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Abraham Lincoln
First Inaugural Address, 1861
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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.

Apprehension seems to exist among the people of the Southern
States that by the accession of a Republican Administration their
property and their peace and personal security are to be endangered.
There has never been any reasonable cause for such apprehension.
Indeed, the most ample evidence to the contrary has all the while
existed and been open to their inspection. It is found in nearly all the
published speeches of him who now addresses you. I do but quote
from one of those speeches when I declare that? 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.

Those who nominated and elected me did so with full knowledge
that I had made this and many similar declarations and had never
recanted them; and more than this, they placed in the platform for
my acceptance, and as a law to themselves and to me, the clear and
emphatic resolution which I now read:
Resolved, That the maintenance inviolate of the rights of the States,
and especially the right of each State to order and control its own
domestic institutions according to its own judgment exclusively, is
essential to that balance of power on which the perfection and
endurance of our political fabric depend; and we denounce the
lawless invasion by armed force of the soil of any State or Territory,
no matter what pretext, as among the gravest of crimes.

I now reiterate these sentiments, and in doing so I only press
upon the public attention the most conclusive evidence of which
the case is susceptible that the property, peace, and security of
no section are to be in any wise endangered by the now incoming
Administration. I add, too, that all the protection which, consistently
with the Constitution and the laws, can be given will be cheerfully
given to all the States when lawfully demanded, for whatever cause
?as cheerfully to one section as to another.

There is much controversy about the delivering up of fugitives
from service or labor. The clause I now read is as plainly written in
the Constitution as any other of its provisions: 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.

It is scarcely questioned that this provision was intended by
those who made it for the reclaiming of what we call fugitive slaves;
and the intention of the lawgiver is the law. All members of Congress
swear their support to the whole Constitution?to this provision as
much as to any other. To the proposition, then, that slaves whose
cases come within the terms of this clause "shall be delivered up"
their oaths are unanimous. Now, if they would make the effort in
good temper, could they not with nearly equal unanimity frame and
pass a law by means of which to keep good that unanimous oath?

There is some difference of opinion whether this clause should
be enforced by national or by State authority, but surely that
difference is not a very material one. If the slave is to be surrendered,
it can be of but little consequence to him or to others by which
authority it is done. And should anyone in any case be content that
his oath shall go unkept on a merely unsubstantial controversy as
to how it shall be kept?

Again: In any law upon this subject ought not all the safeguards
of liberty known in civilized and humane jurisprudence to be
introduced, so that a free man be not in any case surrendered as
a slave? And might it not be well at the same time to provide by law
for the enforcement of that clause in the Constitution which
guarantees that "the citizens of each State shall be entitled to all
privileges and immunities of citizens in the several States"?

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.

It is seventy-two years since the first inauguration of a President
under our National Constitution. During that period fifteen different
and greatly distinguished citizens have in succession administered
the executive branch of the Government. They have conducted it
through many perils, and generally with great success. Yet, with all
this scope of precedent, I now enter upon the same task for the brief
constitutional term of four years under great and peculiar difficulty.
A disruption of the Federal Union, heretofore only menaced, is now
formidably attempted.

I hold that in contemplation of universal law and of the Constitution
the Union of these States is perpetual. Perpetuity is implied, if not
expressed, in the fundamental law of all national governments. It is
safe to assert that no government proper ever had a provision in its
organic law for its own termination. Continue to execute all the express
provisions of our National Constitution, and the Union will endure
forever, it being impossible to destroy it except by some action not
provided for in the instrument itself.

Again: If the United States be not a government proper, but an
association of States in the nature of contract merely, can it, as a
contract, be peaceably unmade by less than all the parties who made
it? One party to a contract may violate it?break it, so to speak?but
does it not require all to lawfully rescind it?

Descending from these general principles, we find the proposition
that in legal contemplation the Union is perpetual confirmed by the
history of the Union itself. 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.

I therefore consider that in view of the Constitution and the
laws the Union is unbroken, and to the extent of my ability, I shall
take care, as the Constitution itself expressly enjoins upon me,
that the laws of the Union be faithfully executed in all the States.
Doing this I deem to be only a simple duty on my part, and I shall
perform it so far as practicable unless my rightful masters, the
American people, shall withhold the requisite means or in some
authoritative manner direct the contrary. I trust this will not be
regarded as a menace, but only as the declared purpose of the
Union that it will constitutionally defend and maintain itself.

