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Abraham Lincoln. Library of Congress, Words and Deeds in American History Collection Alternate: The first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation before the cabinet

[Detail] The first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation

Secession and Inauguration

As soon as the results of the 1860 presidential election were in, South Carolina called for a state convention to vote on secession. North Carolina congressman John Gilmer was just one of several southerners who asked President-elect Lincoln to publicly explain his policies in order to avert secession. In Lincoln's "strictly confidential" reply to Gilmer's December 10 letter, he refused to issue any public response to the questions he raised, writing, "Is it desired that I shall shift the ground upon which I have been elected? I can not do it."

Two days later, Nathan Sargent reported to Lincoln that certain congressmen also felt that Lincoln should make a public statement:

"Mr Pearce said that your speaking out now would do no good in the cotton states, but if you would speak what he had no doubt were your sentiments, it would have a powerful effect in the Northern slave states, and might arrest the epidemic now so fearfully & rapidly spreading: he knew not, he said, what else would arrest the disease.... We all feel as if an awful calamity was impending over us: as if we were in an ocean steamer about to be engulfed in the fathomless deep."

From "Nathan Sargent to Abraham Lincoln, December 12, 1860 (Reports on opinions of Congressmen regarding secession)," Page 2 .

Eight days later, by a unanimous vote in their state convention on December 20, South Carolina seceded from the Union and called on other southern states to do likewise. Between Lincoln's election and inauguration Congress considered, but ultimately rejected, the Crittenden Compromise as a solution to secession. Search on Crittenden Compromise for several items regarding compromise efforts. Though Lincoln was not yet in office, his actions and opinions were influential. He received numerous letters about the secession crisis, asking for his position and offering advice. Search on secession for over 450 related items.

Within forty days, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas followed South Carolina's lead. They established the Confederate States of America and inaugurated Jefferson Davis of Mississippi as their president, all before Lincoln took office.

  • What is the tone of Gilmer's letter to Lincoln and of Lincoln's response?
  • Why does Lincoln refuse to answer Gilmer's questions in a new statement?
  • Do you think that Lincoln's response was diplomatic? Why or why not?
  • What does a January 8, 1861, letter by Julie Matie reveal about southern perceptions of Lincoln?
  • How do other letters portray and explain such perceptions?
  • What did Sargent mean when he wrote in his report that "Mr L.'s election was not the cause of all this, it was but the pretext?"
  • What do you think triggered the secession crisis?
  • Do you think that Lincoln handled the crisis well? What would you have done and why?

On March 4, 1861, Lincoln delivered his inaugural address to a divided Union. Lincoln prepared a first draft of his address in January and February, and submitted it for review by William H. Seward, who recommended changes . According to William Herndon, Lincoln's law partner in Springfield, Lincoln had consulted several texts in preparing his address. Herndon said that Lincoln asked for a copy of Henry Clay's great speeches, Andrew Jackson's proclamation against South Carolina's nullification proclamation, and a copy of the U.S Constitution. He also consulted Webster's reply to Hayne in their debate over nullification.

  • Why do you think that Lincoln submitted a draft of his inaugural address for Seward's review?
  • How much did Lincoln change his address through the course of preparing it? What kinds of changes did he make? What do they suggest about Lincoln?
  • Can you find evidence in the inaugural address of Lincoln's study of Clay, Jackson, Webster, and the Constitution?

Contemporary letters reveal what issues the public was debating at the time of Lincoln's inauguration, and provide a context for better appreciating Lincoln's inaugural address. On October 29, 1860, Scott sent Lincoln his "views suggested by (the) imminent danger" of secession. He writes, "To save time, the right of secession may be conceded & instantly balanced by the correlative right, on the part of the Federal Government — against an interior State or States — to reestablish, by force, its former continuity of territory." Scott predicts that the use of force to reestablish the Union would result in terrible violence and concludes that it would be better for the Federal Government to allow the Union to reorganize as four separate confederacies.

  • What does Lincoln say in his inaugural address about what Scott calls "the right of secession?"
  • What arguments does Lincoln make to support his conclusion that "no State, upon its own mere motion, can lawfully get out of the Union, — that resolves and ordinances to that effect are legally revolutionary, according to circumstances?"
  • Does Lincoln articulate an official policy toward the new Confederacy? What might his view of secession imply about how the Federal Government could legally and morally respond to the Confederacy?
  • How do you think Scott would have reacted to Lincoln's inaugural address? What messages does Lincoln convey to the southern states in his address? How does he convey each message? What techniques does he use?

(For more on the history and significance of the inaugural ceremony and address, as well as Lincoln's inaugurations, see the Teachers Page Feature, Inaugurations and the Collection Connections for " I Do Solemnly Swear...": Presidential Inaugurations .)