Slavery in Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address

On March 4, 1861, Abraham Lincoln at last took the oath as the 16th President of the United States. His first inaugural address has received much analysis over the years. Disunion in the New York Times added to the list yesterday by commissioning essays on the topic by four more scholars. Civil War Emancipation will append a bit more by analyzing Lincoln’s first inaugural as it pertains to slavery.

Slavery is the major subject in Lincoln’s inaugural speech because at the heart of his address was the sectional crisis and slavery was at the heart of the sectional crisis.  Lincoln did not waste time bring up the subject. Starting in the third sentence, he stated:

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.

Hence, early on, Lincoln plainly brings up slavery and reiterates his promise of non-interference with the institution. An important purpose of the speech was to reassure the slave states he intended them no harm and doing so meant reassuring them about the security of their most basic institution under his administration.  If there was any remaining doubt he soon adds:

Resolved, That the maintenance inviolate of the rights of the States, and especially the right of each State to order and control its own domestic institutions according to its own judgment exclusively, is essential to that balance of power on which the perfection and endurance of our political fabric depend; and we denounce the lawless invasion by armed force of the soil of any State or Territory, no matter what pretext, as among the gravest of crimes.

The last part of the sentence alluded to and condemned John Brown’s raid of Harper’s Ferry in October 1859. Lincoln also sought to reassure the South concerning the Fugitive Slave Act, although his vague language also seemed to affirm he was intent on making sure that alleged fugitive slaves enjoyed due process, which would have negated his reassurances as far as the slave states were concerned.

There is much controversy about the delivering up of fugitives from service or labor. The clause I now read is as plainly written in the Constitution as any other of its provisions:

No person held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall in consequence of any law or regulation therein be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due.

It is scarcely questioned that this provision was intended by those who made it for the reclaiming of what we call fugitive slaves; and the intention of the lawgiver is the law. All members of Congress swear their support to the whole Constitution–to this provision as much as to any other. To the proposition, then, that slaves whose cases come within the terms of this clause “shall be delivered up” their oaths are unanimous. Now, if they would make the effort in good temper, could they not with nearly equal unanimity frame and pass a law by means of which to keep good that unanimous oath?

There is some difference of opinion whether this clause should be enforced by national or by State authority, but surely that difference is not a very material one. If the slave is to be surrendered, it can be of but little consequence to him or to others by which authority it is done. And should anyone in any case be content that his oath shall go unkept on a merely unsubstantial controversy as to how it shall be kept?

Again: In any law upon this subject ought not all the safeguards of liberty known in civilized and humane jurisprudence to be introduced, so that a free man be not in any case surrendered as a slave? And might it not be well at the same time to provide by law for the enforcement of that clause in the Constitution which guarantees that “the citizens of each State shall be entitled to all privileges and immunities of citizens in the several States”?

Lincoln also alludes to 1857′s infamous Dred Scott decision and, as pointed at by Richard Striner in yesterday’s Disunion, advanced the controversial notion that the U.S. Supreme Court was not the final arbiter of the constitution.

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. And while it is obviously possible that such decision may be erroneous in any given case, still the evil effect following it, being limited to that particular case, with the chance that it may be overruled and never become a precedent for other cases, can better be borne than could the evils of a different practice. At the same time, the candid citizen must confess that if the policy of the Government upon vital questions affecting the whole people is to be irrevocably fixed by decisions of the Supreme Court, the instant they are made in ordinary litigation between parties in personal actions the people will have ceased to be their own rulers, having to that extent practically resigned their Government into the hands of that eminent tribunal. Nor is there in this view any assault upon the court or the judges. It is a duty from which they may not shrink to decide cases properly brought before them, and it is no fault of theirs if others seek to turn their decisions to political purposes.

Lincoln then returns to the Fugitive Slave Act, and the international slave trade, with more candor than his first treatment, admitting the imperfect means of enforcing federal laws concerning them.

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. The great body of the people abide by the dry legal obligation in both cases, and a few break over in each. This, I think, can not be perfectly cured, and it would be worse in both cases after the separation of the sections than before. The foreign slave trade, now imperfectly suppressed, would be ultimately revived without restriction in one section, while fugitive slaves, now only partially surrendered, would not be surrendered at all by the other.

Finally, in an allusion to recently adjourned Peace Convention, Lincoln indicated his openness to a constitutional convention to settle the outstanding sectional differences. While he makes no reference to slavery as being the main topic of such a convention, there can be no doubt it would be at the heart of such a meeting just as it had been at the Willard Hotel gathering.

In any case, slavery was the dominant topic of Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address. It could not help but be as it was the issue that was tearing apart the nation in March 1861 and Lincoln and the rest of the nation knew it, however loath at times they were to admit it.

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About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at donald_shaffer@yahoo.com
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One Response to Slavery in Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address

  1. Pingback: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter « Mitchell Powell's Blog

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