Tuesday, March 4, 2008
A new President is elected
Today, 147 years ago President-elect Abraham Lincoln walked up to the podium and above him the construction was still incomplete. The states of South Carolina, Alabama, Flordia, Mississippi, Texas, Georgia, Louisiana had already seceded and the new president was about to make a speech to a divided nation. In typical Lincoln fashion, he introduced his speech with a relaxed opening paragraph.
"Fellow citizens of the United States: in compliance with a custom as old as the government itself, I appear before you to address you briefly and to take, in your presence, the oath prescribed by the Constitution of the United States, to be taken by the President "before he enters on the execution of his office."
Two sentences later he calmly reassured his Southern brothers:
"Apprehension seems to exist among the people of the Southern States that by the accession of a Republican administration their property and their peace and personal security are to be endangered. There has never been any reasonable cause for such apprehension."
Later he honored the men before him and he even spoke of his own new position:
"It is seventy-two years since the first inauguration of a President under our national Constitution. During that period fifteen different and greatly distinguished citizens have, in succession, administered the executive branch of the government. They have conducted it through many perils, and generally with great success. Yet, with all this scope of precedent, I now enter upon the same task for the brief Constitutional term of four years under great and peculiar difficulty. A disruption of the Federal Union, heretofore only menaced, is now formidably attempted."
Even later on he used the analogy of a marriage to discuss the issues that the country face in 1861:
"Physically speaking, we cannot separate. We cannot remove our respective sections from each other, nor build an impassable wall between them. A husband and wife may be divorced, and go out of the presence and beyond the reach of each other; but the different parts of our country cannot do this."
Then he closed his speech with one of the greatest inaugural speech endings in American history:
"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 shall have the most solemn one to "preserve, protect, and defend it."
I am loathe 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 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."
Lincoln had a magical way with words. Although it is well known that several people including William Seward helped him edit this speech I think that it remains as one of his best. President Lincoln was extending an olive branch to the South and clearly reminded them that we don't have to go to war. Historians have argued that the war was inevitable or that Lincoln forced the South into the fighting. Wherever you stand on this issue this speech shows that Lincoln was trying to quell the passions of the future Confederacy. It didn't work and over 600,000 men lost their lives. Oh the horrors of war.