Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Newly elected president Abraham Lincoln had one opportunity to try to convince the Southern slave-holding states not to force the issue of secession from the United States. Although seven states had already declared that they were forming the Confederate States of America, in his first inaugural speech, Lincoln sought to alleviate their concerns regarding the issues of slavery and states’ rights. The entire speech was focused on these issues, as was the attention of the entire country.

While Lincoln had easily won the necessary votes in the Electoral College, defeating three other candidates to claim the presidency, his victory came with the support of only about 40 percent of voters, primarily from the North. Although Lincoln claimed that he would not push for legislation abolishing slavery, it was clear from his time in Congress that he opposed the institution. In the South this caused great anxiety, which Lincoln sought to assuage in his inaugural address to the nation. However, the moderate tone he struck in this speech was not accepted by Southern leaders, who would ultimately move forward with their plans for secession.

Summary Overview

Newly elected president Abraham Lincoln had one opportunity to try to convince the Southern slave-holding states not to force the issue of secession from the United States. Although seven states had already declared that they were forming the Confederate States of America, in his first inaugural speech, Lincoln sought to alleviate their concerns regarding the issues of slavery and states’ rights. The entire speech was focused on these issues, as was the attention of the entire country.

While Lincoln had easily won the necessary votes in the Electoral College, defeating three other candidates to claim the presidency, his victory came with the support of only about 40 percent of voters, primarily from the North. Although Lincoln claimed that he would not push for legislation abolishing slavery, it was clear from his time in Congress that he opposed the institution. In the South this caused great anxiety, which Lincoln sought to assuage in his inaugural address to the nation. However, the moderate tone he struck in this speech was not accepted by Southern leaders, who would ultimately move forward with their plans for secession.

Defining Moment

By the time Lincoln took office in early 1861, the United States government had been working for decades to find a way of dealing with slavery that would satisfy Americans on both ends of the political spectrum, implementing various compromises that proved largely ineffective. Following the disintegration of the Whig Party, Lincoln decided to join the emerging Republican Party, which had initially formed to combat slavery. Although he ran for president as a moderate, the Republican label made Lincoln appear a much stronger antislavery candidate than the Southern leaders could accept. However, the Republican Party was the only unified party in the 1860 presidential election, which allowed Lincoln to capture 180 electoral votes and nearly 40 percent of the popular vote. The other three major candidates split the remainder of the popular vote and 123 electoral votes. Because of this outcome, seven states took steps to form the Confederate States of America, beginning about three months before Lincoln’s inauguration.

As of March 4, the date of Lincoln’s inauguration, the secession of the Southern states had been carried out peacefully, which suggested to Lincoln that a compromise could still be achieved. Thus, after outlining his understanding of the situation and the Constitution, Lincoln speaks directly to the Southern leaders, telling them, “You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors.” Extending the possibility of a peaceful resolution, he promises that the United States could return to normal if the Southern states returned to the Union. However, Lincoln warns that he would take the necessary steps to preserve the United States if this did not occur.

Although slavery could be considered the central cause of the division between North and South, there was a second issue that had emerged over the past decade: the South was losing control of American politics. Because of the Three-Fifths Compromise (1787), which stipulated that three-fifths of the slave population of a slave state would be counted toward that state’s total population, even though slaves were unable to vote, the South for decades had more representation in Congress and the Electoral College than the number of actual voters would normally justify. Of the first fifteen presidents, only six were born in the North, and each served only one term. However, in 1860 Lincoln became the third consecutive Northerner to be elected as well as the first successful candidate who did not receive any Southern electoral votes. It was clear to Southern leaders that without radical steps, slavery and the traditional Southern way of life would soon come to an end.

Author Biography

Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809. His parents, Thomas and Nancy Hanks Lincoln, lived in Hardin County, Kentucky, when Lincoln was born. During his childhood his family moved to Indiana, and they later relocated to Illinois. Lincoln’s formal education was limited; however, he taught himself to read and other basic skills. Desiring to do more than be a manual laborer, Lincoln left home when he was twenty-two, worked for a businessman, and a year later bought a store with an associate. He served as an officer in the Illinois militia during the Black Hawk War and then became postmaster of New Salem, Illinois. Lincoln next decided to study law and was admitted to the bar in 1836. As he had won an election to the Illinois General Assembly in 1834, he practiced law in Springfield, where he met and married Mary Todd, with whom he had four children.

