March 4, 1861 – Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address

As the clock struck noon on March 4, 1861, President James Buchanan and President-elect Abraham Lincoln left the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C., in a horse-drawn carriage bound for the Capitol and Lincoln’s first inauguration. Buchanan then took his seat in the front row along with Senator Stephen Douglas and Chief Justice Roger Taney. Lincoln’s friend Senator Edward Baker introduced Lincoln, who spoke prior to being sworn in as President.

Photo from Lincoln's first inauguration

Photo from Lincoln’s first inauguration

In his inaugural address, Lincoln focused on shoring up his support in the North without further alienating the South, where he was almost universally hated or feared. He tried to calm the anxieties of Southerners, denying any plan on the part of the Lincoln administration to interfere with the institution of slavery in states where it existed. He also distanced himself from the Republican Party’s rejection of the Fugitive Slave Law, averring that he felt compelled, under the Constitution, to enforce all laws.

Initially, Lincoln’s address had been bellicose. His Secretary of State, William Seward, urged Lincoln to soften its tone. As Doris Kearns Goodwin observes in Team of Rivals, “Seward’s revisions are evident in nearly every paragraph. He qualified some, removed rough edges in others.”

William Seward

William Seward

For the concluding paragraph, Seward suggested “some words of affection – some of calm and cheerful confidence.” Seward proposed the following paragraph:

I close. We are not we must not be aliens or enemies but fellow countrymen and brethren. Although passion has strained our bonds of affection too hardly they must not, I am sure they will not be broken. The mystic chords which proceeding from so many battle fields and so many patriot graves pass through all the hearts and all the hearths in this broad continent of ours will yet again harmonize in their ancient music when breathed upon by the guardian angel of the nation.”

Lincoln polished it up, and as Goodwin opines, “proceeded to recast and sharpen Seward’s patriotic sentiments into a concise and powerful poetry.” He words were:

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 battle-field, 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.”

At the end of Lincoln’s address, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney administered the presidential oath of office, swearing in Abraham Lincoln as the sixteenth president of the United States. Lincoln was fifty-two years old.

abraham-lincoln-picture

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