“That there are persons in one section or another who seek to destroy the Union at all events and are glad of any pretext to do it I will neither affirm nor deny; but if there be such, I need address no word to them. To those, however, who really love the Union may I not speak?”
It is more than a little ironic to me that today, as we mark the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s first inauguration on March 4, 1861 – and the events leading to the first shots in the Civil War on April 12, 1861—that “destroying the Union” has a very different context. In Wisconsin and other parts of the country, there is an assault on unionized workers –private and public. That attack on one group of Americans by another is, in fact, another kind of civil war.
When Lincoln delivered his first inaugural address, before a crowd said to number 30,000, on what was a balmy fifty-degree March day, in front of the unfinished Capitol Building, the nation was on the brink of the deadliest and most dangerous chapter in our history.
It is hard to imagine the weight of responsibility on Lincoln’s shoulders as he rose to speak. Never was the nation more divided. The division extended well past North and South.
In his speech, Lincoln was measured, even conciliatory. No glove was thrown down, no threats issued. He sought to reassure the slaveholding states that he had no plan to abolish slavery. That was never the issue for him –although he was morally and philosophically opposed to slavery, Lincoln recognized that it was the law of the land. He and most other Republicans sought merely to limit its extension.
Lincoln was at first lawyerly, arguing for the permanence of the Constitution and the inherent political flaws and dangers of secession. But he also spoke compellingly and from the heart about the history of the Union, going back before 1776. And in the end, he sought to connect Americans together, to find common ground –even as the issues drove them further apart.
In rereading and reflecting on Lincoln’s first inaugural –one of the greatest speeches in American history— I can only wonder in the present division: What would Lincoln say if he was in Wisconsin?
Maybe it would be as simple and as eloquent as this:
“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.”
In this clip, the late political columnist and one-time presidential speechwriter William Safire discusses Lincoln’s First Inaugural and the composition of that memorable closing passage in particular.