Elected as a Whig, Lincoln served four terms in the general assembly. In 1846, again as a Whig, he was elected to the United States House of Representatives. During his term, he sponsored several bills that would have limited slavery. Lincoln did not run for reelection, but his opposition to slavery drew him back into politics in 1854, when he sought, but lost, a seat in the US Senate. The continuing issue of slavery splintered the Whig Party, and Lincoln was drawn to the emerging Republican Party in 1856. In 1858, he ran for the Senate for the second time. Lincoln again lost, but his debates against Stephen A. Douglas and powerful “House Divided” speech made him a national figure. He was nominated for president by the Republican Party in 1860 and ran against a splintered Democratic Party, easily securing the necessary number of electoral votes.

With the attack on the federal garrison at Fort Sumter in South Carolina, Lincoln became a wartime president. He forcefully took control of the national government and became very involved with the major aspects of the military campaigns. During the war, he supported legislation to do away with slavery on federal land and also issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all slaves in the Confederacy. Lincoln was reelected in 1864, losing only three states. As the war approached its eend and politicians began to develop plans for Reconstruction, Lincoln was assassinated by actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth. He died on April 15, 1865.

Document Analysis

On March 4, 1861, Lincoln arrived in Washington, DC, to be sworn into office and to deliver his inaugural address. After he had been formally elected by the Electoral College on December 5, 1860, the first seven states to secede quickly began the process. During the next two months, Lincoln worked on his speech in Springfield while watching the events unfold. In February, he began his journey by rail to Washington. Because of credible threats to his life uncovered by railroad and government officials, the trip between Baltimore, Maryland, and Washington was taken in secret.

As the newly elected president, Lincoln was tasked with confronting the secessionist movement and convincing the Southern states that had seceded to return to the Union. Lincoln sought to outline his proposed policy on slavery and make it clear that the United States was an entity that could not be divided. Lincoln took seriously the founding documents of the United States, such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and believed that once formed, the United States was forever. Thus, for the sake of peace, he was willing to undertake policies that were more moderate than his personal position on slavery. However, Lincoln was not willing to decrease the power of the national government or extend the institution of slavery beyond the states in which it was already legal. In writing his speech, Lincoln consulted with other leading Republicans and made several changes based on their input. The most important recommended change was suggested by New York senator (and soon to be Lincoln’s secretary of state) William Seward, who encouraged Lincoln to close with one last plea to the South for peace. Following this advice, Lincoln rewrote the two closing paragraphs to the now-famous speech, which he delivered on March 4 before an audience of more than thirty thousand.

Lincoln opens the speech with a formal nod to the essential actions of the day. Taking the oath of office was the only action the Constitution mandated, but following the precedent instituted by George Washington, Lincoln spoke to the people who had gathered as well. Unlike those of his predecessors, Lincoln’s inaugural speech focuses on only one topic, the one that was causing “special anxiety” within the country. This was the “property, peace, and security” of citizens in the Southern part of the United States. In this way, Lincoln courteously introduces the issue of slaves and the institution of slavery, with the related issue of the steps the national government would take to enforce its policies and responsibilities, as the main focus of the speech.

He then boldly speaks out on the issue of slavery, explaining, “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists.” Based on Lincoln’s reading of the federal laws at that time, he sought to preserve the status quo in the South; however, he was firmly opposed to the extension of slavery to any federal territory and the admission of any new states that allowed slavery within their borders. For Southern leaders, the status quo was not enough. For the future of the institution, and for their political survival, the leaders of the South believed that slavery should be extended into the American West. The phrase “where it exists,” at the opening of the speech, was enough, for Southerners, to negate anything further that Lincoln said.