In doing this there needs to be no bloodshed or violence, and
there shall be none unless it be forced upon the national authority.
The power confided to me will be used to hold, occupy, and possess
the property and places belonging to the Government and to collect
the duties and imposts; but beyond what may be necessary for
these objects, there will be no invasion, no using of force against or
among the people anywhere. Where hostility to the United States in
any interior locality shall be so great and universal as to prevent
competent resident citizens from holding the Federal offices, there
will be no attempt to force obnoxious strangers among the people
for that object. While the strict legal right may exist in the Government
to enforce the exercise of these offices, the attempt to do so would be
so irritating and so nearly impracticable withal that I deem it better to
forego for the time the uses of such offices.

The mails, unless repelled, will continue to be furnished in all parts
of the Union. So far as possible the people everywhere shall have that
sense of perfect security which is most favorable to calm thought and
reflection. The course here indicated will be followed unless current
events and experience shall show a modification or change to be proper,
and in every case and exigency my best discretion will be exercised,
according to circumstances actually existing and with a view and a
hope of a peaceful solution of the national troubles and the restoration
of fraternal sympathies and affections.

That there are persons in one section or another who seek to
destroy the Union at all events and are glad of any pretext to do it
I will neither affirm nor deny; but if there be such, I need address no
word to them. To those, however, who really love the Union may I
not speak?

Before entering upon so grave a matter as the destruction of
our national fabric, with all its benefits, its memories, and its hopes,
would it not be wise to ascertain precisely why we do it? Will you
hazard so desperate a step while there is any possibility that any
portion of the ills you fly from have no real existence? Will you, while
the certain ills you fly to are greater than all the real ones you fly
from, will you risk the commission of so fearful a mistake?

All profess to be content in the Union if all constitutional rights
can be maintained. Is it true, then, that any right plainly written
in the Constitution has been denied? I think not. Happily, the
human mind is so constituted that no party can reach to the
audacity of doing this. Think, if you can, of a single instance in
which a plainly written provision of the Constitution has ever been
denied. If by the mere force of numbers a majority should deprive
a minority of any clearly written constitutional right, it might in a
moral point of view justify revolution; certainly would if such right
were a vital one. But such is not our case. All the vital rights of
minorities and of individuals are so plainly assured to them by
affirmations and negations, guaranties and prohibitions, in the
Constitution that controversies never arise concerning them. But
no organic law can ever be framed with a provision specifically
applicable to every question which may occur in practical
administration. No foresight can anticipate nor any document of
reasonable length contain express provisions for all possible
questions. Shall fugitives from labor be surrendered by national
or by State authority? The Constitution does not expressly say.
May Congress prohibit slavery in the Territories? The Constitution
does not expressly say. Must Congress protect slavery in the
Territories? The Constitution does not expressly say.

From questions of this class spring all our constitutional
controversies, and we divide upon them into majorities and
minorities. If the minority will not acquiesce, the majority must,
or the Government must cease. There is no other alternative,
for continuing the Government is acquiescence on one side or
the other. If a minority in such case will secede rather than
acquiesce, they make a precedent which in turn will divide and
ruin them, for a minority of their own will secede from them
whenever a majority refuses to be controlled by such minority.
For instance, why may not any portion of a new confederacy a
year or two hence arbitrarily secede again, precisely as portions
of the present Union now claim to secede from it? All who cherish
disunion sentiments are now being educated to the exact temper
of doing this.

Is there such perfect identity of interests among the States
to compose a new union as to produce harmony only and prevent
renewed secession?

Plainly the central idea of secession is the essence of anarchy.
A majority held in restraint by constitutional checks and limitations,
and always changing easily with deliberate changes of popular
opinions and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people.
Whoever rejects it does of necessity fly to anarchy or to despotism.
Unanimity is impossible. The rule of a minority, as a permanent
arrangement, is wholly inadmissible; so that, rejecting the majority
principle, anarchy or despotism in some form is all that is left.

I do not forget the position assumed by some that constitutional
questions are to be decided by the Supreme Court, nor do I deny
that such decisions must be binding in any case upon the parties
to a suit as to the object of that suit, while they are also entitled
to very high respect and consideration in all parallel cases by all
other departments of the Government. And while it is obviously
possible that such decision may be erroneous in any given case,
still the evil effect following it, being limited to that particular case,
with the chance that it may be overruled and never become a
precedent for other cases, can better be borne than could the evils
of a different practice. At the same time, the candid citizen must
confess that if the policy of the Government upon vital questions
affecting the whole people is to be irrevocably fixed by decisions of
the Supreme Court, the instant they are made in ordinary litigation
between parties in personal actions the people will have ceased to
be their own rulers, having to that extent practically resigned their
Government into the hands of that eminent tribunal. Nor is there in
this view any assault upon the court or the judges. It is a duty from
which they may not shrink to decide cases properly brought before
them, and it is no fault of theirs if others seek to turn their decisions
to political purposes.

