Better Angels

At his inauguration on a cloudy but mild March 4, Lincoln doffed his black silk hat prior to delivering his inaugural address and...hesitated. Where to put it? Two men reached for it. One was a young reporter named Henry Watterson, who in just a few weeks would be a Confederate soldier and later a journalist for Southern newspapers and often on the run from Mr. Abe Lincoln's Yankee troops. The other reaching for the hat, and more successfully, was the senator from Illinois, and Lincoln's own rival and debating opponent of considerable fame, Mr. Stephen Douglas. Douglas, a Democrat, had been defeated by Lincoln in the presidential race of 1860 (although, it is true, the rebellious Southern Democrats had been represented in the same hustings by Vice President John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky).

Not yet sworn in, Lincoln said in his inaugural speech that while he had no intention of interfering with "the institution of slavery," he also felt, "No state, on its own mere action, can get out of the Union." He waxed a bit poetic and was obviously appealing for goodwill on all sides when he said to a nation not yet one century old (the American Revolution only about eighty years earlier): "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." More bluntly, he warned: "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 have the most solemn one to 'preserve, protect and defend' it."

And so the immediate issue was not slavery but secession. Or, as Lincoln saw it, the Union, the Union, the Union. He was sworn in after his speech, incidentally, by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, the jurist famous for his majority opinion in the Dred Scott case, which declared a slave was not a citizen with the right to sue in a Federal court. Taney was from Maryland, a Democrat, and a former slave-owner himself

Lincoln had spent the night at Willard's Hotel, and he rode to the Capitol in an open carriage, accompanied by outgoing Democratic President James Buchanan. Security was tight, and almost everybody knew war was imminent. Just that morning Buchanan had received word that Major Robert Anderson, commander of the garrison trapped on the island of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, could not hold out against the forces arrayed against him unless he was reinforced by twenty thousand men. That word was passed along to Lincoln even before he rose to speak on the wooden platform erected for his inauguration at the East Portico of the Capitol. Begun around one o'clock, the inaugural speech took about thirty minutes, during which time, it is reported, Senator Douglas held Lincoln's hat for him.

 

 

C. Brian Kelly