The Inauguration of Abraham Lincoln

From the time of the Election of 1860 to the beginning of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, there was uncertainty as to how Lincoln and his administration would handle the growing Confederacy and existential crisis facing the country. 

Initially, after his election, there was a question of whether he would abandon his antislavery policies in the face of the threat facing the country. Lincoln, as President-Elect, refused to back down from his Republican platform despite knowing that it would exacerbate Southern frustration. From Springfield, Illinois, he wrote:

“. . . What is our present condition? We have just carried an election on principles fairly stated to the people. Now we are told in advance the Government shall be broken up unless we surrender to those we have beaten, before we take the offices. In this they are either attempting to play upon us or they are in dead earnest. Either way, if we surrender, it is the end of us and of the Government. They will repeat the experiment upon us ad libitum. A year will not pass till we shall have to take Cuba as a condition upon which they will stay in the Union. They now have the Constitution under which we have lived over seventy years, and acts of Congress of their own framing, with no prospect of their being changed; and they can never have a more shallow pretext for breaking up the Government, or extorting a compromise, than now. There is in my judgment but one compromise which would really settle the slavery question, and that would be a prohibition against acquiring any more territory.” Abraham Lincoln to James T. Hale, Jan. 11, 1861, in Henry Steele Commager, The Blue and the Gray, Vol. 1, 9.

He also went about selecting his cabinet, which in a conciliatory manner would be partially comprised of his four opponents for the nomination: William H. Seward as Secretary of State, Edward Bates as Attorney General, Simon Cameron as Secretary of War, and Salmon P. Chase as Secretary of Treasury. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 558-59. With their varying personalities and ideologies, Lincoln composed a cabinet capable of shrewd governing. Neither Lincoln nor his cabinet could have known the extent to which they would be tested in the succeeding four years.

Lincoln could not have known that he would never return to Springfield, and in fact, he planned to return and continue his law practice after his presidency. William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner in Springfield, Illinois, wrote about Lincoln’s leaving Springfield for Washington:

William Herndon. By: Levin Corbin Handy.

“Mr. Lincoln had disposed of his household goods and furniture to a neighbor, had rented his house; and as these constituted all the property he owned in Illinois there was no further occasion for concern on that score. In the afternoon of his last day in Springfield he came down to our office to examine some papers and confer with me about certain legal matters in which he still felt some interest. . . . He gathered a bundle of books and papers he wished to take with him and started to go; but before leaving he made the strange request that the sign-board which swung on its rusty hinges at the foot of the stairway should remain. ‘Let it hang there undisturbed,’ he said, with a significant lowering of his voice. ‘Give our clients to understand that the election of a President makes no change in the firm of Lincoln and Herndon. If I live I’m coming back some time, and then we’ll go right on practicing law as if nothing had ever happened.’ He lingered for a moment as if to take a last look at the old quarters, and then passed through the door into the narrow hallway.” William Herndon and Jesse Weik, Herndon’s Lincoln, quoted in Henry Steele Commager, The Blue and the Gray, Vol. 1, 10.

Lincoln’s safety during his journey and in Washington was far from assured. There were reports of “plots to prevent the official counting of electoral ballots, to disrupt his inauguration, to assassinate him, or even to seize control of Washington by military force.” David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 559 citing David C. Mearns (ed.), The Lincoln Papers (2 vols.; Garden City, NY 1948), II, 427-28. Lincoln, perhaps feeling that his sudden rise to the presidency necessitated more of an introduction to the country, turned the journey to Washington into a two-week tour of the North. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 560. He stopped at “Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Buffalo, Albany, and New York City” before going to Washington, and his speeches along the way gave scarce indication that he was concerned about the future of the country. See id. He said that the crisis was an “artificial one” with “no foundation in facts. . . . Let it alone and it will go down of itself.” Id. citing Roy P. Basler (ed.), Works of Lincoln, IV, 215-16, 238. However, in New Jersey, he spoke to a crowd and vowed to “put the foot down firmly” should it be necessary and asked for New Jerseyan support. See Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, 36.

Broadway in New York City in 1861. Photograph Courtesy of Miller’s Photographic History of the Civil War.

Optimism was not abound. Seeing Lincoln’s Western characteristics, such as his gait, unfamiliar accent, and his different sensibilities (“letting his big hands dangle over the box rail” at a New York City opera), Easterners were not universally impressed with the incoming president. See id. Unfavorable newspapers in the North called him a “gorilla” and “baboon.” See id. When he quietly arrived in Washington, an enclave bordered by two slave states, the “military patrolled the streets, drilled and paraded and bivouacked in vacant lots, so that townspeople, waking to the crash of sunrise guns and blare of bugles, threw up their windows and leaned out in nightcaps, thinking the war had begun.” Id. at 38.

Upon arriving in Washington, Lincoln’s work began even prior to his taking the oath of office. In the last weeks of James Buchanan’s presidency, Lincoln faced pressure to evacuate Fort Sumter, and while he resisted the pressure, the incoming Lincoln administration became more engaged in the situation facing the country. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 565-66. His refusal to evacuate the fort and concede to Southern demands was a rare mirroring of his predecessor’s policies.

The Inauguration of Abraham Lincoln. March 4, 1861. Courtesy: Library of Congress.

On the day of his inauguration, March 4, 1861, Lincoln’s inaugural ceremony took place on a temporary platform on the east portico of the Capitol, while the Capitol remained under construction. See id. at 566. Although the day began cloudless, a cold wind and overcast sky greeted the gathered crowd. See Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, 38. Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Roger Taney, “sepulchral in his flowing robes,” administered the oath of office to the sixteenth President of the United States. See id. at 40.

Depiction of Lincoln Taking the Oath of Office.

In his inaugural address, Lincoln assured both the North and South that there would be no invasion of the South, no bloodshed, and no violence as he hoped to have a “restoration of fraternal sympathies and affections.” See Marie Hochmuth Nichols, “Lincoln’s Inaugural Address,” in J. Jeffrey Auer (ed.), Antislavery and Disunion, 1858-1861 (New York, 1963), 392-414. On the subject of secession, he declared “that in contemplation of universal law, and of the Constitution, the Union of these States is perpetual,” meaning that no state, “upon its own mere motion,” could secede from the Union. See id. Lincoln artfully closed:

“I am loath 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.” Id.

Lincoln’s words had varying effects on different audiences. Those in the Republican Party and in the border states were satisfied as to his forthrightness in protecting the Union. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 568. Confederates interpreted the address as a declaration of war. James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, 263. One Rhode Island newspaper wrote:

“There stands secession—bold and palpable, and if we refuse to recognize it today, we shall have to recognize it, with arms in our hands, tomorrow. It cannot long be dodged. There is an irrepressible conflict between the simple fact which stares us in the face when we look Southward, and the execution of the laws as proposed by the President.” Howard Cecil Perkins (ed.), Northern Editorials on Secession (2 vols.; New York, 1942), II, 647.

The British foreign secretary, Lord John Russell, wrote that the best thing to happen “would be that the right to secede should be acknowledged. . . . But above all I hope no force will be used.” See Ephraim Douglass Adams, Great Britain and the American Civil War (2 vols.; New York, 1925), I, 52-53. Despite the fact that many Americans agreed with Lord Russell’s wish to avoid the use of force, the Confederates had every intention of testing whether Lincoln would in fact “put the foot down firmly.”

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