Inauguration Day, March 4, 1861

Before the 20th Amendment, which moved Inauguration Day to January 20 following any presidential election, presidents had to wait until March 4 to be sworn in. After the election of 1860, those months from November to early March were filled with fear, anger, impatience, and even threats of assassination. It didn’t help that lame duck president James Buchanan continued his practice of taking the path of least resistance as he still occupied the White House.


Lincoln in 1861 (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

South Carolina had already seceded from the Union, and its leaders were determined to push all Federal troops out of the state—especially the troops who stood at Fort Sumter in Charleston Bay. Buchanan had already told the Federal leader, General Robert Anderson, to simply surrender if the South Carolinians tried to take the fort. Lincoln, and most of the other Republican leaders, were astounded by this, and hoped no incident would occur before the transfer of power out of Buchanan’s hands. In fact, if the South Carolinians did attack the fort, the action would be high treason and should not be treated as a minor issue. It would be treated as an aggressive act—as an open act of war. Lincoln knew this. And he hoped his inaugural speech could calm the waters:

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 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, wil yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

Unfortunately, the “better angels of our nature” did not prevail. One month later, the Civil War began at Fort Sumter.

cwpt-on-facebookTo read the full text of Lincoln’s first inaugural address, check out The Civil War Trust website and “Like” them on Facebook.

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