By Clive Morrick
President Abraham Lincoln’s First Inauguration: March 4, 1861.
Lincoln took office as the 16th U.S. President at a critical time. Following his election, the seven most southerly states had seceded from the Union. Four others soon followed. The central issue was whether the Union could prohibit slavery in the territories.
From humble beginnings, Lincoln had practiced law in Illinois for 23 years. He was an able and ethical lawyer. In the Whig Party, he served in the Illinois House of Representatives and completed one term in Congress. He joined the new Republican Party in 1856. His seven debates with Illinois Democrat Stephen A. Douglas—entirely over slavery—brought him national attention.
On May 18, 1860, the Republican Party chose Lincoln as its presidential candidate on the delegates’ third ballot. The election was a four-way contest. Lincoln won 40 percent of the popular vote.
From the outset, Lincoln was inclusive. He appointed his four closest rivals to his cabinet, including New York Senator William H. Seward as Secretary of State. In his inaugural address, he emphasized that the country was a single union, while allowing for differing views. He did not mention the secession. He stressed that strained passions must not break the bonds of affection.
Despite Lincoln’s sincerity, 39 days into his presidency, confederates fired on Fort Sumter. The Civil War had begun.
President Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inauguration: March 4, 1865.
Lincoln handily won re-election but, in August of 1864, even his nomination had been in jeopardy. The war was going badly. The Republican Party wanted to crush the South and it was impatient with Lincoln’s patience. But, September victories in Mobile, AL and Atlanta, GA turned the tide. Opposition faded and his Democratic opponent, General George B. McClellan, had little support.
On September 22, 1862, Lincoln had issued an Executive Order: the Emancipation Proclamation. At William H. Seward’s urging, he waited until Union forces gained a victory, which came at the Battle of Antietam. The Proclamation declared that, on January 1, 1863, all slaves in rebellion states would become forever free.
This, combined with the Gettysburg Address of November 19, 1863, would ensure Lincoln’s veneration. In dedicating the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, he spoke only 272 words. His theme was simple: Whatever men say is nothing compared to what the dead did. Only preservation of the nation and its ideals would ensure that they did not die in vain.
Lincoln’s second inauguration speech was short and regretful. He stressed that the nation should care for the families of the dead and strive for a just and lasting peace. The wars would soon be over: the nation’s, when Robert E. Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865, and his own, at the hands of John Wilkes Booth five days later.