Friday, March 4, 2011

Today in History - Abraham Lincoln's Inauguration

Abraham Lincoln Photographer Alexander Gardner Albumen silver print, 1861

"James Buchanan, among the lamest of lame ducks, presided over the White House in the last few days before Abraham Lincoln took the oath of office. Buchanan’s presidency had been marked by ineffectual progress toward keeping the nation together. While Lincoln was traveling to Washington from Springfield, Illinois, Buchanan was packing his bags and hoping that no further dissolution of the Union occurred on his watch. Buchanan would be marked until the day he died as a feckless and hollow president.

"Lincoln’s train trip to the capital was an event-filled foreshadowing of his impending reign as head of state. He made speech after speech as he journeyed. Close to the eve of his arrival in Washington, rumors circulated that he might be in danger if he spent any public time in Baltimore, so he quietly entered the District of Columbia on February 23 and began preparing to take the seat of power. During this same period, Jefferson Davis had been building a government of the Confederacy in Montgomery, and he had 7 states in his hip-pocket by the time Lincoln took his oath on March 4. Squaring off against those who would divide the nation, Lincoln stated in his inaugural speech:

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 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 or to despotism. Unanimity is impossible. The rule of a minority, as a permanent arrangement, is wholly inadmissible; so that, rejecting the majority principle, anarchy or despotism in some form is all that is left.

"Lincoln closed his speech dramatically by placing the burden of keeping the nation together in the hands of all Americans, but specifically at those in dissent:

In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-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 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 battlefield 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.

"Though Lincoln implored those “better angels” of the collective American spirit to work through the crisis of secession and division; he would be in office less than 6 weeks, before his summons would be torched by southern fire."

Warren Perry, Catalog of American Portraits, National Portrait Gallery