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Chief Justice Melville W. Fuller administering the oath of office to Benjamin Harrison on the east portico of the U.S. Capitol, March 4, 1889

[Detail] Administering the oath of office to Benjamin Harrison, 1889.

Historical Analysis and Interpretation: Lincoln's Inaugural Addresses

Lincoln's First Inauguration in 1961

Inauguration of Mr. Lincoln, March 4, 1861.

After the Civil War, many southerners defended secession using arguments about the Constitution and the founding fathers. They reminded America that at the time of its ratification, the Constitution was thought to be an experimental agreement from which any state could withdraw at any time; that the Constitution was only ratified because of the guarantee of states' rights in the Bill of Rights, which had since been abused; and that the Constitution was always a tenuous compromise between the very different North and South. These southerners spoke of the founding fathers as one-time rebels who, like the Confederates, had defended their homes against invaders and fought for the rights of independence and freedom.

In Abraham Lincoln's 1861 inaugural address, the new Republican president stated:

I hold, that in contemplation of universal law, and of the Constitution, the Union of these States is perpetual. Perpetuity is implied, if not expressed, in the fundamental law of all national governments. It is safe to assert that no government proper, ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination. Continue to execute all the express provisions of our national Constitution, and the Union will endure forever—it being impossible to destroy it, except by some action not provided for in the instrument itself.

Lincoln pledged that he had no intention of interfering with slavery in the southern states and closed his speech by placing the threat of war in the hands of his audience:

You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. . . . 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.

  • How does Lincoln's view of the Constitution and the Union differ from that of the Confederates?
  • Is either viewpoint more accurate than the other? Is either correct?
  • What arguments does Lincoln make to support his viewpoint?
  • What arguments might Lincoln be responding to in his inaugural address?
  • What does Lincoln mean by the “mystic chords of memory” that unite the Union?
  • What is Lincoln referring to when he speaks of the “battlefield and patriot grave”?
  • What is the purpose of this rhetoric? How does it compare to the Confederate view of the founding fathers?
  • How does Lincoln propose to save the Union?
  • To what extent might Lincoln's speech and his attitude toward the Union throughout the war have influenced the way in which history was written, both about the Civil War and the meaning of the Constitution and the Union?
  • How might Lincoln's second inaugural address have influenced the way that we remember the Civil War?

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