Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address: A Plea For Union

Friday, March 4, AD 2011

I doubt if there has ever been a bleaker inaugural of a President than that which awaited Abraham Lincoln on March 4, 1861.  Seven slave states of the deep South had already seceded from the Union, stretching from South Carolina to Texas.  Secession movements were active in every other slave state except for Delaware.  The nation was shattering in two, a process that James Buchanan had been impotent to stop.  North and South, all Americans now were eagerly wondering how the new President would address this overwhelming crisis.  Lincoln realized that this speech would be carefully read and he chose his words carefully as he set out the policy of his new administration:

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.

Lincoln gets right to the point.  The secession crisis was all anyone in the country was thinking about, and there was no use pretending otherwise.

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24 Responses to Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address: A Plea For Union

  • All true enough — good article.

    But you omit the 600 lb gorilla in the middle of the room, and that is, Southern Ultimatums.

    The Southern leaders in Montgomery — before the attack on Ft Sumter — issued Five Ultimatums. All five Ultimatums were about the same thing -the SPREAD of slavery.

    Newspapers in the South heralded the Five Ultimatums as “The True Issue”. New York papers reprinted the Ultimatums, and suggested Lincoln obey them, to avoid war. The South demanded them — or promised war.

    These were not suggestions — they were Ultimatums. They called them Ultimatums themelves, proundly and loudly. When LIncoln would not obey the Ultimatums, the South attacked.

    The First Ultimatum was that the US Congress must spread slavery into “the territories” — they meant Kansas. Kansas, of course, had just fought a four year war to keep slavery out. The people of Kansas had just voted 98% to 2% to ban slavery forever.

    Few places on earth were more anti slavery than Kansas — but the First Ultimatum was that Congress must force slavery in there. Kansas must “accept and respect slavery”.

    Gone was even the fig leaf of “state’s rights” — the Ultimatums were a naked assault on even the pretense of states rights. States nor Congress, nor the people in the territories and states, would have any right whatsoever to pass any of their own laws about blacks, or slavery, or civil rights for anyone with any “negro” in them.

    These Ultimatums were issued by the Southern leaders, proclaimed joyfully by Southern newspapers at the time. They were not some “historian” interpreting things 100 years later. These were the read deal headlines in Southern papers at the time.

    And these were not some last minute over exhuberance uttered in a fit of power or the passion of the moment. These were essentially the same demands made for decades. These were the demands made in 1820, that led to the so call “Compromise” — which was about as much a compromise as a 7-11 armed robbery.

    These were the same demands made in 1850, that resulted in that “Compromise”.

    Only here – in the Five Southern Ultimatums, the South had already seceded. The first thing the South did as a separate country was to demand the US spread slavery into the territories! And that the US not allow their own states to pass laws regarding events within their own borders. THis is an astonishingly complete repudiation of their so called regard for “states rights”. It was always about the spread of slavery.

    Somehow, in our histories and our text books, we have totally glossed over the overhwelmingly powerful demands by the Southern leaders — the spread of slavery. We think we have to say the South was protecting slavery. That was not even a real issue to them. The real issue was the spread of it.

    Sure — the rhetoric that the antebellum Southern newspapers used was geared to scare people that LIncoln was going to make “our children be with ni**ers” But that was clearly deceptive.

    When push came to shove, the South demanded one thing – -the SPREAD of slavery.

    As Toombs shouted to screaming crowds “EXPAND OR PERISH” He meant expand slavery. And everyone knew it. The governor of Florida declared quote clearly that “just stopping the spread of slavery is like burning us slowly to death” because of the hyper abundance of slaves.

    Let the South — speaking at the time – speak for itself. Their headlines, their speeches, their ultimatums. The SPREAD of slavery was their ultimatum, Later, after they lost, they changed their tune. But at the time, their own leaders, their own ultimatums, their own repeated demands, were for the SPREAD of slavery.

  • I am always amazed at Catholics who seem to revere Lincoln. The Southern states had no right to secede, but only because they were dragging millions of slaves with them, slaves they had no right to hold in any case, let alone force into a new nation. But the principle of the right to secede is inviolable for any society of free men. None of the original 13 colonies would ever have ratified he Constitution had they thought it would bind them forever. Lincoln was a tyrant who, by destroying the South in his great brotherly affection for the Union, destroyed the liberty of all Americans, and gave us the all-powerful federal government that we have today.

