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Lincoln's First Inaugural Address
March 4, 1861
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 his 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 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 under 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 any one 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 citizen of each State shall be entitled to all privileges and
immunities of citizens in the several States?"
I take the official oath today 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 the 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
a 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 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,
cannot 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 cannot separate. We cannot 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 cannot do this. They cannot 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 cannot fight always; and when, after much loss on both sides,
an 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 cannot 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
The chief magistrate derives all his authority from the people,
and they have conferred none upon him to fix terms for the
separation of the states. The people themselves can do this
also if 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, 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 loathe 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.
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