The Inauguration of Abraham Lincoln

March 4, 1861 – Abraham Lincoln became the 16th U.S. president in Washington.

President James Buchanan arrived at Willard’s Hotel at noon on a breezy, partly cloudy day. Lincoln emerged from the hotel and accompanied Buchanan in an open barouche pulled by four white horses. The Marine Band played “Hail to the Chief” as the carriage moved past thousands of cheering spectators lining cobblestoned Pennsylvania Avenue. Flags and bunting decorated buildings along the way. Military bands and units marched by, along with a float pulled by white horses bearing 34 girls representing the 34 states.

The procession resembled a military exercise more than a parade, partly because General-in-Chief Winfield Scott, fearing an assassination attempt by one of the many southern sympathizers in Washington, employed sharpshooters on rooftops and in windows along the route. Scott also stationed cavalry on side streets and artillery on the Capitol grounds. He threatened to “manure the slopes of Arlington” with the blood of anyone trying to harm the incoming president.

Some 30,000 people gathered at the Capitol for the ceremony. The presidential carriage entered through a boarded passageway to avoid detection. The participants first entered the Senate chamber, where outgoing Vice President John C. Breckinridge administered the oath of office to his successor, Hannibal Hamlin. Buchanan and Lincoln witnessed the ceremony before the party then moved to a special outdoor platform on the east portico of the Capitol.

Edward D. Baker, a close friend of the Lincolns, introduced the president-elect. Lincoln stepped forward to deliver his inaugural address and looked for a place to set down his stovepipe hat. Senator Stephen A. Douglas, who had been Lincoln’s opponent in the presidential election and a longtime political rival from Illinois, stepped forward to hold it. Douglas said, “If I can’t be the president, at least I can hold his hat.”

Lincoln's inauguration | Image Credit:
Lincoln’s inauguration | Image Credit:

Lincoln’s half-hour speech featured a balance between offering conciliation to the Confederate states and gratifying his party. He provided no policy details. Regarding slavery he said, “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.” He voiced support for the recently passed Corwin amendment:

“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… holding such a provision to now be implied constitutional law, I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable.”

Lincoln did not acknowledge the new Confederate government, implying that the southern states had been taken over by people rebelling against the U.S. He asserted his right to enforce Federal laws in the states and declared, “No state, on its own mere action, can get out of the Union.” The new president pledged to “hold, occupy and possess the property and places belonging to the government,” including Federal forts and garrisons in Confederate territory.

In addition, Lincoln pledged to use force “to collect the duties and imposts,” or tariffs, in the South. This angered southerners because they had regularly opposed tariffs, especially the recently enacted Morrill Tariff Act which had more than doubled the average rate. Southerners resented Lincoln’s promise to enforce the tax increases considering that they had left the Union and had not voted on them.

Lincoln said to southerners: “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war… We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies… 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.”

Chief Justice Roger B. Taney administered the oath of office, officially replacing Buchanan with Lincoln. Cannon boomed and the Marine Band played in celebration of the new administration.

Lincoln’s inaugural address aimed to ease southern fears of a Republican administration. It had initially been less conciliatory, but moderate Republicans such as his new Secretary of State William H. Seward had persuaded him to modify the text. They feared that any expression of hostility toward the Confederacy might compel Virginia and Maryland to secede, leaving Washington isolated from the U.S.

Despite its attempt at moderation, the speech did little to induce southern states to return to the Union. Moreover, many spectators who were moved by Lincoln’s eloquence also expressed disappointment that the address contained few specifics on how he would handle the southern secession.

Following the inauguration, the festivities moved to the White House, where attendees included military officers, judges, congressmen, governors, civilians, and military veterans dating as far back as the War for Independence. It did not take long for Lincoln to become deluged by thousands of job seekers hoping to benefit from the first Republican administration in history. That evening, the Lincolns attended the traditional inaugural ball, finally returning to the White House at 1 a.m.

Newspapers reacted to Lincoln’s inaugural address the next day, and the reactions varied based on political and geographical affiliation. Most Confederate newspapers asserted that Lincoln had revealed his true intention to force them back into the Union. The Montgomery (Alabama) Weekly Advertiser declared: “War, and nothing less than war, will satisfy the Abolition chief.”

Fire-eater Robert Rhett, editor of the Charleston Mercury, stated, “It is our wisest policy to accept the Inaugural as a declaration of war.” Another Mercury editorial opined, “A more lamentable display of feeble inability to grasp the circumstances of this momentous emergency, could scarcely have been exhibited.” A correspondent considered the address from “the Ourang-Outang at the White House” to be “the tocsin of battle” and “the signal of our freedom.”

Editorials from states still considering secession proved even more troubling. The Arkansas True Democrat stated, “If declaring the Union perpetual means coercion, then LINCOLN’S INAUGURAL MEANS WAR!” The Baltimore Sun asserted that the address “assumes despotic authority, and intimates the design to exercise that authority to any extent of war and bloodshed. If it means what it says, it is the knell and requiem of the Union and the death of hope.”

In crucial Virginia, the Richmond Enquirer labeled the address “the cool, unimpassioned, deliberate language of the fanatic… The question ‘Where shall Virginia go?’ is answered by Mr. Lincoln. She must go to war.” And the Richmond Dispatch stated the address “inaugurates civil war.”

Reaction was mixed among pro-U.S. Democrats. North Carolinian John Gilmer had declined Lincoln’s offer to join his cabinet, but he said of the president’s address, “What more does any reasonable Southern man expect or desire?” Stephen A. Douglas also supported Lincoln: “I am with him.” But the pro-Douglas Albany Atlas and Argus called the address a “rambling, discursive, questioning, loose-jointed stump speech.”

Supreme Court Justice John A. Campbell, preparing to join the Confederacy, called it a “stump speech not an inaugural message,” and “incendiary.” The Columbus Daily Capital City envisioned that under Lincoln “blood will stain the soil and color the waters of the entire continent—brother will be arrayed in hostile front against brother.” The New York Herald dismissed the speech as making the country “no wiser than it was Before.”

The Democratic Providence Daily Post opined: “If the President selected his words with the view of making clear his views, he was, partially at least, unsuccessful. There is some plain talk in the address; but… it is immediately followed by obscurely stated qualifications.”

Most Republicans naturally commended Lincoln’s “firmness” and moderation,” and Republicans newspapers generally praised the address. The New York Tribune stated, “Every word of it has the ring of true metal.” The Indianapolis Daily Journal called it “strong, straightforward and manly.” And the Detroit Daily Tribune found it “able, firm, conciliatory, true to principle and of transparent honesty.”

While the press and public weighed in on his inaugural address, Lincoln made his cabinet appointments:

  • William H. Seward of New York as secretary of state
  • Salmon P. Chase of Ohio as treasury secretary
  • Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania as secretary of war
  • Montgomery Blair of Maryland as postmaster general
  • Gideon Welles of Connecticut as navy secretary
  • Edward Bates of Missouri as attorney general
  • Caleb B. Smith of Indiana as interior secretary

Lincoln made various political deals to form this body. He chose nobody from the South, partly because the Republican Party did not exist in that region and partly because those states had joined the Confederacy. But Lincoln did choose two men—Blair and Bates—from border slave states that had not yet seceded.

Seward, Cameron, Chase, and Bates had sought the presidential nomination that Lincoln won. Most cabinet members had more executive experience than Lincoln, and several privately believed that they could do a better job than Lincoln. Thus, Lincoln entered office under heavy scrutiny from the press, the public, and even his own cabinet.



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