property and their peace and their personal security are to be endangered. There has never been any reasonable cause for such apprehension. Indeed, the most ample evidence to the contrary has all the while existed and been open to their inspection. It is found in nearly all the published speeches of him who now addresses you. I do but quote from one of those speeches, when I declare that I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so. Those who nominated and elected me did so with the full knowledge that I had made this and many similar declarations, and had never recanted them; and more than this, they placed in the platform, for my acceptance, as a law to themselves and to me, the clear and emphatic resolution which I now read:

Resolved, That the maintenance inviolate of the rights of the States, and especially the right of each State to order and control its own domestic institutions according to its own judgment exclusively, is essential to the balance of power on which the perfection and endurance of our political fabric depend, and we denounce the lawless invasion, by an armed force of the government, of any State or Territory, no matter under what pretext, as among the greatest of crimes.

I now reiterate these sentiments and in doing so I only press upon the public attention the most conclusive evidence of which the case is susceptible, that the prosperity, peace and security of no section are to be in any wise endangered by the now incoming administration. I add, too, that all the protection which, consistently with the constitution and the laws, can be given, will be cheerfully given to all the States, when lawfully demanded, for whatever cause, as cheerfully to one section as to another.

There is much controversy about the delivery of fugitives from service or labor. The clause I now read is as plainly written in the Constitution as any other of its provisions: “No person held to service or labor in one State, under its laws thereof, escaping into another, shall in consequence of any law or regulation therein be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up on claim to the party to whom such service or labor may be due.”

It is scarcely questioned that this provision was intended by those who made it for the reclaiming of what we shall call fugitive slaves, and the intention of the law given, is the law. All members of Congress swear their support to the whole Constitution, to this provision as much as to any other. To the proposition, then, that slaves whose cases come within the terms of this clause: “And shall be delivered up,” their oaths are unanimous. Now if they would make the effort in good temper, could they not, with hearty equanimity, frame and pass a law by means of which to keep good that unanimous oath? There is some difference of opinion whether this clause should be enforced by national or State authority, but surely that difference is not a very material one. If the slave is to be surrendered, it can be of but little consequence to him or to others by which authority it is done; and should any one in any case be content that his oath shall be unkept, on a merely unsubstantial controversy as to how it shall be kept? Again, in any law upon this subject, ought not all the safeguards of liberty known in civilized and humane jurisprudence to be introduced, so that a freeman may not be in any case surrendered as a slave; and might it not be well at the same time to provide by law for the enforcement of that clause in the Constitution, which guarantees that the citizens of each State shall be entitled to all the privileges and immunities of citizens of the several States. I take the official oath to-day with no mental reservations and no purpose to construe the Constitution and laws by any hypercritical rules, and while I do not choose now to specify particular acts of Congress as proper to be enforced, I do suggest that it will be much sager for all both in official and private stations to conform to and abide by all those acts which stand unrepealed, than to violate any of them trusting to find security in having them held to be unconstitutional.

It is seventy-two years since the first inauguration of a President under our national Constitution. During that period fifteen different and greatly distinguished citizens have in succession administered the executive branch of the government. They have conducted it through many perils, generally with great success; yet, with all this scope for precedent, I now enter upon the same task for the brief constitutional term of four years under great and peculiar difficulty. Disruption of the federal Union heretofore only menaced is now formidably attempted. I hold that in contemplation of universal law and the Constitution, the union of the States is perpetual. Perpetuity is implied if not expressed in the fundamental law of al national governments. It is not safe to assert that the government proper had a provision in its organic law for its own termination. Continue to execute all the express provisions of our national Constitution and the Union will endure forever, it being impossible to destroy it except by some action not provided for in the instrument itself.

Again, if the United States be not a government proper but an association of States in the nature of a contract merely, can it as a contract be peaceably unmade unless by all the parties who made it? One party to a contract may violate it—break it, so to speak, but does it not require all to lawfully rescind it?

