Saturday, March 5, 2011

150th Anniversary of Lincoln's Inauguration

Yesterday was an important date in U.S. history. It was the 150th anniversary of the first inauguration of Abraham Lincoln.

It was a dark period in the time that followed his election on November 6, 1860. By the time the inauguration came several months later during that long winter, seven southern states had seceded from the Union, commencing with South Carolina. The reactions to Lincoln's election, even among the northern states were mixed and diverse. Doris Kearns Goodwin in Team of Rivals informs her readers that Lincoln's attempts to include representatives of all the warring factions in his cabinet were difficult and daunting challenges.

Goodwin makes the case, as many historians have, that the Constitution memorialized the stated goal to form "a more perfect union," and therefore secession was never an option. War ensued over that issue. War between the states became an inevitability that could not be avoided because the southern states were determined to hang on to the slave trade as the basis of their economy.

There was a long transition between the date of the election and the inauguration, almost four months. Now, of course, that transition period is half what it was. The vacuum of time that elapsed was filled with uncertainty in the hearts and minds of Americans and the political rhetoric was out of control. Lincoln was determined not to add fuel to an already seething inferno, so he remained silent, stating repeatedly that he was not yet sworn is as the President.

The retiring president, James Buchanan, chose silence as well. He was the lame duck. The states were already polarized with the sweeping secession movement well underway, and a federal government sworn to keep them together. We face budget battles on Capitol Hill and throughout the states right now, and while problematic these differences today are nothing compared to what Lincoln faced. Sometimes history is so instructive, isn't it?

According to Harold Holzer in Lincoln President-Elect, Lincoln had been wrestling with the national crisis from the moment the weight of the presidency descended upon his shoulders when he learned he had won the election. He was keenly aware of the movements of the factions toward a war that seemed inevitable. His arrival in Washington, D.C. happened in the early morning hours of darkness, shrouded in secrecy because of the credible death threats against him. But when he rode in an open carriage to the Capitol to be sworn in that morning he shunned all rumors of the assassination plots knowing he alone must take up the reins of government.

March 4, 1861, Abraham Lincoln's First Inaugural
When he finally took the podium to address a divided nation on inauguration day, March 4, 1861, one senses the anguish in his soul in his words. The South had inaugurated Jefferson Davis only two weeks before, and for them there was no turning back. One gains clear awareness of his deep concern for the “more perfect union” from Lincoln's First Inaugural Address

You sense the anguish of his soul in his closing remarks: "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."

Sadly, those "better angels" sometimes seem elusive in our national debates, don't they?

Four years later, the war still raging but seeking to "bind up the nation's wounds," he would conclude his Second Inaugural Address with these words:

"With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan — to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations."

We still seek in vain for
peace on earth.

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