Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address: “The better angels of our nature”

“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.”

by Abraham Lincoln

March 4, 1861 [Excerpts]

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. 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, and I have no inclination to do so. . . .

A DISRUPTION OF THE FEDERAL UNION IS NOW ATTEMPTED

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.

THE CONSTITUTION AND THE UNION: PERPETUITY IS IMPLIED, IF NOT EXPRESSES

I hold that in contemplation of universal law and of the Constitution the Union of these States is perpetual. Perpetuity is implied, if not expressed, in the fundamental law of all national governments. It is safe to assert that no government proper ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination. Continue to execute all the express provisions of our National Constitution, and the Union will endure forever, it being impossible to destroy it except by some action not provided for in the instrument itself.

A CONTRACT: ALL THE PARTIES TO UNNMAKE IT

Again: If the United States be not a government proper, but an association of States in the nature of contract merely, can it, as a contract, be peaceably unmade by less than all the parties who made it? One party to a contract may violate it–break it, so to speak–but does it not require all to lawfully rescind it?

THE UNION IS OLDER THAN THE CONSTITUTION (WHICH WAS “TO FORM A MORE PERFECT UNION”)

Descending from these general principles, we find the proposition that in legal contemplation the Union is perpetual confirmed by the history of the Union itself. The Union is much older than the Constitution. It was formed, in fact, by the Articles of Association in 1774. It was matured and continued by the Declaration of Independence in 1776. It was further matured, and the faith of all the then thirteen States expressly plighted and engaged that it should be perpetual, by the Articles of Confederation in 1778. And finally, in 1787, one of the declared objects for ordaining and establishing the Constitution was “to form a more perfect Union.”

But if destruction of the Union by one or by a part only of the States be lawfully possible, the Union is ‘less’ perfect than before the Constitution, having lost the vital element of perpetuity.

‘RESOLVES’ AND ‘ORDINANCES’ TO GET OUT OF UNION ARE LEGALLY VOID

It follows from these views that no State upon its own mere motion can lawfully get out of the Union; that ‘resolves’ and ‘ordinances’ to that effect are legally void, and that acts of violence within any State or States against the authority of the United States are insurrectionary or revolutionary, according to circumstances.

THE DECLARED PURPOSE OF THE UNION: THAT IT ‘WILL’ CONSTITUTIONALLY DEFEND AND MAINTAIN ITSELF

I therefore consider that in view of the Constitution and the laws the Union is unbroken, and to the extent of my ability, I shall take care, as the Constitution itself expressly enjoins upon me, that the laws of the Union be faithfully executed in all the States. Doing this I deem to be only a simple duty on my part, and I shall perform it so far as practicable unless my rightful masters, the American people, shall withhold the requisite means or in some authoritative manner direct the contrary. I trust this will not be regarded as a menace, but only as the declared purpose of the Union that it ‘will’ constitutionally defend and maintain itself.

THERE NEED BE NO BLOODSHED OR VIOLENCE

In doing this there needs to be no bloodshed or violence, and there shall be none unless it be forced upon the national authority. The power confided to me will be used to hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the Government and to collect the duties and imposts; but beyond what may be necessary for these objects, there will be no invasion, no using of force against or among the people anywhere. . . .

The course here indicated will be followed unless current events and experience shall show a modification or change to be proper, and in every case and exigency my best discretion will be exercised, according to circumstances actually existing and with a view and a hope of a peaceful solution of the national troubles and the restoration of fraternal sympathies and affections.

SOME SEEK TO DESTROY THE UNION

That there are persons in one section or another who seek to destroy the Union at all events and are glad of any pretext to do it I will neither affirm nor deny; but if there be such, I need address no word to them. To those, however, who really love the Union may I not speak?

THE DESTRUCTION OF OUR NATIONAL FABRIC, WITH ITS BENEFITS, MEMORIES, HOPES

Before entering upon so grave a matter as the destruction of our national fabric, with all its benefits, its memories, and its hopes, would it not be wise to ascertain precisely why we do it? Will you hazard so desperate a step while there is any possibility that any portion of the ills you fly from have no real existence? Will you, while the certain ills you fly to are greater than all the real ones you fly from, will you risk the commission of so fearful a mistake?

NO RIGHT PLAINLY WRITTEN HAS BEEN DENIED

All profess to be content in the Union if all constitutional rights can be maintained. Is it true, then, that any right plainly written in the Constitution has been denied? I think not. Happily, the human mind is so constituted that no party can reach to the audacity of doing this. Think, if you can, of a single instance in which a plainly written provision of the Constitution has ever been denied. If by the mere force of numbers a majority should deprive a minority of any clearly written constitutional right, it might in a moral point of view justify revolution; certainly would if such right were a vital one. But such is not our case. All the vital rights of minorities and of individuals are so plainly assured to them by affirmations and negations, guaranties and prohibitions, in the Constitution that controversies never arise concerning them. . . .