  • Just a thought on the results of the Civil War. The slaves were free. The Union was intact. The South was destroyed. The North was enriched.

  • Mark, this is Timothy. Timothy, this is Mark. Have at it.

  • “The South was destroyed. The North was enriched.”

    Too bad T. Shaw that the white Southerners who ran the South decided to secede in order to safe guard slavery. Would you agree with me that this was the biggest error in American history?

  • Timothy — maybe learn some real history.

    When the South seceded — Lincoln did nothing. Got that? Nothing.

    When the South issued five Ultimatums to spread slavery – Lincoln did nothing. Got that? Nothing.

    The South issued Ultimatums to spread slavery or face war. Lincoln did nothing.

    Only when the South attacked — did Lincoln do anything. What should he do?

    Remember, by the time the South attacked, they were a different country. They threatened the capital, they hung voters, they promised war if their Ultimatums were not met.

    Finally– only AFTER the South hung voters, only AFTER the South issued war ultimatums to spread slavery, only AFTER the SOuth attacked, only AFTER the South made good on their threats to attack, did Lincoln do anything.

    He did not to a thing when they seceded.

    If you think the South seceded – why not do it again? Attack 12 forts again, hang voters again, promise war if the North did not spread slavery for you again, claim God told you to spread slavery again, do all that again.

    Do that again if it was right. Go on.

    What was Lincoln supposed to do? Obey their demands to spread slavery? That was their ultimatum — the South issued Ultimatums for the North to spreadd slavery into Kansas. Did you know that?

    Was LIncoln supposed to obey? That was the only way to avoid war – and they said so. The South said so.

    So learn what happened – learn the Southern Ultimatums, learn what actually happened. Learn about their hanging voters, learn about their insane attacks, learn about their threatening the capital.

    If you like that – go for it. Get another Civil War started. Do that all again.
    Tell everyone God told you to spread slavery — like the SOuth did — and go for it. Good idea.

  • The South did in no way secede to protect slavery.

    They seceded — and then attacked – to spread slavery. And they said so.

    Over – and over, and over and over. That is what their headlines screamed as ” THE TRUE ISSUE”

    The TRUE issue — according to Southern newspapers, and Southern Ultimatums, and Southern speeches, and Southern actions, was the SPREAD of slavery. Not the protection of it, but the SPREAD of it.

  • Several years ago — actually, it was around the time of the first Star Wars prequel, The Phantom Menace — there was a conversation at my blog about the secession, and whether or not there is a right to it. I’d never really thought about that theoretical question before — in the context of our Civil War, it seemed obvious that the South was in the wrong, as is being argued here (and I still see that as true).

    But to the question of the right of secession… I’d be curious to hear thoughts from the commenters here. If a state chooses to join the union, can it never leave? If it can’t, why not? If it can, on what grounds and in what scenarios?

    Any thoughts?

  • Mark, try reading my post again. I specifically denied that the South had the right to secede BECAUSE it was a society based on slavery. I said a society of FREE men has an inviolable right to determine its own political destiny, including the right to secede, just as the thirteen colonies chose to do from England. How many wars has America fought (especially recently) to guarantee this right to other peoples, a right we ourselves no longer possess, thanks to Lincoln. What I find so appalling about Lincoln is his absolute hypocrisy on matters of race. He is the perfect modern politician. Ruthless and amoral.

  • ” . . . the biggest error in American history.”

    Surely, BIG MISTAKE for the South. The “business model” was doomed, anyhow. For decades at the South’s expense, the North’s industrialization was advanced: tariffs. The North the BIGGEST WINNER in American History. The South was destroyed and never recovered. The North was enriched.

    Biggest error in American history was made in November 2008.

  • BTW: that ultimatum was a tactic. It cut the ties. It communicated that there would be no compromise.

    That ultimatum’s purpose may have been same as Cortez’ when he burnt the ships off Mexico. There would be no retreat. Do or die.

