Lincoln Is Inaugurated President

As Abraham spent four months waiting for his inauguration, tensions between the North and the South inexorably moved the United States closer to civil war, and Lincoln quietly pledged to uphold the union while refraining from making any public statements that might increase tensions.

Summary of Event

Abraham Lincoln spent the evening of Election Day, November 6, 1860, reading the election returns at the telegraph office in Springfield, Illinois. The next day, he received congratulations on his election to the presidency at his temporary office in the Illinois state house. After having spent virtually the entire election campaign close to his home, Lincoln remained in Illinois until February 11, 1861, when he began a personal appearance tour en route to the nation’s capital. On February 23, he arrived in Washington, D.C., at 6:00 a.m.; he came unannounced because an assassination attempt against him was feared. Lincoln, Abraham
[p]Lincoln, Abraham;inauguration of
Presidency, U.S.;Abraham Lincoln[Lincoln]
Lincoln, Abraham
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Washington, D.C.;Lincoln’s inauguration
[kw]Lincoln Is Inaugurated President (Mar. 4, 1861)
[kw]Inaugurated President, Lincoln Is (Mar. 4, 1861)
[kw]President, Lincoln Is Inaugurated (Mar. 4, 1861)
Lincoln, Abraham
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Presidency, U.S.;Abraham Lincoln[Lincoln]
Lincoln, Abraham
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[g]United States;Mar. 4, 1861: Lincoln Is Inaugurated President[3460]
[c]Government and politics;Mar. 4, 1861: Lincoln Is Inaugurated President[3460]
Baker, Edward Dickinson
Hamlin, Hannibal

Lincoln’s secretive arrival was symptomatic of the crisis atmosphere that the United States experienced between his November election and his March inauguration. The constitutional provision that allowed a four-month delay in installing a new president contributed to the crisis. Until he was actually inaugurated, Lincoln was powerless to take any official action that might quiet the fears of the South, whose white residents were alarmed by the election of a northern Republican known to be opposed to slavery, and he was unwilling to commit himself publicly to a future course of action. Meanwhile, the lame-duck president, James Buchanan, Buchanan, James
[p]Buchanan, James;and secession[Secession] stood by helplessly while seven states of the lower South seceded from the union and took possession of most of the federal military installations in their states.

Lincoln believed that it would be wise to remain in Illinois through most of his interim status as president-elect. Remaining at home would shield him to some extent from office-seekers, and it would also enable him to remain silent concerning the building crisis, about which he could do nothing. Meanwhile, he refused to make any statements on the subject, fearing that anything he said would do no good but might do harm.

President-elect Abraham Lincoln and outgoing president James Buchanan share a carriage on their way to Lincoln’s inauguration.

(Library of Congress)

Knowing that the situation was tense, Lincoln wanted to do nothing that would provoke the remaining slave states to leave the union, but he also knew that Congress was due to adjourn in mid-April. Between his scheduled March 4 inauguration and Congress’s departure, he would have little time in which to do what might be necessary. What time there was to act with the full government in session could not be taken up with explaining speeches or clarifying positions.

Lincoln also realized that there were hotheads on both sides of the issue, North and South, who would seize on any remark, any act, no matter how trivial, to fan the flames of sectional conflict. With his hands tied by the four-month wait for his inauguration and with tensions rising, the politically astute Lincoln preferred to wait until he was actually sworn in as president of the United States. Meanwhile, Lincoln devoted the time to preparing his own inaugural address and to thinking through his coming options, which would be few indeed.

As president-elect, Lincoln also maintained a low profile because he was not certain of his role in the upcoming Republican administration. It would take some time to form a cabinet, which would have to include a number of prominent politicians, such as William H. Seward Seward, William H.
[p]Seward, William H.;and Abraham Lincoln[Lincoln] and Salmon P. Chase Chase, Salmon P.
[p]Chase, Salmon P.;and Abraham Lincoln[Lincoln] , who were skeptical of Lincoln’s administrative abilities and leadership qualities. Coming, as he did, from Illinois, Illinois;and Abraham Lincoln[Lincoln] Lincoln was considered to be a man of the West, and many eastern Republicans resented his high position within the party. Although seven states seceded before Lincoln even left Illinois, he remained steadfast in his decision not to become involved in a public discussion concerning the crisis. Privately, however, he urged his Republican friends in Congress to stand firm against any legislative compromises that might allow the extension of slavery.

Compromises over issues pertaining to slavery had become an American political tradition. In the spirit of the famed compromiser Henry Clay, Kentucky senator John Jordan Crittenden Crittenden, John Jordan introduced a measure that would prohibit the extension of slavery Slavery;and Missouri Compromise[Missouri Compromise] in all territories north of the old Missouri Compromise line of 1820 (36°30′). South of the line, slavery would be protected. Furthermore, there would, by federal law, be no interference with the domestic slave trade. A constitutional amendment would be introduced to prohibit any interference with slavery in any state.

