TIME MACHINE: Abraham Lincoln’s First Inauguration

TIME MACHINE: Abraham Lincoln’s First Inauguration

March 4 marked the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s first inauguration as the 16th President of the United States. The event marked the first time that a candidate from the Republican Party occupied the White House as this country’s head of state.

The past two to three decades marked a great deal of turmoil for the United States, due to the growing sectional conflict that had developed between the Northern and Southern states over slavery and other issues. The Democratic Party (previously the Democratic-Republican Party) had dominated the country since Thomas Jefferson’s first election in 1800. It became the supreme party, following the disintegration of its former rival, the Whig Party, by the end of the Mexican-American War. The Whig Party had fallen apart over the slavery issue. Do to stress over the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, anti-slavery Democrats left the party.

The split within both of the Democratic Party and the Whig Party led to the emergence of the Republican Party in 1854. Dominated by anti-slavery advocates, the Republicans’ first candidate for President turned out to be Army officer/explorer John C. Frémont in the 1856 Presidential Election. However, Frémont lost to Democratic candidate James Buchanan, due to his strong advocacy for the abolition of slavery. During Buchanan’s presidency, the rift between North and South widened, along with the rift within the Democratic Party. In May 1860, Illinois lawyer and former congressman Abraham Lincoln won the Republican nomination for President. Six months later, Lincoln won the 1860 Presidential Election. Although an opponent of the institution of slavery, Lincoln was more concerned with preventing the spread of slavery into the Western territories than with the immediate end of slavery altogether.

During the four month period between Lincoln’s election and his inauguration, seven states — South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas — seceded from the Union. Also, the political representatives from those states formed the Confederate States of America in February 1861 and elected the Mississippian Jefferson Davis as President. U.S. President James Buchanan, had deplored secession as illegal, but insisted that the Federal government could do nothing to stop it. During his ten day rail journey from Springfield, Illinois to Washington D.C. in February 1861, a conspiracy theory over a possible assassination threat forced Lincoln to travel through Baltimore, Maryland on a special train in the middle of the night, before finally completing his journey to the capital. The alleged threats also led to a heavy military presence on the day of inauguration, to insure that the newly inaugurated head of state would survive the festivities.

But what made the March 4 ceremony memorable for historians was President Lincoln’s inaugural address. Primarily addressed to the people of the South, Lincoln’s speech was intended to state his policies and desires regarding certain topics – slavery, legal status of the South, secession, use of force against the departed states, the U.S. Postal Service, slavery in the Western territories, and Federal offices in the South. The closing part of his speech clearly reflected Lincoln’s conciliatory efforts to woo back the South:

“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, to every living heart and hearth-stone, 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.”

Unfortunately, neither the South nor the North was prepared to consider the conciliation of the country. The rancor between the two regions had lasted too long. And one of the major issues behind the rancor – namely slavery – had yet to be resolved. Nearly a month-and-a-half later, Confederate forces fired upon the Union-occupied Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor on April 12, 1861. One day later, the Union troops’ commander, Major Robert Anderson, surrendered the fort. And the United States marched on toward a bloody civil war.

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