Today in History:

Background of Lincoln's First Inaugural Address

In composing his first inaugural address, delivered March 4, 1861, Abraham Lincoln focused on shoring up his support in the North without further alienating the South, where he was almost universally hated or feared. For guidance and inspiration, he turned to four historic documents, all concerned directly or indirectly with states' rights: Daniel Webster's 1830 reply to Robert Y. Hayne; President Andrew Jackson's Nullification Proclamation of 1832; Henry Clay's compromise speech of 1850; and the U.S. Constitution. Lincoln's initial effort was typeset and printed at the office of the Illinois State Journal, edited and then reprinted. Lincoln sent four copies of the second strike to his closest political advisors for commentary, resulting in further changes.

The finished address avoided any mention of the Republican Party platform, which condemned all efforts to reopen the African slave trade and denied the authority of Congress or a territorial legislature to legalized slavery in the territories. The address also denied any plan on the part of the Lincoln administration to interfere with the institution of slavery in states where it existed. But to Lincoln, the Union, which he saw as older even than the Constitution, was perpetual and unbroken, and secession legally impossible.

Until the final draft, Lincoln's address had ended with a question for the South: "Shall it be peace or sword?" In the famous concluding paragraph, Lincoln, following the suggestion of Seward, moderated his tone dramatically and ended on a memorable note of conciliation:


"I am loth 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, stre[t]ching 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."