Descending from these general principles, we find the proposition that in legal contemplation the Union is perpetual, confirmed by the history itself. The Union is much older than the Constitution; it was formed, in fact, by the articles of association in 1774. It was further matured and continued by the Declaration of Independence in 1776. It was further matured on the faith of all the then thirteen States, expressly plighted and engaged, that it should be perpetual, by the Articles of Confederation in 1778 and finally in 1787. One of the declared object[s], for ordaining and establishing a constitution was to from a more perfect Union. If secession by one or by a part only of the States be lawfully possible, the Union is less 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; that resolves and ordinances to that effect are legally void, and that acts of violence within any States or State, against the authority of the Unites States, are insurrectionary or revolutionary, according to circumstances. I therefore consider that in view of the Constitution and laws the Union is unbroken, and to the extent of my ability shall take care, as the Constitution itself expressly enjoins, that the laws of the Union be faithfully executed in all the States. Doing this I deem it to be only a simple duty n my part, and I shall perform it so far as practicable, unless my rightful masters—the American people—shall withhold the requisite means or in some authoritative manner direct to the contrary. I trust that this will not be regarded as a menace, but only as a declared purpose of Union—that it will constitutionally defend and maintain itself. In doing this there need be no bloodshed or violence, and there shall be none unless it be forced upon the national authorities.

The power confided to me will be used to hold, occupy and possess the property and places belonging to the government, to collect duties and imports; but beyond what may be necessary for these objects, there will be no using of force against or among people anywhere. Where hostilities to the United States in any interior locality, shall be so great and so universal as to prevent competent resident citizens from holding federal offices, there will be no attempt to force obnoxious strangers among the people that object.

While the strict legal right may exist in the government to enforce the exercise of these offices, the attempt to do so would be so irritating and so nearly impracticable withal, that I deem it better to forego for the time the use of such offices. The mails unless repelled will continue to be furnished in all points of the Union. So far as possible, the people everywhere shall have that sense of perfect security which is most favorable to calm thought and reflection. The course here indicated will be followed, unless current events and experience shall show a modification or change to be proper; and in every case and exigency my best discretion will be exercised according to circumstances actually existing, and with a view and a hope of the peaceful solution of the national troubles and the restoration of the fraternal sympathies and affections. That there are persons in one section or another who seek to destroy the Union at all events, and are glad of any pretext to do it, I will neither affirm nor deny.

I need to address no word to those who really love the Union. May I speak before entering upon so grave a matter as the destruction of our national fabric with all its benefits, its memories and hopes?

Would it not be wise to ascertain previously why we do hazard so desperate a step while there is any possibility that any portion of the ills you fly from have no real existence?

Will you, while the certain ills you fly to are greater than the ills you fly from—will you risk the commission of so fearful a mistake? All profess to be content in the Union if all constitutional rights can be maintained. Is it true, then, that any right plainly written in the Constitution has been denied? I think not. Happily, the human mind is so constituted that no party can reach to the audacity of doing this. Think, if you can, of a single instance in which a plainly written provision of the Constitution had ever been denied. If by mere force of numbers a majority shall deprive a minority of any clearly written constitutional right, it may in a moral point of view, justify a revolution. It certainly would, if such a right were a vital one, but such is not our case. All the vital rights of minorities and of individuals are so plainly assured to them by affirmations and negotiations, guarantees and prohibitions in the Constitution that controversies never arise concerning them, but no organic law can be framed with a provision specifically applicable to every question which may occur in practical administration. No foresight can anticipate, nor any document of reasonable length contain, express provisions for all possible questions. Shall fugitives from labor be surrendered by national or State authority? The Constitution does not expressly say. Must Congress protect slavery in the territories? The Constitution does not expressly say. From questions of this class spring all our controversies, and we divide upon them late majorities and minorities. If the minority will not acquiesce, the majority must, or the Government must cease.

There is no alternative for continuing the government but acquiescence on the one side or the other. If a minority in such case will secede rather than acquiesce they make a precedent, which in turn will divide and ruin them, for a minority of their own will secede from them whenever a majority refuses to be controlled by such minority.

For instance, why may not any portion of a new confederacy, a year or two hence, arbitrarily secede again, precisely as portions of the present Union now claim to secede from it? All who cherish disunion sentiments are now being educated to the exact temper of doing this. Is there such perfect identity of interest among the States to compose a new Union as to produce harmony only an prevent renewed secession?

Plainly the central idea of secession is the essence of anarchy. A majority held in restraint by constitutional checks and limitations, and always changing easily with the deliberate changes of popular opinions and sentiments is the only true sovereign of a free people. Whoever rejects it does of necessity fly to anarchy and despotism. Unanimity is impossible.

