Rael on Abraham Lincoln’s Speech Problem

Patrick Rael


At the recent unveiling of the rare and historic photograph of President Abraham Lincoln’s first inauguration at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Professor of History Patrick Rael regaled the standing-room-only crowd with what was going on behind the scenes as President-elect Lincoln prepared to take the oath of office and become the sixteenth President of the United States. 

A month before his inauguration on March 4, 1861, Abraham Lincoln had a speech problem. Soon the President-elect, a man with only two years of federal service behind him, would take the oath of office in a time of crisis, and deliver the most important inaugural address ever given. Now the text of that speech, which since the election Lincoln had labored unceasingly to perfect, was missing. This was not just a personal crisis; the manuscript was a state secret. Broadcasting its contents far and wide before Lincoln could even enter Washington might easily shatter the fragile peace, and send the nation headlong into war.

“The First Inaugural of Abraham Lincoln,” March 4, 1861, salt print attributed to Alexander Gardner. Bowdoin College Museum of Art.

It was a fitting note of uncertainty to end the most challenging run-up to an inauguration that the United States had ever experienced. On November 6, Lincoln had captured the White House, leading a political party that stood against the expansion of slavery. Not two months later, South Carolina had sundered the union. Six more states followed before the inauguration on March 4, and four more after that.

Repeated efforts to compromise had failed. Southerners in the national government began resigning their positions and returning home. While President James Buchanan dithered indecisively, indefensible federal property began falling into the hands of southern states. Secessionists began establishing a Confederate government in Montgomery, Alabama. Militias North and South began mobilizing.

With assassination threats gripping the national capital, the President himself had crept into Washington at night to occupy his new home. Apocryphal stories of this, some falsely asserting that Lincoln had disguised himself in ladies’ clothing, spread throughout the newspaper press, heaping humiliation on the new administration.

Almost no one believed Lincoln was up to the moment. While privately he vowed to give no ground to the secessionists, he said little of substance to the crowds he addressed on his way from Illinois to Washington. This engendered criticism that he was a “simple Susan,” far beyond his depth. Charles Francis Adams wrote that Lincoln’s whistle-stop addresses “have fallen like a wet blanket” and “put to flight all notions of greatness.” Massachusetts statesman Edward Everett believed the President-elect “wholly unequal to the crisis.” It seemed that Lincoln had not just lost his speech, he had lost his ability to speak.

Eventually, of course, he found his words. (It turns out that Lincoln’s adult son Robert, acting as his assistant, had mistakenly given the carpetbag containing the speech to a random waiter. Lincoln, learning of this, assumed a “look of stupefaction” and began tearing through piles of strangers’ luggage until he located the manuscript.)

Now, addressing the nation at his inauguration, Lincoln promised to protect slavery where it was legal, insisting that only in the territories had the national government any say over the institution. He insisted that the union was inviolable, and that his constitutional duty lay in maintaining it. And he placed the moral onus of belligerence on the seceding states. “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war,” he told the South. “You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors.”

The address ended with some of the most famous words in American history:

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.

The speech was a masterpiece of tensions: hopefulness and concern, conciliation and strength. But we do not remember the address because it reversed secession or prevented war. Passion indeed snapped the mystic chords of memory. The angels did descend, but only to harvest the souls of the dead.

Instead, we remember Lincoln’s first inaugural for its masterful balancing of moral vision with the rule of law. Lincoln believed in fundamental truths. (He would later state, “if slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.”) But he also believed that political systems were necessary. Slavery could be opposed, but only lawfully; slavery could even be defended, but only lawfully.

This photograph of the event captures a critical moment in our national history. At such points we define not just the rules, but the principles they uphold. The slice of time captured here marks the moment when the final contest over slavery became truly inevitable — the point at which a great hypocrisy at the founding of the nation could be righted.

Perhaps such remarkable affirmations of liberty emerge only through conflicts such as the one that would soon engulf the nation. Freedom does not need defining when times are good. We create, clarify, and expand freedom precisely when it is threatened. Contention is the forge of Liberty. Maybe the story of freedom is not a simple morality play, in which good always triumphs. Nor is it the operation of some abstract principle of fate, in which “History” inevitably moves ever closer to some clear ideal. History is ours to make; or break.

The very meaning of Liberty is always up for grabs. The slaveholders whom Lincoln addressed in this photograph believed that they were fighting for Liberty, too. They said it directly, over and over again, in justifying their secession. South Carolina’s official statement referred explicitly to the U.S. Constitution twenty-one times, declaring disunion an effort to “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” This vision of liberty was, like that of the non-slaveholding states, rooted in the protection of individual rights, particularly the right to own property. It differed only in southerners’ belief that humans could also be property, like cattle or furniture or houses or land.

No one ever claims to fight on the side of evil. We fight over what constitutes the good. As strongly as we may believe that we know its nature, there are always others just as strongly convinced of the opposite. Even looking back from the present offers no constant perspective, for everyone seems to take different “lessons” from History. The questions themselves become matters of debate.

This is certainly true of the Civil War, which to successive generations has always been a moving target. It was once accepted wisdom that the war was a needless conflict caused by a “blundering generation” of politicians. In this view, the abolition of chattel bondage was a mere afterthought. The interpretation melded nicely with the tenor of its age, which subjected the freed slaves and their descendants to disfranchisement, segregation, and lynching.

Even now, no matter how broadly we all agree that History somehow ultimately “went right” in this instance, we will never agree on where exactly the peaks and valleys in the story lie.

Would it have been possible to end slavery without the horrific loss of life? What sense do we make of a Union government that abolished slavery only late, and not out of moral imperative but military necessity? To what degree and with what long-term consequences did we sacrifice civil liberties and traditions of federalism in winning the war? What could “freedom” mean for women liberated from slavery into a society that assumed that only men could exercise full legal personhood? And how could a nation that fought a war to end slavery so quickly permit a resurgent South to eviscerate the rights of the freedpeople?

Lincoln came to understand something of the moral complexity of his moment. Over the four years between his first and second inaugural, the nation had undergone unfathomable loss, but slavery’s death knell was nigh. Lincoln refused to gloat. In his second inaugural address, phrases like “let us judge not, that we be not judged” and “the Almighty has His own purposes” betrayed no moral high ground. Lincoln, like others, wanted a speedy peace to replace the war. Yet, he cautioned,

if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

Lincoln’s greatness lay not in his specific political stances, for in many ways he followed rather than led on the challenges posed by slavery and race. Rather, his greatness lies in the humility he evinces here. Though we revere him, Lincoln did not believe himself to somehow transcend history. As he wrote a year before his death, “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.” Lincoln believed in contingency rather than fate. For better or worse, all we have is human action, and what Lincoln called “firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right.” Of all his legacies, this lesson for the future may be the most powerful: History is in our hands; it is ours to make, or break.

thumb:Bowdoin College entrance