CONGRESS MAY OR MUST? THE CONSTITUTION DOES NOT EXPRESSLY SAY

No foresight can anticipate nor any document of reasonable length contain express provisions for all possible questions. Shall fugitives from labor be surrendered by national or by State authority? The Constitution does not expressly say. ‘May’ Congress prohibit slavery in the Territories? The Constitution does not expressly say. ‘Must’ Congress protect slavery in the Territories? The Constitution does not expressly say.

WOULD A PORTION OF A NEW CONFEDERACY A YEAR OR TWO HENCE ARBITRARILY SECEDE AGAIN

From questions of this class spring all our constitutional controversies, and we divide upon them into majorities and minorities. If the minority will not acquiesce, the majority must, or the Government must cease. There is no other alternative, for continuing the Government is acquiescence on one side or the other. If a minority in such case will secede rather than acquiesce, they make a precedent which in turn will divide and ruin them, for a minority of their own will secede from them whenever a majority refuses to be controlled by such minority. For instance, why may not any portion of a new confederacy a year or two hence arbitrarily secede again, precisely as portions of the present Union now claim to secede from it? All who cherish disunion sentiments are now being educated to the exact temper of doing this.

RENEWED SUCCESSION?

Is there such perfect identity of interests among the States to compose a new union as to produce harmony only and prevent renewed secession?

THE CENTRAL IDEA OF SECESSION IS THE ESSENCE OF ANARCHY

Plainly the central idea of secession is the essence of anarchy. 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.

CONSTITUTIONAL QUESTIONS ARE TO BE DECIDED BY THE SUPREME COURT

I do not forget the position assumed by some that constitutional questions are to be decided by the Supreme Court, nor do I deny that such decisions must be binding in any case upon the parties to a suit as to the object of that suit, while they are also entitled to very high respect and consideration in all parallel cases by all other departments of the Government. . . .

SLAVERY: RIGHT, WRONG

One section of our country believes slavery is ‘right’ and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is ‘wrong’ and ought not to be extended. This is the only substantial dispute. The fugitive-slave clause of the Constitution and the law for the suppression of the foreign slave trade are each as well enforced, perhaps, as any law can ever be in a community where the moral sense of the people imperfectly supports the law itself. . . .

PHYSICALLY: WE CAN NOT SEPARATE, OR REMOVE, OR BUILD AN IMPASSABLE WALL

Physically speaking, we can not separate. We can not remove our respective sections from each other nor build an impassable wall between them. . . . Can aliens make treaties easier than friends can make laws? Can treaties be more faithfully enforced between aliens than laws can among friends? Suppose you go to war, you can not fight always; and when, after much loss on both sides and no gain on either, you cease fighting, the identical old questions, as to terms of intercourse, are again upon you.

CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHT VERSUS REVOLUTIONARY RIGHT

This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing Government, they can exercise their ‘constitutional’ right of amending it or their ‘revolutionary’ right to dismember or overthrow it. . . .

PRESIDENT: NO AUTHORITY TO FIX TERMS FOR SEPARATION

The Chief Magistrate derives all his authority from the people, and they have referred none upon him to fix terms for the separation of the States. The people themselves can do this if also they choose, but the Executive as such has nothing to do with it. His duty is to administer the present Government as it came to his hands and to transmit it unimpaired by him to his successor.

PATIENT CONFIDENCE IN THE ULTIMATE JUSTICE OF THE PEOPLE

Why should there not be a patient confidence in the ultimate justice of the people? Is there any better or equal hope in the world? In our present differences, is either party without faith of being in the right? If the Almighty Ruler of Nations, with His eternal truth and justice, be on your side of the North, or on yours of the South, that truth and that justice will surely prevail by the judgment of this great tribunal of the American people. . . .

SHORT SPACE OF FOUR YEARS

While the people retain their virtue and vigilance no Administration by any extreme of wickedness or folly can very seriously injure the Government in the short space of four years.

NOTHING VALUABLE BY TAKING TIME

My countrymen, one and all, think calmly and ‘well’ upon this whole subject. Nothing valuable can be lost by taking time. If there be an object to ‘hurry’ any of you in hot haste to a step which you would never take ‘deliberately’, that object will be frustrated by taking time; but no good object can be frustrated by it. . . . Intelligence, patriotism, Christianity, and a firm reliance on Him who has never yet forsaken this favored land are still competent to adjust in the best way all our present difficulty.

THE MOMENTOUS ISSUE OF CIVIL WAR

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.”

THE MYSTIC CHORDS OF MEMORY WILL TOUCH THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE

I am loath 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.