Thursday, March 3, 2011

Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address, 150 years later: How he listened and revised

Lincoln delivers his inaugural address at the partly finished U.S. Capitol.

Guest blog post by Brooks D. Simpson, co-editor of The Civil War: The First Year

As Abraham Lincoln stepped forward to deliver his inaugural address on March 4, 1861, he certainly had cause to reflect on the course he was about to take. Washington D. C. resembled an armed camp as rumors flew that the new president would be the target of violence. General Winfield Scott’s troops, complete with cavalry and sharpshooters on the roofs of buildings, lined the short parade route. The president-elect had spent the last days in a different sort of warfare, wrangling over who would join his cabinet. Now it was time to speak to a divided nation and set forth a policy that was firm but not threatening, that sought peace without making concessions.

Lincoln had not always fared well in his remarks to waiting crowds as he made his way from Springfield to Washington. He had cut an embarrassing figure when, to avoid the possibility of assassination in Baltimore, he slipped into the capital in disguise. The document that he had initially composed in Springfield (and which, at one point on the trip, had been carelessly mislaid by his eldest son, Robert) he had revised in response to suggestions that it was too defiant, too confrontational. Half of its writing had indeed been in the rewriting; its composition reflected Lincoln’s willingness to listen to his supporters and advisers at a moment of impending crisis.

Among those readers was secretary of state–designate (and former rival presidential candidate) William Henry Seward, who had spent the better part of the previous week trying to get Lincoln to recast his cabinet by threatening to withdraw from it. Although the New Yorker failed in that endeavor, he succeeded in convincing Lincoln to make alterations that would soothe excited emotions and facilitate a possible reconciliation, if cooler heads ever prevailed. Coming from a man who had once predicted an irrepressible conflict between North and South, such comments showed how much Seward had changed over the last few years.

Lincoln accepted many of Seward’s suggestions, reworking the wording to suit his own style of expression. He knew he was introducing himself to the American people, including those already determined to seek independence. Lincoln sought to reach out while standing firm. “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war,” he reminded secessionists. “The Government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors.”

Seward had been particularly critical of Lincoln’s close, which ended with the charge “Shall it be peace or sword?” His own urged reconciliation:
I close. We are not we must not be aliens or enemies but fellow countrymen and brethren. Although passion has strained our bonds of affection too hardly they must not, I am sure they will not be broken. The mystic chords which proceeding from so many battle-fields and so many patriot graves pass through all the hearts and all the hearths in this broad continent of ours will yet again harmonize in their ancient music when breathed upon by the guardian angel of the nation.
Adopting Seward's tone, Lincoln deftly transformed his prose into one of the most memorable passages he ever penned:
I am loth 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 battle-field, 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.
But neither guardian nor better angels intervened. Nearly forty days later the Confederates fired upon Fort Sumter, and the war began.

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: Abraham Lincoln: Selected Speeches and Writings (paperback); The Lincoln Bicentennial Collection; The Civil War: The First Year Told By Those Who Lived It; American Speeches: Political Oratory from the Revolution to the Civil War

1 comment:

  1. The way in which Lincoln took Seward's words, powerful in their own right, and turned them into something both poetic and powerful demonstrates Lincoln' skill in using language. Perhaps the time he spent reading the Bible gave him his extraordinary sense of cadence. I confess to being deeply moved by the power of Lincoln's words in the Second Inaugural every time I read it. It sends chills down my spine. Thanks for the post.

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