TEXT

First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861

In his first inaugural address, President Lincoln reaffirms his desire to preserve the union and not interfere with slavery.
Author
Abraham Lincoln
Grade Level

This text is part of the Teaching Hard History Text Library and aligns with Key Concepts 3 and 7.

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 this office. 

I do not consider it necessary at present for me to discuss those matters of administration about which there is no special anxiety or excitement. 

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 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 believe 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 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, and 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 that balance of power on which the perfection and endurance of our political fabric depend; and we denounce the lawless invasion by armed force of the soil of any State or Territory, no matter what pretext, as among the gravest of crimes. 

[…] 

I take the official oath to-day with no mental reservations and with no purpose to construe the Constitution or 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 safer 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 impunity in having them held to be unconstitutional. 

[…] 

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. 

Source
This text is in the public domain. Retrieved from http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/lincoln1.asp.
Text Dependent Questions
  1. Question
    “I do not consider it necessary at present for me to discuss those matters of administration about which there is no special anxiety or excitement.” Thus, what topic does Lincoln believe it is necessary for him to discuss?
    Answer
    He needs to discuss what is causing “anxiety or excitement.” The pressing issue of this time was the several states that had seceded from the United States after Lincoln’s election.
  2. Question
    By the time of this Address, seven southern states had seceded (South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas). What does Lincoln say is the reason for this?
    Answer
    He says those states fear his election to the presidency threatens “their property and their peace and personal security.” Their “property” refers to enslaved people.
  3. Question
    Lincoln quotes one of his previous speeches to reiterate his stance on slavery. What is his stance? Why might Lincoln choose to present his stance in this manner?
    Answer
    The quote he provides is: “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” Thus, Lincoln’s stance is that he will not attempt to eliminate slavery in the states where it already exists.
    By quoting himself from a previous speech, he is showing that prior to his election, he had no plans to threaten slavery. As president, he does not plan on shifting course.
  4. Question
    How does Lincoln perceive his role as president in terms of the Constitution? What does this mean in terms of laws that he may not agree with?
    Answer
    He says he has “no purpose to construe the Constitution or laws by any hypocritical rules” and to “conform to and abide by all those acts.” Thus, he reiterates his role as president is to enforce the Constitution. He is bound by the Constitution and does not intend on violating it.
    He states that he may not want to enforce all acts of Congress, he “suggest[s] that it will be much safer for all” to enforce them all. Thus, he will enforce all aspects of the Constitution, even ones he may not personally agree with.
  5. Question
    “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war.” What does Lincoln indicate would be his reason for engaging in war?
    Answer
    Lincoln states the federal government will not attack or provoke conflict unless those seceded states are the “aggressors.” He also states that they are not bound by an “oath” to destroy the government. However, his job is to preserve the union. This suggests his perception of secession as an aggressive act.
  6. Question
    Lincoln refers to the “mystic chords of memory.” What idea is he alluding to?
    Answer
    A common history or spiritual unity as fellow Americans. “Chords” refer to a harmony of several notes. Lincoln is alluding to the fact that there is great difference within the United States, but their “memory” or common history and culture, unite them in a “chorus of the Union."
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