Lincoln's first inaugural speech

Abraham LincolnAbraham Lincoln is a towering figure in American history. He has become an American icon. His name is everywhere. A Google search for "Lincoln" yields 226 million hits (in as little as 50 milliseconds, another surprising number!).

Domestically he is probably best known for his achievement to win the Civil War and hold the Union together, along with his moral fiber. He is widely known as "Honest Abe". His most famous speech, the Gettysburg Address, still serves as a model, echoing in countless political speeches. His simple upbringing in a log cabin is frequently mentioned as an inspiration and proof that America is the land of opportunity.

Khrushchev and LincolnSoviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev included a visit to the Lincoln Memorial during his trip to the United States in 1959. There is a famous photograph from that "encounter" between two powerful men with similar backgrounds but vastly different moral credentials. Somehow the photo seems to convey the relative stature of the two men.

Internationally, Lincoln is above all known for abolishing slavery in the United States. The general perception is that the great Civil War was about the issue of slavery. The nuances of the conflict that led to war are probably better understood in America than here in Europe and other parts of the world, but even some Americans may be surprised, as I was, upon reading Lincoln's first inaugural speech, March 4, 1861.

There are two passages that I find particularly disturbing. The first one 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."

This comes right at the start of the speech. It appears to be the main message of the whole address. The second statement is:

"No person held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall in consequence of any law or regulation therein be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due."

This is a direct quote from the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. What it means in plain words is that escaped slaves will be returned to their rightful owners.

These statements are further strengthened by this long sentence (especially its beginning):

"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."

Does this mean that Lincoln was less dedicated to the abolitionist cause than he is generally given credit for? - I do not think so. The speech must be seen in its historical context. Jefferson Davis had been inaugurated as President of the Confederacy just two weeks earlier. The speech was a last-ditch effort to avoid civil war with its horrible consequences and unpredictable long-term effects. Lincoln warned that secession might lead to the resumption of slave trade by the Confederate states, while opening the gates to the Northern states for fugitive slaves.

The transatlantic slave trade had been abolished as early as 1808 by both the British Empire and the United States, for moral reasons. Considering that two generations had been born since then without further progress, and with passions running high in the Southern states, Lincoln cannot have been very optimistic about the prospects for achieving the abolition of slavery in the near term through the normal democratic process. Yet he clearly believed that the rule of Law should prevail. He had faith in the political system. The integrity of the Union was more important to him than the timetable for reform.

The Civil War precipitated emancipation through the defeat of the Confederacy, but in the worst possible circumstances. It would take another century for the descendants of the slaves to be awarded their civil rights to a degree even approaching the ideal of "equal justice for all".

  Last edited or checked March 1, 2006; broken links fixed May 17, 2017 and February 22, 2024.

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