The mystic chords of memory

One hundred sixty years ago today Abraham Lincoln stood beneath the unfinished dome of the United States Capitol and delivered a last, desperate plea for unity.

In the weeks following his election four months earlier, seven southern states led by South Carolina, had voted to secede from the Union and had formed themselves into the Confederate States of America. Border states including nearby Virginia and Maryland, as well as Lincoln’s birth state of Kentucky, were still hanging in the balance. The dark clouds of civil war loomed over the nation’s capital as Lincoln stepped forward to take the oath of office and become the 16th (and some feared the last) President of the United States.

Just making it to the March 4, 1861, inaugural ceremonies had been a minor miracle. Lincoln had narrowly avoided an assassination plot in Baltimore on his way to the capital city. Cannons now guarded the Capitol grounds and the carriage in which Lincoln rode with his outgoing predecessor James Buchanan was in the words of one reporter, “closely surrounded on all sides by marshals and cavalry, so as almost to hide it from view.”

Having reached the Capitol, the tall Illinoisan prepared to take on what he had described in his farewell to his neighbors in Springfield as “a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington.” Inside the Senate chamber Vice President Hannibal Hamlin was sworn in after some remarks by the outgoing Vice President John C. Breckenridge. Breckenridge had been one of the three other candidates for the Presidency whom Lincoln defeated the previous November. Within a year he would be a general in gray commanding a Confederate army in the field.

The inaugural party now moved outside to the east front of the Capitol where a crowd of about 25,000 spectators awaited. Lincoln was introduced by his friend Senator Edward Baker of Oregon. Baker was a friend and former colleague of Lincoln’s in the Illinois House of Representatives before he moved west. Abraham and Mary Todd had named their second-born son after him, but young Eddie Lincoln had died in Springfield at the age of 3. Baker would not live to see the end of 1861, joining the Union Army and becoming the only United States Senator to be killed in battle when he fell at Balls Bluff, Virginia, in October.

Lincoln would take the oath from Chief Justice Roger Taney, author of one of the worst decisions in the history of the United States Supreme Court and a man whom before the year was out Lincoln would seriously contemplate jailing. Seated nearby was Senator Stephen Douglas, Lincoln’s longtime antagonist, and another vanquished 1860 rival, but one who would rally to Lincoln’s side in the final months of his life. Douglas would condemn secession, delivering a dramatic address back in Illinois in which he asserted that there were now only two sides, “patriots and traitors,” just weeks before his death in June.

On Inauguration Day Douglas would play a small part in the drama surrounding the speech. As Lincoln put on his reading glasses and removed his silk hat to begin his remarks, he sought in vain for somewhere to place the hat. Douglas stepped forward and offered his hand, holding his former rival’s hat while he delivered his inaugural address.

Now the anxious crowd listened as the new President began delivering the speech he had begun working on back in Springfield not long after his election. He began by assuring his listeners that he would get right to what they were all eager to hear about.

“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,” he said. He then launched into an effort to reassure disgruntled southerners that there was no need to tear the nation apart.

He rejected the idea of the legality of secession. “I hold that…the Union of these States is perpetual,” Lincoln said, before referencing the nation’s founding documents, specifically the Constitution’s ambition “to form a more perfect Union.”

Lincoln expressed his intention to enforce the existing laws, but scorned the notion held by some that laws believed to be unconstitutional could be simply ignored, saying, “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 un-repealed than to violate any of them trusting to find impunity in having them held to be unconstitutional.”

Now he turned to the momentous task at hand, first recognizing his “fifteen different and greatly distinguished” predecessors, while acknowledging that he now faced a challenge greater than any that had confronted them. “A disruption of the Federal Union, heretofore only menaced, is now formidably attempted.”

Having established that he would not recognize secession, he now took a harder tone. “The power confided to me will be used to hold, occupy and possess the property and places belonging to the Government,” but he also sought again and again in his remarks to tamp down any threats of violence.

“In doing this there needs to be no bloodshed or violence,” he said. “There will be no invasion, no using of force against or among the people anywhere.” He even stated that the U.S. Mail would still be delivered, “with a view and a hope of a peaceful solution of the national troubles and the restoration of fraternal sympathies and affections.”

Lincoln challenged southerners to come up with, “a single instance in which a plainly written provision of the Constitution has ever been denied,” and asserted that they could not do so. He predicted doom for those who believed that the proper manner of handling a dispute was secession. “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,” he said. “Plainly the central idea of secession is the essence of anarchy.”

He went on to remind his listeners that the United States was something unique in the world of the 19th century: a self-governing nation, rather than one led by a hereditary monarch or a dictator.

“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,” he said. “I fully recognize the rightful authority of the people over the whole subject (amending the Constitution), 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.”

He warned secessionists against making a momentous decision in haste. “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,” Lincoln said.

Reaching the conclusion of the address, Lincoln cut right to the heart of the matter, and threw down a gauntlet to the secessionists. If there was to be war, it would not be Lincoln who would start it.

“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.’”

He closed with one last plea to those on the south bank of the Potomac to recall the nation’s great history, the struggles endured together, and all that brought Americans together, rather than tearing them apart.

“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.”

Six weeks later, on April 12, 1861, Confederate gunners opened fire on Fort Sumter, in South Carolina’s Charleston Harbor. The Civil War had begun.