  • “The South was destroyed and never recovered.”

    Actually it has recovered quite nicely and it was never destroyed. The South’s economic development was retarded quite a bit post Civil War because of poor race relations between white and black, and the treatment of blacks as fifth class citizens throughout almost all of the old Confederacy from the close of Reconstruction until the rise of the modern Civil Rights movement in the Forties, Fifties and Sixties of the last century. The invention of economic air conditioning post World War II helped also.

    Prior to the Civil War, far sighted Southerners contended that the reliance on the South of slavery and cotton was an economic dead end and that the South needed to industrialize and which is what happened after the Civil War albeit at a much slower pace than in the North. The South would have enjoyed prosperity much sooner if the speech by Booker T. Washington linked below had been heeded:

  • Timothy — if you call that secession, do it again.

    If you think hanging voters, like the South did, was secession, do it again.

    If you think attacking the US after your ultimatums to spread slavery was secession — do it again.

    If you think threatening the US Capital, after you threaten them to spread slavery for you — do it again.

    What part of this do you not understand? The South was taken over by very totalitarian violent lunatics. Men who tortured women and children. Men who said God told them to enslave millions. Men who promised war if the North did not spread slavery for them.

    What part of this do you not grasp? Imagine if Mexico today issued war ultimatums — that we must spread slavery for Mexico’s amusement. Can’t imagine that?

    Well that is what the CSA did. They promised war if the US did not spread slavery — and LIncoln still did nothing.

    Only when this illegal, violent, religious bunch of lunatics attacked, did LIncoln do anything.

    Your problem is, you don’t know real history. You only know the politically correct nonsense they teach in schools. No where are we taught about Lee torturing young women, for example. No where are we taught that the South issued war ultimatums that the NORTH must spread slavery for their amusement.

    Since you have no understanding of what went on, you should do that first.

    Find out about the following/

    1) Southern Ultimatums that promised war if the North did not spread slavery for the South.

    2) The violent suppression of free speech for 40 years– including torturing preachers for speaking against slavery.

    3) The violent suppression of religion, including torturing preachers for speaking against slavery.

    If you see the Southern governmeents as rational and legally installed, then you simply don’t know history. Southern opposition was violently suppressed — did you know that? Did you know, yes or no, that pastors where tortured for preaching things the Southern “government” did not like?

    Really — did you know that? No, you did not.

    Did you know that if a person just said he was against slavery, he could be tried, and subjected to AT LEAST being deported — and at most, being tortured, That is just for SAYING what they believed.

    Since you have no idea of what really went on — first go learn the truth.

    Hiton Helper, the famous Southern writer, said that if the South had allowed real elections, slave owners would have been kicked out of power. But there were no real elections. THe only elections allowed in the South were “Saddam Hussen” type elections.

    Did you know that? DId you know free speech was stopped from 1820’s on?
    Did you know there where no real elections? You can’t have real elections if you are tortured for speaking out on the issues.

    YOu have a lot to learn about history. I suggest you start reading.

    Where did I get this information? Not from text books. I got it from the South – bragging about it. I got it from Lee’s own papers, from Southern newspapers, from Southern documents, at the time. Not some drivel they made up later.

    Read the real evidence — what the Southern leaders, and books, and newspapers, and documents, said at the time. It’s clear you have no idea.

    Here is a good place to start.

  • Mark, you seem to have a little trouble reading yourself. Try reading my posts again, and you will find no defense of the South. You insist on seeing the world in terms of black and white: “Lee was a bastard, so Lincoln must be a saint.” Trying to create heroes out of Civil War characters is a sketchy proposition. Lincoln was just as much a racist as anyone else in America. True, he modified his views (somewhat) over time, but he fought the Civil War over power, pure and simple. And he wasn’t going to permit any law – free speech or habeas corpus – or any Constitution, or any court, to interfere with his prosecution of the war. If you revere Lincoln, how can you possibly object to any of the characters currently running the country?

  • I mean: it doesn’t matter what he said. Judge Lincoln by his deeds.

