March 4, 1861
…The Union is much older than the Constitution. It was formed in fact, by the Articles of Association in 1774. It was matured and continued by the Declaration of Independence in 1776. It was further matured and the faith of all the then thirteen States expressly plighted and engaged that it should be perpetual, by the Articles of Confederation in 1778. And finally, in 1787, one of the declared objects for ordaining and establishing the Constitution, was “to form a more perfect union.”
But if destruction of the Union, by one, or by a part only, of the States, be lawfully possible, the Union is less perfect than before the Constitution, having lost the vital element of perpetuity.
It follows from these views that no State, upon its own mere motion, can lawfully get out of the Union, – that resolves and ordinances to that effect are legally void; and that acts of violence, within any State or States, against the authority of the United States, are insurrectionary or revolutionary, according to circumstances…
…My countrymen, one and all, think calmly and well, upon this whole subject. Nothing valuable can be lost by taking time…
…In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of the civil war. The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict, without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in Heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to “preserve, protect and defend” it.
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 Union, when again touched, as sure they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
Abraham Lincoln, First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861
(You can find the full text HERE)
Interesting that Lincoln isn’t talking about slavery in 1861, huh? His focus in the First Inaugural Address is on Union. What was this “union idea” that is discussed in 1860’s politics?
One of the foundational principles Lincoln refers to is the basis of the “Union theory.” Basically, it holds that when the states joined together and signed the Constitution to create the United States of America, they were forming an unbreakable bond. Thus the states had to stick together no matter what.
This union came to symbolize prosperity and economic opportunity, with some underlying themes of the “self-made man” image. Of course the exactly symbolism and idea of Union did mean slightly different things to different individuals, but overall it rested on the principles that the union of could not be broken.
It is important to note that – with the exception of the abolitionists – most Northern men enlisted in 1861 “to preserve the Union.” Slavery and it’s abolition was an undercurrent to the conflict, but did not come to the forefront until 1862/1863. (For more details on the topic of union and soldier’s view, please read The Union War by Gary W. Gallagher.)
Born in the Kentucky wilderness in 1809, Abe Lincoln grew up as a pioneer lad with a restless urge to learn. Reading every book he could find and taking every possibly adventure that came his way – including a trip down the Mississippi River on a flatboat, Lincoln was a “self-made man.” He worked in a general store, got interested in local politics, and became a lawyer.
In 1842, he married Miss Mary Todd and settled permanently in Springfield, Illinois, to raise their family; the Lincolns had four sons. Abraham Lincoln served in the state and federal legislatures and continued his law practice; his political debates with opposing candidate Stephen Douglas got national attention.
In 1860, Lincoln ran for president on the newly-formed Republican Party platform, winning a majority of votes because the Democratic Party’s votes were split between multiple candidates. Though he made it clear that he strongly opposed secession, Southern states left the union shortly after his election, citing the Republican platform – which included opposition to slavery’s expansion – as their reason. Even before he took office, Lincoln knew he was facing an unprecedented situation.
Interestingly, both North and South were reading the same Constitution, but with different “political viewpoints.” Southerners tended to hold to more Jeffersonian ideas that the states joined, the states could leave. Northerners eventually embraced the notion that the Union was unbreakable. Much of it becomes a debate that goes back to 1787 when the Constitution was written and ratified and signed.
Lincoln uses his address to explain his position and beliefs while issuing a veiled threat. Also – almost Pilate-like – he washes his hands, declaring that if war comes it will be because the South starts it. But then, as though, he can’t bear the thought of conflict, Lincoln appeals to affection and the “mystic-bonds” of commonality and patriotism…bonds which were already breaking, even as he tried to patch them.
P.S. Do you think Lincoln was using his First Inaugural as a sort of “thesis” to defend his actions if the seceded states would not return and war really came?