1/20/09 - lincoln's inauguration

In today's excerpt - Abraham Lincoln arrived at his first inauguration March 4, 1861 in a climate of dread and paranoia to deliver a speech that was in its initial draft a strong renunciation of the South:

"At noon on March 4, [outgoing president] James Buchanan and Abraham Lincoln entered an open barouche (horse-drawn carriage) at Willard's Hotel to begin the drive down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol. Determined to prevent any attempt on Lincoln's life, General [Winfield] Scott had stationed sharpshooters on the roofs of buildings along the avenue, and companies of soldiers blocked off the cross streets. He stationed himself with one battery of light artillery on Capitol Hill; General John E. Wool, commander of the army's Department of the East was with another. The presidential procession was short and businesslike, more like a military operation than a political parade.

"Entering the Capitol from the north through a passageway boarded so as to prevent any possible assassination attempt, Buchanan and Lincoln attended the swearing in of Vice President Hannibal Hamlin and then emerged to a smattering of applause on the platform erected at the east portico. Introduced by his old friend, the silver-tongued E. D. Baker, Lincoln rose but was obviously troubled by what to do with his tall stovepipe hat. Noting his perplexity. [Illinois Senator Stephen] Douglas said, 'Permit me sir,' took the hat and held it during the ceremony. Lincoln read his inaugural, an eyewitness recalled, in a voice 'though not very strong or full-toned' that 'rang out over the acres of people before him with surprising distinctness, and was heard in the remotest parts of his audience.' When he finished, the cadaverous Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, now nearly eighty-four years old, tottered forth to administer the oath of office to the sixteenth President of the United States.

"The audience could not be quite sure what the new President's policy toward secession would be because his inaugural address, like his cabinet, was an imperfectly blended mixture of opposites. The draft that he completed before leaving Springfield was a no-nonsense document; it declared that the Union was indestructible, that secession was illegal, and that he intended to enforce the laws. 'All the power at my disposal will be used to reclaim the public property and places which have fallen,' he pledged. ... Lincoln urged secessionists to pause for reflection: 'In your hands my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. ... With you, and not with me, is the solemn question of 'Shall it be peace or a sword?' '

"Lincoln showed this warlike draft to several of his associates. ... [However the highly-regarded William] Seward thought the speech much too provocative. If Lincoln delivered it without alterations, he warned, Virginia and Maryland would secede within sixty days. ... Entreating Lincoln to include 'some words of affection,' some 'of calm and cheerful confidence,' he proposed a less martial concluding paragraph [a suggestion which became the now famous 'mystic chords of memory' passage.]"


David Herbert Donald




Simon & Schuster


Copyright 1995 by David Herbert Donald


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