The Inauguration of Abraham Lincoln

It was breezy and partly cloudy as throngs of visitors poured into Washington to witness the inauguration of the 16th president of the United States. According to a reporter: “All business, public and private, was suspended, and the display of the national flag from innumerable buildings gave great liveliness to the scene.” A spectator recalled: “Every available spot (outside the Capitol) was black with human beings; boys and men clinging to rails and mounting on fences and climbing trees until they bent beneath the weight.” An estimated 25,000 people were on hand.

Federal troops were also on hand. Brevet Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, general-in-chief of the U.S. Army, had directed Colonel Charles P. Stone, inspector general for the District of Columbia, to deploy the troops to guard against any secessionist attempts to disrupt the proceedings. Scott had threatened to “manure the slopes of Arlington” with the blood of anyone trying to harm the incoming president.

Stone issued orders: “Watch all of the windows on the opposite side of the street. Keep your rifles at the ready. If there is any attempt to fire upon the presidential carriage from a window, you are ordered to direct a volley at the source of the attempted assassination.” At least one visitor thought the sight of troops at such a ceremony was distasteful: “Nothing could have been more ill-advised or more ostentatious than the way in which the troops were thrust everywhere upon the public attention, even to the roofs of the houses on Pennsylvania Avenue, on which little squads of sharpshooters were absurdly stationed.”

President-elect Abraham Lincoln rose early and put the finishing touches on his inaugural address. He was helped by his son Robert and William H. Seward, who would be his secretary of state. President James Buchanan spent the morning signing last-minute bills into law before heading to Willard’s Hotel at noon. He was to bring the incoming president to the Capitol for the inauguration.

Four white horses pulled the open barouche up to the hotel’s 14th Street entrance. An onlooker described Buchanan as he went into the hotel: “A large, heavy, awkward-moving man, far advanced in years…” A gathering crowd applauded when the outgoing and incoming presidents came out side by side. Troops guarding the entrance snapped to attention, and a band played “Hail to the Chief.”

The men climbed into the carriage, accompanied by Edward D. Baker and James A. Pearce of the Senate Escort Committee. Federal cavalry rode along both sides. The carriage was at the head of the inaugural parade, which by tradition was to take place before the inauguration. Behind were floats, military companies and bands, a contingent of the Wide-Awakes (the paramilitary arm of the Republican Party), veterans of both the War of 1812 and the Mexican War, and a “tableau car” pulled by white horses with 34 girls representing the 34 states. The procession moved past thousands of cheering spectators lining cobblestoned Pennsylvania Avenue. Flags and bunting decorated buildings along the way.

The large army presence made the procession look more like a military exercise than a parade. A disgusted southern reporter wrote: “I have seen today such a sight as I could never have believed possible at the capital of my country. An inauguration of a President surrounded by armed soldiery, with loaded pieces and fixed bayonets. The President himself hid from public view…” Abolitionist Frederick Douglass countered: “No mean courage was required to face the probabilities of the hour.” The marshal-in-chief boasted: “No more imposing or more orderly pageant ever passed along Pennsylvania Avenue.”

The ride to the Capitol took about an hour. The presidential carriage entered through a boarded passageway to avoid detection. Lincoln took Buchanan’s arm and they walked into the Senate chamber to witness outgoing Vice President John C. Breckinridge swear in his successor, Hannibal Hamlin. The galleries were filled to capacity, and desks had been moved to make way for more seating on the Senate floor. Buchanan and Lincoln took seats in the front row. Hamlin took the oath of office, and then the party moved through the Capitol Rotunda to a special outdoor platform on the east portico of the Capitol.

The enormous crowd cheered when Lincoln emerged, and the Marine Corps band played “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Lincoln sat in the front row under a makeshift canopy meant to shield the dignitaries from rain. To his right sat son Robert and secretaries John Nicolay and John Hay. Soldiers lined the platform, looking out among the thousands of spectators. Ladies, led by Mrs. Mary Todd Lincoln, sat in a separate section on the platform.

Tradition dictated that the incoming president deliver his inaugural address before taking the oath of office. Therefore at 1:30 p.m., Senator Baker, a close friend of the Lincolns, stepped forward to make the introduction: “Fellow-citizens: I introduce you to Abraham Lincoln, the President-elect of the United States of America!” Lincoln stepped forward 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 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 especially rankled 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.”

The aging Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, described by one onlooker as “a galvanized corpse,” came up to administer the oath of office. This was his eighth swearing-in ceremony. He strained to look up to the tall Lincoln as he took the oath and officially replaced Buchanan. Lincoln took the Bible that Taney had held and kissed it. As the new president turned and went back up the portico steps, cannon boomed a salute and the Marine Band played in celebration of the new administration.

General Scott watched the ceremony from a battery near Capitol Hill, fearful that something bad might happen. A nearby gunner described the general-in-chief: “He was evidently very anxious—everyone was anxious.” When informed that the ceremony had ended and Lincoln was safe, Scott said, “Thank God. Thank God.”

Lincoln’s inaugural address aimed to ease southern fears of a Republican administration. It had initially been less conciliatory, but moderate Republicans, especially 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 North. However, Lincoln also made it clear that he intended to hold Federal installations in the South. The Confederate government would have to decide what to do about that.

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, wrote: “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.” The Nashville Union & American opined: “No man can read the Inaugural, without coming to the conclusion that it is a declaration of war against the seceded States, and in less than thirty days, if its avowals are carried out, we shall have the clangor of resounding arms, with all its concomitants of death, carnage and woe.”

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.” The Richmond Times Dispatch declared: “The Inaugural Address of Abraham Lincoln inaugurates civil war… The sword is drawn and the scabbard thrown away.”

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.” The New York Herald stated: “It would have been almost as instructive if President Lincoln would have contented himself with telling his audience, yesterday, a funny story, and let them go.” The address “would have caused a Washington to mourn, and would have inspired a Jefferson, Madison, or Jackson with contempt.”

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 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.” Famed orator Edward Everett said: “It is almost universally spoken of as feeble, unequivocal, and temporizing.”

Abolitionist Frederick Douglass was livid by Lincoln’s assertion that he could not and would not interfere with slavery where it already existed; he would begin his presidency by “prostrating himself before the foul and withering curse of slavery.” Eugene Pelletan countered: “We reason as though Mr. Lincoln wielded a dictatorial, unrestricted power at the White House, accounting solely to the God of his conscience. But Mr. Lincoln simply presides over a republic where popular opinion rules, and he is surrounded by divers (diverse) opinions upon the question of slavery.”

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.”

According to the Albany Evening Journal: “No Message was ever received with greater favor. It is universally conceded to be alike clear, compact, and impressive—equally firm and conciliatory.” The pro-Republican Chicago Press & Tribune: “No document can be found among American state papers embodying sounder wisdom and higher patriotism.” Ohio Congressman Albert G. Riddle said: “His vocabulary was limited, he used mainly the simple words that one learns in childhood, which are always the most serviceable, and which arrange themselves easily, delivering their burden of thought with certainty and force to the minds to which they are addressed. Perhaps there never was a more immediately effective address delivered to men than this quaint, masterly performance.” The editor of a Baptist newspaper wrote: “The President had devotedly acknowledged his dependence on God. With a humility, far too rare among statesmen, he has confessed his need of divine help.”


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