The rule of a minority as a permanent arrangement is wholly inadmissible. So that rejecting the majority principle, anarchy and despotism, in some form, is all that is left. I do not forget the position assumed by some, that constitutional questions are to be decided by the Supreme Court, nor do I deny that such decisions must be binding in any case upon the parties to a suit as to the object of that suit, while they are also entitled to a very high respect and consideration in all parallel cases by all other departments of the Government, and while it is obviously possible that such decision my be erroneous in any given case, still the evil effect following it being limited to that peculiar case with the chance that it may be overruled and never become a precedent for other cases, can better be borne than could the evils of a different practice. At the same time, the candid citizen must confess that, if the government, upon vital questions affecting the whole people, is to be irrevocably fixed by the decision, of the Supreme Court, the instant they are made, in ordinary litigation, between parties in personal actions, the people will have ceased to be their own rulers, having to that extent practically resigned their government into the hands of that tribunal. Nor is there in this view any assault upon the court or the judges. It is a duty, from which they may not shrink, to decide cases properly brought before them; and it is no fault of theirs if others seek to turn their decisions to political purposes. One section of our country believes slavery is right and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong and ought not to be extended. This is the only substantial dispute, for the fugitive slave clause of the Constitution and the laws for the suppression of the foreign slave trade are each as well entered, perhaps, as any law can ever be. In a community where the moral sense of the people imperfectly supports the law itself, the great body of the people abide by the dry legal obligation in both cases.

After the separation of the two sections, the foreign slave trade, now imperfectly suppressed, would be ultimately renewed without restriction in one section, while fugitive slaves, now only partially surrendered, would not be surrendered at all by the other. Physically speaking, we cannot separate—cannot remove our respective sections from each other, nor build an impassible wall between them.

The husband and wife may be divorced and go out of the presence, and beyond the reach of each other, but the different parts of our country cannot do this. They cannot but remain face to face, and an intercourse either amicable or hostile must continue between them. Is it possible then to make that intercourse more advantageous or more satisfactory after separating than before? Can aliens make treaties easier than friends can make laws? Can treaties be more faithfully enforced between aliens than laws among friends?

Suppose you go to war you cannot fight always, and when, after much loss on both sides, there is no gain on either, you cease to fight, the old identical questions as to terms of intercourse are again upon you.

This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it, or their revolutionary right to dismember or overthrow it. I cannot be ignorant of the fact, that many worthy and patriotic citizens are desirous of having the national Constitution amended.

While I make no recommendation of amendments, I fully recognize the rightful authority of the people over the whole subject, to be exercised in either of the modes prescribed in the instrument itself, and I should, under existing circumstances, favor rather than oppose a fair opportunity being offered the people to act upon it.

I will venture to add that the constitutional mode seems preferable, inasmuch as it allows the amendments to originate with the people themselves, instead only of permitting them to take or reject a proposition originated by others not specifically chosen for the purpose, and which might not be precisely such as they would wish to either refuse or reject. I understand a proposed amendment to the Constitution—which amendment, however, I have not seen—has passed Congress, to the effect that the federal government shall never interfere with the domestic institutions of the States, including that of persons held to service. To avoid a misconception of what I have said, I depart from my purpose to speak of particular amendments, so far as to say that holding such a provision to the now implied Constitutional law I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable. The Chief Magistrate derives all his authority from the people, and they have conferred none upon him to fix forms of the separation of the States. The people themselves can do this also if they choose, but the Executive as such, has nothing to do with it. His duty is to administer and preserve the Government as it came to his hand, and to transmit it, unimpaired by him, to his successor. Why should there not be a patient confidence in the ultimate justice of the people? Is there any better or equal hope in the world? In our present differences is either party without faith or hope in the world?

In our present differences is either party without faith of being in sight of the Almighty Ruler of nations, with his eternal truth and justice, on our side of the North, or on yours of the South. That truth and justice will surely prevail by the judgment of this great tribunal, the American people.

By the frame of government under which we live this same people have wisely given their public servants but little power for mischief, and have with equal wisdom provided for the return of that little to their own hands at very short intervals. While the people retain their virtue and vigilance no administration, in any extreme of wickedness or folly, can very seriously injure the government in the short space of four years.

My countrymen, one and all, think calmly and well upon this whole subject. Nothing valuable can be lost by taking time. If there be an object to hurry any of you in hot haste to a step which you would never take deliberately, that object can be frustrated by taking time; but no good object can be frustrated by it. Such of you as are now dissatisfied still have the old Constitution unimpaired, and on this sensitive point the laws of your own framing under it while the new administration will have no immediate power if it would so change either. If it were admitted that you who are dissatisfied held the right side in the dispute, there still is no single good reason for precipitate action. Intelligence, patriotism, Christianity, and a firm reliance on Him who has never yet forsaken this favored land, are still competent to adjust in the best way all our present difficulties. In your hands, my dissatisfied 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.

I am lo[a]th 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’s grave to every loving heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely as they will be the better angels of our nature.