March 4, 1861: Inauguration of Abraham Lincoln

Inauguration of Lincoln from a drawing by Winslow Homer. Harper's Weekly, March 16, 1861

The crowd was enormous, but the preparations for the proceedings were inadequate, reported Harper’s Weekly (March 16, 1861). Twenty-five thousand visitors had come to Washington, D.C., to witness the inauguration, and most had to sleep at the Capitol or on the streets because there were no hotel rooms available.

At 9 a.m. the crowd began forming on Pennsylvania Avenue, and by 10 a.m. the crowd had blocked the street before the Willard Hotel where Lincoln was staying. President Buchanan was late picking him up because he had been at the Capitol signing bills. The President and President-elect, together with Senators Pearce (of Maryland) and Baker (of Oregon), members of the Committee of Arrangements, departed the hotel in the presidential carriage just before 1 p.m. The crush of the crowd caused the carriage to stop frequently. Part of the parade included a van labeled Constitution, upon which thirty-four young girls in white were seated. (There were 34 states. The last one, Bleeding Kansas, had just been admitted on January 31, as a free state.)

They arrived at the Capitol and entered the Senate Chamber arm-in-arm at about 1:30 p.m. Harper’s Weekly quoted an unnamed newspaper correspondent:

Mr. Buchanan and Mr. Lincoln entered, arm-in-arm, the former pale, sad, nervous; the latter’s face slightly flushed, with compressed lips. For a few minutes, while the oath was administered to Senator Pearce, they sat in front of the President’s desk. Mr. Buchanan sighed audibly, and frequently. Mr. Lincoln was grave and impassive as an Indian martyr.

The procession proceeded to a platform on the portico of the Capitol. The Supreme Court, the Senate, House of Representatives, Foreign Ministers, and a throng of VIPs sat behind the podium. A crowd estimated at 25,000 listened from below. Senator Baker introduced the President-elect, who then read his inaugural address. Afterward, he was sworn in by Chief Justice Taney of Dred Scott notoriety. Buchanan and Lincoln then were driven to the White House. Buchanan supposedly told Lincoln “If you are as happy on entering the White House as I on leaving, you are a very happy man indeed.”

The inaugural address by Lincoln was not a soaring bit of rhetoric. It was a careful brief, with carefully chosen words, part of his strategy, since the election, to reveal nothing except his lack of hostility to the South.

Photograph by unknown photographer of the 1861 Presidential Inauguration. (Library of Congress.)

He made the case that constitutional rights will be respected, but that said, the majority must rule:

A majority held in restraint by constitutional checks and limitations, and always changing easily with deliberate changes of popular opinions and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people. Whoever rejects it does of necessity fly to anarchy or to despotism. Unanimity is impossible. The rule of a minority, as a permanent arrangement, is wholly inadmissible; so that, rejecting the majority principle, anarchy or despotism in some form is all that is left.

He tried to downplay the two flashpoints–the Fugitive Slave Law (which he tried to soft-sell to the North) and the Dred Scott decision (which he tried to limit to a precedent among private litigants). He viewed his job as administering the constitution as given to him. He said that if the people had grown weary of the form of government they could exercise their constitutional right of either of the two methods of amending the constitution or their revolutionary right to dismember or overthrow it. He refused to give his view about any constitutional amendments, except in one case. He said that he had heard that Congress had passed a proposed amendment that would prohibit the federal government from interfering in domestic institutions of the states, including slavery. He said that he would support such an amendment and would even support it if it were made irrevocable.

Farther he would not go. And he grimly advised the South, which had already inaugurated Jefferson Davis as President of a purported confederacy, to “think calmly and well upon this whole subject. Nothing valuable can be lost by taking time.” It was serious business that was afoot, and Lincoln meant to be considered seriously:

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.”

But it could not be an important address by Lincoln without at least some music. This speech closed with these notes:

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.

The Ball took place at the White House that evening. Lincoln and family, Vice President Hamlin and long time rival Stephen A. Douglas appeared at 11 p.m. After receiving those who wished to be presented, the presidential party went to the supper room. Later, Mrs. Lincoln and Senator Douglas danced a quadrille.

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  1. August 7th, 2016

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