    September 1862, the CSA invaded the USA. That was 22 months after it seceded and after naval blockades and after umpty-ump unconstitutional invasions by hundreds of thousands of federal mercenaries. Lincoln did not abide by the Constitution, i.e., did not federalize the militias because . . . The militias of the Southern states (Democracy, anyone? Consent of the governed, anybody?) would not come out.


    No state would have been forced to allow slaves, but no state would be forced to ban slavery.

    You cannot make up stuff.

    As in: provide names (dates and places) of preachers that were tortured for inciting massacres of Southern women and children.

    Did you ever read the violent tracts of abiltionists? Did you ever hear of John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry Armory? Did you ever hear of “Bloody Kansas”? Did you ever hear of Nat Turner?

  • “Lincoln did not abide by the Constitution, i.e., did not federalize the militias because . . . The militias of the Southern states (Democracy, anyone? Consent of the governed, anybody?) would not come out.”

    Lincoln used the same system that had been used in all of America’s wars up to his time. The states provided regiments and batteries that were placed into Federal service. By the end of the war white regiments were raised in each of the states of the Confederacy except South Carolina.

    “September 1862, the CSA invaded the USA. That was 22 months after it seceded and after naval blockades and after umpty-ump unconstitutional invasions by hundreds of thousands of federal mercenaries.”

    Give me a break! $14.00 bucks a month to risk their lives. Some mercenaries! Most of the troops were there out of pure patriotism. As for invasions T. Shaw, the whole point of the War from the Union perspective is that it was one country. Additionally, I doubt if almost all black southerners viewed it as an invasion, or the approximately 100,000 white southerners from Confederate states who fought for the Union and their families.

    “No state would have been forced to allow slaves, but no state would be forced to ban slavery.”

    Actually the right to keep slaves was enshrined in the Confederate Constitution. Theoretically a Confederate state could have banned slavery, but the ban would have been useless since the Confederate constitution guaranteed protection to slave holders in owning slavers.

    “Did you ever hear of “Bloody Kansas”?”

    Yes, and it gained that name due to the attempt by slave holders to impose slavery in an area completely unsuited to it. Cotton plantations were never going to rise on the Kansas plains.

  • Mac,

    Lighten up.

    I think the operative just war principle is that the war should not result in worse (greater) evil than the causes of the war. You and Lincoln believed it (preserving the US and freeing the blacks) was worth mass murder and destruction. I am not convinced. Thank God I didn’t have to decide.

    It took 148 years, Obama eclipsed Lincoln as worst prez out of IL.

  • I would appreciate it T. Shaw if you could refrain from attempting to tie Obama and Lincoln together. After the election of Obama his sychophantic followers attempted to do so, and I can think of no two Presidents more dissimilar than Lincoln and the empty suit who currently pretends to lead the nation.

    The Civil War involved death in combat T. Shaw, and both sides were willing to undergo the scourge of war rather than to retreat from their goals. I am very glad that the nation was preserved and that the slaves were freed. 620,000 war dead was a terrible price to pay, but far worse would have been a divided nation and the continuation of millions of Americans living their lives as property.

  • Mr. McClarey,

    Please don’t be too hasty. Just because slavery is evil, does not mean 280,000 Southerners deserved to die.

    (1) Both St. Peter and St. Paul admonished slaves to obey their masters. See I Peter 2:18, Ephesians 6:5. St. Paul did request Philemon to free his slave Philemon, but voluntarily.

    (2) 90% of the soldiers who fought and died for the Confederacy owned zero slaves.

    (3) Pope Pius IX recognized Jefferson Davis as President of the CSA. Of course we Catholics are not obligated to support every political position taken by every Pope. But if the Confederacy garnered the Pope’s support, that means something at least.

    (4) After World War II, the USA helped Germany and Japan rebuild. After the War between the States, where was the Marshall Plan for South Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, Mississippi, etc.?

    I’m not trying to change your mind. But I earnestly beg you to see things from a different point of view.

  • Just because slavery is evil, does not mean 280,000 Southerners deserved to die.

    Where in this post is such a statement even made? This is not about whether people “deserved to die,” but whether southern secession merited Lincoln’s response.