One section of our country believes slavery is right and ought to
be extended, while the other believes it is wrong and ought not to
be extended. This is the only substantial dispute. The fugitive-slave
clause of the Constitution and the law for the suppression of the
foreign slave trade are each as well enforced, perhaps, as any law
can ever be in a community where the moral sense of the people
imperfectly supports the law itself. The great body of the people
abide by the dry legal obligation in both cases, and a few break
over in each. This, I think, can not be perfectly cured, and it would
be worse in both cases after the separation of the sections than
before. The foreign slave trade, now imperfectly suppressed, would
be ultimately revived without restriction in one section, while fugitive
slaves, now only partially surrendered, would not be surrendered
at all by the other.

Physically speaking, we can not separate. We can not remove
our respective sections from each other nor build an impassable
wall between them. A husband and wife may be divorced and go
out of the presence and beyond the reach of each other, but the
different parts of our country can not do this. They can not but
remain face to face, and intercourse, either amicable or hostile,
must continue between them. Is it possible, then, to make that
intercourse more advantageous or more satisfactory after
separation than before? Can aliens make treaties easier than
friends can make laws? Can treaties be more faithfully enforced
between aliens than laws can among friends? Suppose you go
to war, you can not fight always; and when, after much loss on
both sides and no gain on either, you cease fighting, the identical
old questions, as to terms of intercourse, are again upon you.

This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who
inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing
Government, they can exercise their constitutional right of
amending it or their revolutionary right to dismember or overthrow
it. I can not be ignorant of the fact that many worthy and patriotic
citizens are desirous of having the National Constitution amended.
While I make no recommendation of amendments, I fully recognize
the rightful authority of the people over the whole subject, to be
exercised in either of the modes prescribed in the instrument itself;
and I should, under existing circumstances, favor rather than
oppose a fair opportunity being afforded the people to act upon it.
I will venture to add that to me the convention mode seems
preferable, in that it allows amendments to originate with the
people themselves, instead of only permitting them to take or
reject propositions originated by others, not especially chosen for
the purpose, and which might not be precisely such as they would
wish to either accept or refuse. I understand a proposed
amendment to the Constitution?which amendment, however, I
have not seen?has passed Congress, to the effect that the
Federal Government shall never interfere with the domestic
institutions of the States, including that of persons held to service.
To avoid misconstruction of what I have said, I depart from my
purpose not to speak of particular amendments so far as to say
that, holding such a provision to now be implied constitutional
law, I have no objection to its being made express and
irrevocable.

The Chief Magistrate derives all his authority from the
people, and they have referred none upon him to fix terms for
the separation of the States. The people themselves can do this
if also they choose, but the Executive as such has nothing to do
with it. His duty is to administer the present Government as it
came to his hands and to transmit it unimpaired by him to his
successor.

Why should there not be a patient confidence in the ultimate
justice of the people? Is there any better or equal hope in the
world? In our present differences, is either party without faith
of being in the right? If the Almighty Ruler of Nations, with His
eternal truth and justice, be on your side of the North, or on
yours of the South, that truth and that justice will surely prevail
by the judgment of this great tribunal of the American people.

By the frame of the Government under which we live this
same people have wisely given their public servants but little
power for mischief, and have with equal wisdom provided for
the return of that little to their own hands at very short intervals.
While the people retain their virtue and vigilance no Administration
by any extreme of wickedness or folly can very seriously injure the
Government in the short space of four years.

My countrymen, one and all, think calmly and well upon this
whole subject. Nothing valuable can be lost by taking time. If there
be an object to hurry any of you in hot haste to a step which you
would never take deliberately, that object will be frustrated by
taking time; but no good object can be frustrated by it. Such of
you as are now dissatisfied still have the old Constitution
unimpaired, and, on the sensitive point, the laws of your own
framing under it; while the new Administration will have no
immediate power, if it would, to change either. If it were admitted
that you who are dissatisfied hold the right side in the dispute,
there still is no single good reason for precipitate action.
Intelligence, patriotism, Christianity, and a firm reliance on Him
who has never yet forsaken this favored land are still competent
to adjust in the best way all our present difficulty.

In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not
in mine, is the momentous issue of 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 the Union, when again touched,
as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

(Monday, March 4, 1861)
 

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