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Link to MillerCenter.org’s transcript of speech

Summary of speech:

President Lincoln uses his first inaugural address to attempt to reassure the Southern states that he will protect their interests regarding slavery. He warns, however, that any attempt to secede from the Union will be viewed as a violation of law and met with appropriate consequences.

Thoughts on Transcript:

  1. Does not want to use the Presidency to abolish slavery
  2. Supports states’ rights – very clear in addressing fears
  3. Perpetuity of contract is assumed at signing
  4. The Union is much older than the Constitution
  5. Are our differences really enough for divorce?
  6. Constitution cannot be exhaustive.  A country requires compromise.
  7. If secession is allowed once, further sub-division is inevitable
  8. Danger of the Supreme Court ruling man
  9. People must hold government in check through vigilance
  10. First explicit mention of Christianity (rather than God, Father, Creator, etc) in an inaugural address.

Notes on speech:

Phrases I have underlined, starred, or otherwise marked:


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.

Those who nominated and elected me did so with full knowledge that I had made this and many similar declarations and had never recanted them; and more than this, they placed in the platform for my acceptance, and as a law to themselves and to me, the clear and emphatic resolution which I now read:

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.

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.”

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 much older than the Constitution.

“… my rightful masters, the American people …”

“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 foresight can anticipate nor any document of reasonable length contain express provisions for all possible questions.”

“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. … If a minority in such a 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.

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

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

“And while it is obviously possible that such decision may be erroneous in any given case, still the evil effect following it, while 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.

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.

“… intercourse, either amicable or hostile, must continue between them.  Is it possible, then, to make that intercourse more advantageous or more satisfactory after separation than before?  Can aliens make treaties easier than friends can make laws?

“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.”

“… to me the convention mode seems preferable, in that it allows amendments to originate with the people themselves, instead of only permitting them to take or reject propositions originated by others, not especially chosen for the purpose, and which might not be precisely such as they would wish to either accept or refuse.”

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.

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.

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.

Thoughts on delivery (audio and/or video of speech):

None.  They didn’t have that technology when Lincoln was inaugurated.