    (1) Both St. Peter and St. Paul admonished slaves to obey their masters. See I Peter 2:18, Ephesians 6:5. St. Paul did request Philemon to free his slave Philemon, but voluntarily.

    You have got to be kidding me. At least most of the neo-Confederates who argue about the righteousness of the southern cause at least go through the motions of saying that slavery is evil. I salute you for being the first to use the canned responses of slavery defenders circa 1855. It’s nice to sit here in modern day America behind the comfort of your computer screen writing abstract justifications for slaves to be docile to their masters, but I suggest such sweet-sounding bromides might not have soothed the slave woman whose children had been ripped away from her so that they could be sold elsewhere.

    After the War between the States, where was the Marshall Plan for South Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, Mississippi, etc.?

    It is true that the north bungled Reconstruction efforts – and I would argue that it is principally because Lincoln had been assassinated and the Union lacked a strong leader to bridge the differences between the extreme wings of his party. But remember that it was the South that told the North to take a hike and end Reconstruction efforts.

    But I earnestly beg you to see things from a different point of view.

    I love comments like this, as though Donald and those who don’t believe in the cause of the Confederacy are just ignorant rubes who haven’t explored the issue from every angle. Can’t speak for Donald, but I have seen the War from different points of view, and I still think the Confederacy was wrong.

  • First of all, Lincoln did nothing until the South gave Ultimatums to spread slavery — and then attacked.

    If you don’t know that, you don’t know the basic history of the South.

    Oh, you didn’t know the South demanded the SPREAD of slavery — against, against, against, the will of the WHITE people? Well welcome to real history 101.

    Go see the SOUTH’s own Ultimatums. Their OWN ultimatums, not mine, theirs. Go see the Southern headlines saying what the TRUE ISSUE was. Not my headlines, the SOUTH’S headlines.

    The TRUE ISSUE — in big headlines– in SOuthern papers, showing the SOUTHERN ultimatums to spread slavery into Kansas.

    Gee, I wonder why the South has hid this — and everything like it?

    Go see what the South has been hiding for 150 years. Learn some truth.

    The truth matters – ask Jesus.

  • Just because slavery is evil — Lincoln could not obey Southern demands to spread it for them.

    Did you know the Southern leaders demanded Lincoln and the North spread slavery FOR the South? Oh, you didn’t read the Richmond papers bragging about these demands?

    Oh, your “history” books forgot to tell you this?

    Maybe it’s the same “history book” that forgot to tell you about the many many horrible and profoundly embarrassing things about the South.

    Keep in mind, Lincoln didn’t do anything when the South seceded. He didn’t do anything when the South issued really goofy war ultimatums that the North must spread slavery for the South.

    He only did anything when the South attacked AFTER he refused to obey their insane demands.

    I suggest you learn real history, the very history the South has hid from, and hoped no one would notice.

  • I see above a DEFENSE of slavery!

    Amazing! First of all, the biblical defense of slavery by the South was vile and corrupt.

    But if you believe we are supposed to have slaves — why don’t you volunteer?

    Did you notice after the Civil War, the Southern white folks didn’t volunteer to become slaves? Oh, their leaders sure believed in slavery, yes sir.
    But by their own logic and scriptures, they should have been slaves after they lost the war! They should have been forced to work under a whip, and their children sold, and they have all freedoms taken.

    After all, didn’t their bible say slavery was of God? Didn’t they defend slavery and try to spread it? Well, if it was such a great enterprise, why not enslave them? They lost. Slaves in biblical times were often people from the losing side in a war.

    So when did slavery go from God given gift — to something they sould not submit to? Exactly when they qualified to BE slaves!

    Funny how that works.

    And if you believe so strongly in slavery – go do it again! See how it works. You must feel terrible not enslaving others — it’s ordained of God you say! So go get some slaves! Or be a slave!

    See how that works for ya. Tell me when you are gonna enslave folks, I want to see it. Or tell me when you are going to be enslaved by others. I want to see that too.

    If you are gonna talk the talk about how great slavery is -walk the walk.

  • Paul Zummo and Mark:

    I was thinking more along the lines of Brazil. Brazil ended slavery in 1888. it took them a long time, but at least they did it peacefully.