Southern senators expressed interest in Crittenden’s new compromise if the incoming Lincoln administration would openly endorse it. The argument that passage of the compromise promised to bring the South back into union found support among moderates in the Congress. Lincoln, Lincoln, Abraham
[p]Lincoln, Abraham;and slavery[Slavery] on the other hand, quietly opposed the compromise because he believed that it would extend slavery into the territories. If the compromise were endorsed by Lincoln and his Republican supporters, the staunch nonextensionists and abolitionists within the Republican Party would be alienated from the new administration even before Lincoln’s inauguration.

Lincoln began his journey to the capital on February 11. Along the way, he made polite speeches before many of the state legislatures and in most of the major cities on his circuitous route. Rumors of attempts to assassinate him were widespread, but Lincoln refused to change his itinerary through Indiana, Ohio, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. However, after repeated warnings from his closest advisers, he did agree to pass unannounced through Baltimore, Maryland, at night, rather than risk an incident in that slave state. During the ten days he spent in Washington, D.C., before his inauguration, he undertook a fatiguing round of conferences and courtesy calls.

March 4, inauguration day, dawned cloudy and raw, but it soon became bright and clear. General Winfield Scott, anticipating the worst, took extreme but unobtrusive measures to protect the president’s route to the capitol. Sharpshooters were placed on the roofs of buildings, soldiers were spaced along the route, cannons were placed on the Capitol Building lawn, and the presidential carriage was heavily guarded by an escort detail. Following custom, President-Elect Lincoln and President Buchanan Buchanan, James
[p]Buchanan, James;and secession[Secession] entered the president’s carriage together a few minutes after noon for the final ride to the Capitol. There, they entered the building through a boarded tunnel. The Senate was called to order, and Lincoln watched as the oath of office was administered to Vice President-Elect Hannibal Hamlin Hamlin, Hannibal .

A crowd of more than thirty thousand people was waiting in front of the portico of the unfinished Capitol Building when, at about 1:00 p.m., the presidential party finally arrived on the platform. Lincoln was introduced by his old friend from Oregon, Senator Edward Dickinson Baker Baker, Edward Dickinson . Lincoln then put on his steel-rimmed spectacles and read his speech, which took about thirty minutes to deliver. Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney Taney, Roger Brooke then administered the oath of office to him, and the procession to the White House began.

Lincoln’s inaugural address dealt exclusively with the secession crisis. Other topics, “about which there is no special anxiety, or excitement,” were dismissed. Lincoln began by assuring the southern states that their property, peace, and personal security were in no danger from the Republican administration. At the same time, however, he took the position that the union of the states was perpetual. Because he was pledged to uphold the Constitution, he would use “the power confided to me . . . to hold, occupy and possess the property and places belonging to the government and to collect the duties.” Lincoln qualified this statement by hinting that he would forgo the enforcement of federal laws “where hostility to the United States, in any interior locality” shall be universal. Lincoln ended his speech by placing the question of civil war in southern hands. “The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict, without being yourselves the aggressors.” He added: “We must not be enemies. Although passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.”


The day after his inauguration, Lincoln was confronted with information that threatened the status quo. Major Robert Anderson, Fort Sumter
Civil War, U.S. (1861-1865);Fort Sumter
South Carolina;Fort Sumter in command of Fort Sumter in the harbor off Charleston, South Carolina, reported that he could hold the fort for only a few weeks, unless he received fresh provisions. Lincoln had to decide quickly whether to send provisions and risk hostilities or do nothing and see the fort, one of the few remaining symbols of federal authority in the South, abandoned. He decided to send provisions. The Confederacy, having been notified of his plans, bombarded the fort before it could be resupplied. The first shot was fired at 4:30 a.m., April 12, 1861. The U.S. Civil War had begun. It would consume Lincoln’s time and energy for the next four years.

Further Reading

  • Baringer, William E. A House Dividing: Lincoln as President Elect. Springfield, Ill.: Abraham Lincoln Association, 1945. This classic work contains a vast amount of important information.
  • Donald, David Herbert. Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995. Popular and insightful biography that explains many of Lincoln’s political motivations. The author portrays Lincoln as ambitious, often defeated, and tormented by a difficult marriage, yet having a remarkable capacity for growth and the ability to hold the nation together during the Civil War.
  • Gienapp, William E. Abraham Lincoln and Civil War America: A Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Most of this biography covers Lincoln’s life during his years in the White House. The book describes his handling of the Civil War, depicting him as a shrewd politician and an extraordinary military commander.
  • McPherson, James M. Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. Major study of Lincoln that treats the U.S. Civil War as a revolutionary event comparable to the American Revolution of the late eighteenth century.
  • ________. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. Carefully crafted and prizewinning analysis of the Civil War.

Birth of the Republican Party

Lincoln-Douglas Debates

Lincoln Is Elected U.S. President

Establishment of the Confederate States of America

U.S. Civil War

Lincoln Issues the Emancipation Proclamation

Surrender at Appomattox and Assassination of Lincoln

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