Faulkner University

Abraham Lincoln, The First Inaugural Address

Document 14.1.3

When Abraham Lincoln took the oath of office on March 4, 1861, the Buchanan dilemma (Document 14.1.1) became his. The question was still whether force of arms would be used to maintain the Union, and this question was the hottest potato in the history of American political life.

Lincoln knew what to do with a hot potato. He would hand it to the South. Even if Buchanan was right, and the United States could not declare war against one of its member states, the government surely had the right to resist any attempt by a state to use force against federal property or officials, including military posts and troops. In effect, he was handing Buchanan's dilemma over to South Carolina, making the question over into this one: would a seceded state use armed force to try to take possession of Fort Sumter, the remaining United States installation in Charleston Harbor? If that happened, Lincoln said, it was his responsibility to "hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the Government."

A disruption of the Federal Union, heretofore only menaced, is now formidably attempted....

The Union is much older than the Constitution. It was formed, in fact, by the Articles of Association in 1774. It was matured and continued by the Declaration of Independence in 1776. It was further matured, and the faith of all the then thirteen States expressly plighted and engaged that it should be perpetual, by the Articles of Confederation in 1778. And, finally, in 1787, one of the declared objects for ordaining and establishing the Constitution was "to form a more perfect Union."...

It follows from these views that no State upon its own mere motion can lawfully get out of the Union; that resolves and ordinances to that effect are legally void; and that acts of violence in any State or States against the authority of the United States are insurrectionary or revolutionary, according to circumstances...

There needs to be no bloodshed or violence; and there shall be none, unless it be forced upon the national authority. The power confided to me will be used to hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the Government, and to collect the duties and imposts; but beyond what may be necessary for those objects, there will be no invasion, no using of force against or among the people anywhere. Where hostility to the United States in any interior locality shall be so great and universal as to prevent competent resident citizens from holding the Federal offices, there will be no attempt to force obnoxious strangers among the people for that object...

One section of our country believes slavery is right, and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong, and ought not be extended. This is the only substantial dispute....Suppose you go to war, you cannot fight always; and when, after much loss on both sides, and no gain on either, you cease fighting, the identical old questions as to terms of intercourse are again upon you....

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. To avoid misconstruction of what I have said, I depart from my purpose so far as to say that, holding such a provision to be now implied constitutional law, I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable...

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.

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 battle-field and patriot grave 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.

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