Next, Lincoln reiterates his moderate position, in terms of the Republican Party, on slavery. Even though the party platform included strong language against it, Lincoln points out that he had specifically requested that the platform also incorporate a statement that each state could “order and control its own domestic institutions.” The issue of fugitive slaves was of great concern to many Southern politicians, and Lincoln attempts to reassure them by quoting from the portion of the Constitution specifying that states must return to another state anyone “held to service or labor.” A strong supporter of the Constitution, Lincoln proclaims that those charged with upholding the document must enforce its policy on fugitive slaves just as they enforce sections on other matters. These statements demonstrate that Lincoln was attempting to walk a fine line between allowing slavery and trying to limit it. In this inaugural address, Lincoln was clearly speaking as the president of the nation, charged with upholding the laws and Constitution, not as a private citizen who at times disagreed with the prevailing laws.

Lincoln then moves on to the status of the United States as a nation. He explains that the United States was created as an ongoing institution and notes that this was consistent with both universal law and the intentions of the Founding Fathers. Lincoln understood that what was happening in 1861 was different from anything that had occurred in the history of the United States. There had been discussions of splitting the Union in the past, but dissatisfied regional leaders had never moved beyond discussion. The actions taken first by South Carolina and then by six additional states went far beyond discussion. Lincoln argues that the Union was intended to last forever, as the founders included no provision in the Constitution for its termination. Secondly, he suggests that if the Constitution was to be considered a contract, then all states would have to agree to any changes, as was the case in civil contracts. Lincoln next states that the United States is more than the Constitution and a set of laws, since it existed for thirteen years prior to the writing of the Constitution. Thus, Lincoln explains, “It follows from these views that no State upon its own mere motion can lawfully get out of the Union.”

Having set forward his main points, Lincoln goes on to expand on these and call for calm consideration of what was happening. Continuing to discuss the issue of secession, Lincoln states that “the central idea of secession is the essence of anarchy,” suggesting that once the process of secession has begun, it will be difficult to stop. Once one group had broken off from a larger one, a smaller group could break away from the secessionist group, and the process could continue until each unit (state) was completely separate from all others. Lincoln does admit that if a constitutional right had been denied, “it might in a moral point of view justify revolution.” However, he asserts that no such right had been or was at that time being denied to any group. He had faith that the constitutional checks and balances would keep the majority from illegally imposing its will on the minority. Lincoln promises that as president, he would uphold the Constitution, which included providing government services such as the post office, collecting taxes, and following the laws passed by Congress and Supreme Court rulings. However, it also meant enforcing federal laws and Supreme Court rulings in all states and territories.

The enforcement of federal laws and the protection of federal property, in Lincoln’s mind, did not necessitate the end of slavery or any type of armed conflict. Lincoln was willing to let the political process work through the issues of the day and was confident that “a peaceful solution” could be found. That being said, if “calm thought and reflection” failed to result in an agreement, and if an insurrection prevented the government from enforcing the laws of the United States in all parts of the country, “bloodshed or violence” could result. Lincoln warns, “The certain ills you fly to are greater than all the real ones you fly from.” As president, he was ready to do whatever it might take to preserve the Union and to implement and enforce the laws of the nation.

Reflecting further upon slavery, Lincoln notes that the Constitution offers little guidance in this area. Although there are a few statements related to slavery in the Constitution, the lack of unity on the issue among the Founding Fathers meant that the document is silent on many things. In addition, those attending the Constitutional Convention could not have imagined every possible situation. They chose instead to write what is often called a brief constitution, one that addresses the major structural issues of government but leaves the details to be developed as needed. Thus, Lincoln lists several areas of controversy, including the enforcement of fugitive slave laws and the legality of slavery within federal territories, and asserts that the Constitution says nothing about any of them.

