Lincoln’s second inaugural gets a great deal of attention from historians, but the circumstances of his 1861 speech made it one of the most important addresses ever given to that point in American history.
Lincoln’s election had provoked widespread feelings through the South that session was the only option left for the slave-holding states. The voices advocating a separate nation thundered loudly and in states like Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina had overtaken any expression of moderation.
The president-elect had not spoken to the nation since his nomination because campaigning for the presidency after one received the nomination of a party was thought to be undignified. Consequently, Lincoln’s words carried great import for the immediate future of the country. Different factions projected different attitudes onto the upcoming speech. Anti-slavery supporters expected Lincoln to stand up to the Southern firebrands. Moderates on all sides urged conciliation. Hard-line Southerners expected little from Lincoln that could change their minds, and many of them did not want to change their minds.
Still, the president had to try to hold the country together with this speech
He showed drafts of it to several people including William Seward, his chief rival for the Republican presidential nomination and now his nominee for Secretary of State. Seward suggested changes throughout, but he was most disturbed at Lincoln’s ending. Seward had counseled moderation, and Lincoln’s draft, he thought, was far too harsh to give moderation any hope.
Instead, he suggested this ending:
I close. We are not we must not be aliens or enemies but fellow countrymen and brethren. Although passion has strained our bonds of affection too hardly, they must not, I am sure they will not be broken. The mystic chords which proceeding from so many battle fields and so many patriot graves pass through all the hearts and all the hearths in this broad continent of ours will yet again harmonize their ancient music when breathed upon by the guardian angel of the nation.
Lincoln took those words and ideas and made them his own:
I am loth 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 battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthsone, 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.
Lincoln’s sharp thinking and succinct writing took Seward’s good words and turned them into what Doris Kerns Goodwin calls “powerful poetry.”
The words did not, unfortunately, prevent disunion and four years of bloody battles. But when that was done, they gave voice to the enduring sentiment of American unity.
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