The skies were overcast and a chilling wind was blowing in Washington, D.C., on March 4, 1861, as Abraham Lincoln took the oath of office as the 16th president of the United States. The gloomy weather matched the somber mood of the country that day, and the half-finished Capitol dome seemed symbolic of a nation already divided by the secession of seven southern states following Lincoln’s election.
As he began to deliver his first inaugural address, Mr. Lincoln knew the enormity of the task that lay before him: to preserve the Union.
For the North, the central issue was the abolition of slavery. For the South, it was the assertion of any state’s right to secede from the Union for perceived due cause. For Lincoln it was both, and despite statements he had made as early as 1854 that he believed slavery was wrong, he devoted the first portion of his address to an attempt to reassure the South that his administration had no abolitionist agenda.
“I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery where it exists,” he declared. He also stated his support for the Fugitive Slave Act, which entitled a slave owner to reclaim a runaway slave by force of law. Notwithstanding his opposition to slavery, Lincoln clearly saw the maintenance of the Union as uppermost for the nation’s interest.
Then, Mr. Lincoln, the lawyer, began to build a case against secession.
While acknowledging that the Constitution was silent on the matter of secession, he asserted that “the Union is older than the Constitution.” He pointed out that while the “right” to secede might be debatable, any states choosing such a course should be aware that they would “make a precedent which, in turn, would divide them.” What could prevent some of the same states, at some future time, from seceding from their own confederacy?
Lincoln’s clearheaded assessment of the situation and its implications would serve him well in the ensuing four years of his presidency, which were marked by severe divisions within his cabinet, a succession of ineffective Union Army commanders and many personal trials, including the death of two sons, persistent melancholia and a wife who showed signs of going mad.
As the Civil War progressed and the southern army seemed to be gaining the upper hand, Lincoln went against the advice of his cabinet and signed the Emancipation Proclamation in September of 1862. While the Proclamation declared freedom for all slaves — only in those states which were in rebellion against the federal government — it actually freed no slaves anywhere. But it did achieve a great purpose by elevating the conflict to the status of a “moral crusade.”
This was of no small significance to many Northerners who were weary of a war they had expected to be over in a few months and were increasingly reluctant to support its continuance. Lincoln perceived this and he used the Emancipation Proclamation to maintain that critical support.
As he concluded his inaugural address, Lincoln’s instincts for stirring prose came to the fore. “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn oath to preserve, protect and defend it. 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 as they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
One hundred fifty years following the first inauguration of the man many historians believe to be our greatest president, there are more than a few citizens who dwell with world-weary pessimism on our nation’s future. The passion that once inflamed the issue of slavery now engulfs bitter partisan differences, the overextension of American presence in the Middle East, and the erosion of our economic base at home and abroad.
Lincoln had only one overriding issue. How would he have handled the multiple crises of today? There is, of course, no answer.
Perhaps, in its present troubles, the nation could benefit by the emergence of another “Lincoln.” But it is unlikely that an individual of his physical appearance and homespun nature would be electable in an age of manufactured charisma. However, as we mark the 150th anniversary of his inauguration, we may still call upon his examples of character and common sense.
Less than six weeks before he fell victim to an assassin’s bullet, he said: “With malice toward none and with charity for all, let us bind up the nation’s wounds.”
Such words are as inspiring today as they were then.
Hal Wheeler and Charles Horne are former co-hosts of “Talk of the Morning” on 103.9 FM. Both hold degrees in history and government from the University of Maine.