If the nation accepted the rulings of the Supreme Court on cases related to slavery and fugitive slaves, Lincoln states that the only issue separating the South from the North would therefore be whether slavery “ought to be extended” into new parts of the nation. While Lincoln had previously stated his position that slavery should only be allowed in the current slave states, he did recognize his duty to follow the will of the nation as a whole and of the Supreme Court. Thus, if the people wanted to extend slavery by constitutional means or sought to pass an amendment guaranteeing slavery forever (as had been discussed toward the end of previous president James Buchanan’s term), he would not oppose any action by Congress or by a constitutional convention. He had “patient confidence in the ultimate justice of the people.” Thus, peaceful changes made by amending the system of government would be appropriate. Lincoln tells the people that if the leaders of the South “hold the right side in the dispute,” then a peaceful, deliberate discussion of the situation would bring about appropriate changes that would guarantee the continuation of slavery. However, if hasty actions were taken, leading to war, at the end of the war the South would face “the identical old questions.”

Lincoln closes his speech with an earnest plea to the South. He states, “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war.” This is Lincoln’s first use of the term “civil war,” and his direct statement, at the close of the speech, indicates that he understood the extent of the issues confronting him as president. Having promised not to invade any region of the country so long as federal laws were observed and federal property was not assaulted, Lincoln notes that the choice, then, lay with the dissatisfied Southern leaders. Those leaders had not taken any “oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government,” but Lincoln reminds them that he has taken one to “preserve, protect, and defend” the United States and will not shirk his duty.

In closing, Lincoln expresses his desire to be “not enemies, but friends.” He cites the common heritage of the North and the South, “stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave.” Lincoln hoped that this common heritage and reasonable leaders on both sides would allow the continuation of peace and the development of a solution to the problems through constitutional means. However, as eloquent as this speech was, Lincoln’s views were not accepted by leaders in the South, and just over a month later, the Civil War began with the Confederate attack on the Union-occupied Fort Sumter.

Essential Themes

For decades, Lincoln has consistently been named one of the two top presidents of the United States in academic as well as popular surveys. His vision of the United States, and his willingness to stand by that vision in a time of crisis, has been the key component in these judgments. While the tragedy of his assassination added to people’s belief in his dedication to the nation, it was Lincoln’s willingness to reach out to others while standing firm that endeared him to many. In his first inaugural address, Lincoln demonstrates this quality while outlining the major issues of his day.

The unity of the United States, for Lincoln, was not in name only. He firmly believed that nothing should destroy that union. As its president, Lincoln vowed to see that “the laws of the Union be faithfully executed in all the States.” His understanding was that no one and no region was above the law. Therefore, no matter how strongly one disagreed with a law or a ruling of the Supreme Court, the only remedy was to work to have the law changed or the Constitution amended. While Lincoln was not the first to believe in the sanctity of the Constitution, his forceful pronouncement of this ideal has been reflected in political statements ever since. Although he was the first president elected by the Republican Party, Lincoln’s view that the “the Union of these States is perpetual” has since been incorporated into all mainstream American parties.

Lincoln also set an example regarding the political ideal that all branches of the government must work together. For more than two decades before being elected president, Lincoln had spoken against slavery, including against rulings by the Supreme Court. However, as president, Lincoln understood his oath of office to include upholding all federal laws and Supreme Court rulings, no matter his personal opinion. While he might have supported some legislative changes to bring certain laws more in line with his personal views had war not broken out, Lincoln primarily sought to uphold federal laws and regulations that had been created in accordance with the Constitution. His emphasis on this also had an influence on his presidential successors, assisting those who faced pressure to ignore federal laws to stand firm in upholding the Constitution.

Bibliography
  • “American President: Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865).” The Miller Center. U of Virginia, 2013. Web. 24 Apr. 2013.
  • Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Simon, 2005. Print.
Additional Reading
  • “American Presidents Life Portraits: Abraham Lincoln.” AH: American History TV. National Cable Satellite Corporation, 2013. Web. 24 Apr. 2013.
  • Beschloss, Michael, and Hugh Sidey. The Presidents of the United States of America. Washington: White House Historical Assn., 2009. Print.
  • Jaffa, Harry V. A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War. Lanham: Rowman, 2000. Print.
  • “Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address.” American Treasures of the Library of Congress. Lib. of Cong., 27 July 2010. Web. 24 Apr. 2013.
  • Sandburg, Carl. Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and the War Years. New York: Harcourt, 1954. Print.
  • White, Ronald C. A. Lincoln: A Biography. New York: Random, 2009. Print.
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