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The inauguration of Abraham Lincoln on March 4,1861, was filled with irony. The federal government was on guard against insurrection and possible assassination attempt on Lincoln. Cannons, primed and loaded, lined Pennsylvania Avenue, and rooftop sharpshooters scoured the crowd of well-wishers below as the presidential party made its way eastward to the United States Capitol. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, author of the infamous Dred Scott decision—a decision condemned by Lincoln as an attack upon the Constitution—stood before the president-elect, Bible in hand, to administer the oath of office. Lincoln appeared calm throughout the proceedings. His inaugural address, a prolonged call for appeasement, seemed to surrender every point of difference on slavery except for the expansion of slavery. He had many pressing matters before him, not the least of which was establishing his cabinet and administration.

Photograph of Lincoln’s First Inauguration

At least three photographers were at the first inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, one directly in front of the president-elect, another at a distance of approximately 100 yards, and a third on a raised platform especially constructed for the occasion. Only a few distant and scarcely discernible views of the event survive. In the photograph shown here, Lincoln, wearing a black silk hat, is barely visible under the wooden canopy. Lincoln removed the hat as he prepared to read his Inaugural Address. Reportedly, his arch rival, Senator Stephen A. Douglas, took the hat and held it in his lap throughout the ceremonies.

Inauguration of Mr. Lincoln, March 4, 1861, from the Benjamin Brown French. album. Salted paper photograph. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (103) Digital ID # ppmsca-07636

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Seward’s Edits of Lincoln’s First Inaugural

Before traveling to Washington, President-elect Abraham Lincoln provided printed drafts of his 1861 inaugural address to at least two people, Orville Browning and William H. Seward. Browning offered few suggestions; however, Seward’s proposed revisions filled six pages. Undisturbed by Seward’s temerity, Lincoln carefully reworked his address, accepting or rejecting the future secretary of state’s advice at will. However, there was no denying the beauty and cadence of Seward’s substitute ending, which Lincoln altered slightly to create the memorable and resounding phrase, “better angels of our nature.”

William H. Seward’s notes on Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address, 1861. Holograph manuscript. Abraham Lincoln Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (100.00.00) Digital ID # al0100, al0100_1, al0100_02

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First Inaugural Address

In composing his first inaugural address, delivered on March 4, 1861, Abraham Lincoln focused on shoring up his support in the North without further alienating the South, where he was almost universally hated or feared. The final address avoided any mention of the Republican Party platform, which condemned all efforts to reopen the African slave trade and denied the authority of Congress or a territorial legislature to legalize slavery in the territories. The address also denied any plan on the part of the Lincoln administration to interfere with the institution of slavery in states where it existed. To Lincoln, the Union, which he saw as older even than the Constitution, was perpetual and unbroken, and made secession legally impossible.

Abraham Lincoln. First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861. Printed manuscript with holographic emendations in Lincoln's hand. Robert Todd Lincoln Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (101.00.00) Digital ID # al0101_01, al0101_02, al0101_03, al0101_04, al0101_05, al0101_06, al0101_07

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“I Do Solemnly Swear”

On March 4, 1861, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney administered the oath of office of president of the United States to Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln swore the oath of office upon this Bible, which was provided by William Thomas Carroll, clerk of the Supreme Court, because the Lincolns' family Bible was packed with other belongings that were still en route to Washington from Springfield, Illinois. On January 20, 2009, this same Bible was used at the historic inauguration of President Barack Obama.

Holy Bible. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1853. Alfred Whital Stern Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (102.00.00) Digital ID # al0102_01, al0102_02, al0102_03, al0102_04

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