On March 4th 1861, Abraham Lincoln is sworn in as 16th President of the still-adolescent United States. The plainly avuncular, litigating rail splitter from Illinois was chosen as the first Republican candidate for POTUS ever in the 1860 election; he won on November 6 with 180 electoral votes. Between this time and his inauguration on March 4, seven Deep South cotton states–South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas–would secede from the Union.
Lincoln’s predecessor, James Buchanan, generally ranked as the third-worst POTUS in history, had deplored secession as illegal, but had insisted that the Federal government could do nothing to stop it. The entire nation, together with several interested foreign powers, awaited the President-elect’s words on what exactly his policy toward the new Confederacy would be.
Lincoln’s inaugural address was an effort to answer this question, as well as an attempt to reach out to what he called his “dissatisfied fellow-countrymen” in an entreaty to avoid the coming conflict. The President-elect carefully eshewed any statements which could be misconstrued by either North or South prior to his becoming the legal leader of the nation; a stern intention that no statement of his specific policy toward the South should be made available before he had taken office. Those privy to the speech’s possible contents were sworn to silence, and Lincoln’s draft was kept locked in the safe of the Illinois State Journal newspaper.
Lincoln opened his speech by first indicating that he would not touch on “those matters of administration about which there is no special anxiety or excitement.” The remainder of the speech would address the concerns of Southerners, who were apprehensive that “by the accession of a Republican Administration their property and their peace and personal security are to be endangered.”
Mere mortal description failing at this juncture in the re-telling, Lincoln’s own words best convey the spirit and purpose of the Republic, and provide context for today’s tumult: “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.”