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A Notable Gathering in Washington—The First Inaugural Address
-How it was Received North and South-Precautions against
T was a notable gathering of men that was assem
bled about Lincoln when he was inaugurated President of the United States, March 4, 1861. Among these were many whose names will always hold place in the history of our country. James Buchanan, the weak and irresolute, was just relinquishing the reins of government to the new man “from the West." Taney, Chief Justice of the United States, whose name is forever linked with the Dred Scott decision, administered the oath of office to the incoming President. W. H. Seward, formerly Governor of and then Senator from New York, soon to be Secretary of State, was there. Senators Sumner and Wilson, of Massachusetts, early Free-Soilers, and each destined to occupy prominent places in the management of public affairs, were also there. Senator “Ben” Wade, of Ohio, another Free-Soil leader; General Scott, the great military leader of the time; Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln's old rival; Edward D. Baker, Lincoln's friend and dearlybeloved companion, and many more who were
either famous then or subsequently became so, these all formed a group of historic interest. The ceremony of inauguration took place on a platform constructed at the east front of the Capitol, then not fully finished, overlooking a large and open esplanade, at the outer verge of which a marble statue of Washington shone whitely in the brilliant sunshine. Curiosity to see the face of the new President, and anxiety to hear what he might say, had drawn enormous crowds to the national capital. The pressure of people was something unprecedented, even in Washington, where the inauguration of an administration had always been a great event, once in four years. The multitudes of office-hunters doubtless added greatly to the press of people. The major portion of the crowd that thronged the capital was made up of people who were profoundly impressed with a sense of the gravity of the occasion, the solemnity of the crisis through which the nation was now about to pass. Treason lurked in every quarter. Not only were the departments of the Government and the halls of Congress poisoned by the presence of open or secret Rebels, but many officers of the army and navy were ready to serve in the ranks of the seceders. Some of these had already accepted appointments and commissions from the so-called “Confederate States of America,” while they were yet in the service of the Republic. Men distrusted each other. Spies were known to be about, and suspicions of a plot to assassinate the President-elect were rife. Even while the eager throngs surged about the platform, high above their heads, on which
Lincoln stood with his friends around him, maty a man half-expected that he might hear a gunshot, or see a sudden rush of conspirators from the marble colonnades that formed the picturesque background of the scene. Doubtless, much of this apprehension was not well-founded. It is the unknown that is most dreaded. So many stories, more or less exaggerated, had been put into circulation concerning the plans of the conspirators, their possible plots and desperate hatred, that a suspense, most painful and tense, pervaded the people. All over the country, on that famous day, hundreds of thousands of patriotic citizens waited with almost suspended breath, to hear portentous news from Washington.
In the midst of that vast concourse Lincoln stood, calm, dignified, self-possessed, undaunted, and unshrinking. The fateful hour had come. He stood on the threshold of the high office which he was never to surrender but with his life. His mind was more occupied with the grave events slowly unfolding in the history of his country than with anything personal to himself. He was about to outline and define his future policy, to give formal expression to his feelings and sentiments, to indicate, as far as this was possible in an inaugural address, what course he would pursue to the States that had declared themselves outside of the American Union. Many people, ardent friends and followers of Lincoln, were even then afraid that he would take what they called a "radical” view of the situation, and would say something to anger and exasperate the sullen and hostile Rebels. They were needlessly alarmed. Lincoln's
oration was a model of a generous, pleading, kindly, and withal reasoning address. His arguments were more implied than assertive, put in his favorite form of questions, rather than in declarations. Clearly, he hoped, as many others then did, that reason and persuasiveness might yet be brought to bear upon the masses of the Southern people so that they would forsake their wilful leaders, or brush them aside and declare for the Union. To reach these, through their judgment and their patriotism, was the main purpose of Lincoln's inaugural address. This was a disappointment to the Southern leaders, and great pains were taken to suppress or distort some portions of the oration when it was subsequently printed in the South.
Lincoln took occasion, early in this address, to reassure the Southern people of his intention to let slavery alone where it then existed. It had been said that the accession to the Presidency of a man who had been nominated by the Republicans was, in itself, a threat against slavery; that he would urge legislation to abolish domestic servitude, and would instantly begin his administration with measures designed to encourage slave insurrections and a general unsettlement of Southern institutions. To dispel this delusion, which had been industriously fostered, Lincoln said:
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 never has been
any reasonable cause for such apprehension. Indeed, the most ample evidence to the contrary has all the while existed, and been open to their inspection. It is found in nearly all the published speeches of him who now addresses you. I do but quote from one of those speeches when I declare that I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists: I believe I have no lawful right to do so. Those who nominated and elected me did so with the full knowledge that I had made this and many similar declarations, and had never recanted them."
These were reassuring words; words anxiously designed to conciliate the South, to remove possible misapprehensions, and allay groundless suspicions. We shall see how ineffectual they were to change the determination of the men who had resolved upon rebellion. In like manner he committed himself to the doctrine, enunciated in the Federal Constitution, that a slave who escapes from a slave State into a free State is not thereby made free; for the doctrine of the Republicans was that only the voluntary bringing of a slave into free territory emancipated him. And it was shocking to some of Lincoln's more radical friends that he should thus justify the Fugitive Slave law as constitutional. Lincoln merely insisted on such an administration of the law that no free man, under any circumstances, should be surrendered as a slave.
He traced the process by which the Union of the States had been formed and the Constitution had become the fundamental law of the Republic, from which he argued that an act of secession, so-called,