Fascinating History of Lincoln’s Inauguration

 March 6, 2011,

 The First Trick

By JAMIE MALANOWSKI

Disunion follows the Civil War as it unfolded.

Lincoln’s inauguration, President Buchanan

March 2–9, 1861

Library of Congress

President-elect Lincoln and President Buchanan (tipping his hat) at the base of the Capitol grounds on their way to Lincoln’s first inauguration.

The Old Public Functionary attended his last public function this week.

Delayed a bit by a rash of last-minute bills that needed his signature, President Buchanan arrived at Willard’s Hotel a little past noon on Monday in order to escort his successor, as tradition demanded, to his inauguration. Together they were an incongruous pair: the outgoing president, short and round, wore a swallow-tailed coat and broad-brimmed silk hat, while the new president, long and lean, wore a black cashmere suit and his trademark black stovepipe. Mrs. Lincoln and her children had been escorted on ahead.

Traveling in the presidential barouche, they were followed by a long parade: bands, floats full of pretty girls, mounted marshals, color guards, honored veterans and a phalanx of cavalrymen. On this sunny, festive day, President Buchanan’s feelings must have been bittersweet. At the head of a similar parade four years before, he began his presidency as one of the best-prepared political leaders ever to have assumed the office; he exits, after an economic panic and mounting sectional strife, with the country teetering on the brink of civil war so precariously that the rooftops of the buildings lining the route of this procession are crowned with sharpshooters, and artillery pieces command the avenues. Buchanan’s reputation is in ruins: almost daily he suffers to see the words imbecilic, moronic and traitorous affixed to his name. “My dear sir,’’ he at one point addressed Mr. Lincoln, “if you are as happy in entering the White House as I shall feel on returning to Wheatland, you are a happy man indeed.’’

“Mr. President, I cannot say that I shall enter it with much pleasure,” Mr. Lincoln graciously replied, “but I assure you that I shall do what I can to maintain the high standards set by my illustrious predecessors who have occupied it.’’

Few of the other remarks that President Buchanan happened to utter prior to the ceremonies has been shared; no doubt his comments would be full of the punctilious pleasantries the former ambassador perfected at the palace of St. Petersburg and the Court of St. James’s. But it would be what he was thinking as he sat on that exalted rostrum and listened to his successor’s address that one would dearly love to know. He, after all, has been scorned, and Mr. Lincoln celebrated, by the very same editorialists. And yet a number of their key statements have been nearly identical.

For example, when Mr. Lincoln said, “The Union of these states is perpetual. . . no government proper ever had provision in its organic law for its own termination,’’ Mr. Buchanan no doubt recalled his annual message that he sent to Congress last December, where he said, “The Union of these states was designed to be perpetual. . . .Its framers never intended the absurdity of providing for its own destruction.’’

There are other parallels. Where Lincoln said, “No state upon its own mere motion can lawfully get out of the Union,’’ Buchanan said, “No state has a right upon its own to secede from the Union.” Where Lincoln said, “I shall take care that the laws. . . be faithfully executed,’’ Buchanan said, “My province is to execute the laws,’’ and while Lincoln said that the would use his power “to hold, occupy, and possess the property belonging to the government,’’ Buchanan offered a bit more flourish in saying, “It is my duty at all times to defend and protect the public property.’’

Of course, the parallels did not continue all the way through. Mr. Buchanan may have been waiting for Mr. Lincoln to imitate him, and offer an explanation of the origins of the conflict that would prominently feature a sharp and lengthy condemnation of a quarter century’s worth of abolitionist provocations. Instead Mr. Lincoln was succinct. “One section of our country believes slavery is right and out to be extended,’’ he tartly summarized, “while the other believes it is wrong, and ought not to be extended. That is the only substantial dispute.’’

Documents Lincoln’s Inaugural Speech

Read Lincoln’s speech, with handwritten edits.

His tone left no doubt which opinion he held. And while Mr. Buchanan may have expected something similar to his long, lawyerly explanation of why the Constitution left him powerless to prevent states from seceding, Mr. Lincoln, though not overtly threatening, was nonetheless clear that he felt far from impotent : “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict, without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in Heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to `preserve, protect and defend’ it.’’ Mr. Buchanan found no authorization for action in the Constitution; Mr. Lincoln sees one in his constitutionally mandated oath.

Reaction to Mr. Lincoln’s address has run the gamut, not only among political views, but within them. The abolitionist Frederick Douglass was disappointed, telling friends that the speech, in which Lincoln “prostrated himself before the foul and withering curse of slavery,’’ was “little better than our worst fears.’’ The equally ardent abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner, however, approved of the way the speech showed “a hand of iron in a velvet glove.’’

Most of the voices in the seceded states, predictably enough, condemned the speech, with the Atlanta Confederacy calling it “a medley of ignorance, sanctimonious cant and tender-footed bullyism’’ and the Charleston Mercury saying that a “more lamentable display of feeble inability to grasp the circumstances of this momentous emergency could scarcely have been exhibited.’’

And yet Alexander Stephens, the newly minted vice president of the Confederacy, is reported to have privately admired the address as “the most adroit state paper ever published on this continent.’’ The smirking secessionist Senator Wigfall, the fire-eating Edmund Ruffin and the legalistic disunionist Thomas Cobb have all concluded that Lincoln’s words mean war. But Lincoln’s old adversary, Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois, disagrees. “He does not mean coercion; he says nothing about retaking the forts, or Federal property,’’ said Douglas in response to queries. “Every point in the address is susceptible of a double construction, but I think he does not mean coercion.’’ And there are many editorialists, not from northern cities but from Chattanooga and Raleigh and Lexington, all in slaveholding states that have yet to secede, who agree.

It is to these men, the pro-unionists of the upper south, and especially to the delegates of the Virginia Secession Convention, to whom Lincoln was speaking when he said in the address, “My countrymen, one and all, think calmly and well upon this whole subject. Nothing valuable can be lost by taking time. If there be an object to hurry any of you in hot haste to a step which you would never take deliberately, that object will be frustrated by taking time; but no good object can be frustrated by it.’’

Call it coincidence, but when Mr. Lincoln faced a different conflict this week, he took the same approach. Consider: Senator Seward, the man long-designated as Mr. Lincoln’s secretary of state, at the last moment withdrew his name from selection, apparently in protest that the new Cabinet would include Senator Chase of Ohio and other ironbacks who advocate taking a tougher, less conciliatory approach to the South than Mr. Seward prefers.

Was it principle? Pique? A power grab? Regardless — rather than confront Seward’s demand directly, Mr. Lincoln responded with a two-prong approach. He made it clear to a group of Seward’s friends that even though it would be regrettable to lose Seward, he was prepared to name to the State Department William Dayton, the attorney general of New Jersey; and of course he would keep Chase. At the same time, Lincoln wrote to Seward, requesting that he reconsider his withdrawal. In other words, he took a position, and waited for Seward to make the next move; and Seward, of course, acquiesced. “I can’t let Seward take the first trick,’’ Lincoln told a confidant.

Lincoln hoped to do something similar with the seceded states: take a strong position, and then wait until they either came to him on terms he found acceptable or took responsibility for starting the conflict. Shockingly, Lincoln’s plan was dead before he could articulate it. Two hours before the swearing in, President Buchanan received an urgent message from Major Anderson at Fort Sumter, informing his superiors that he was running out of supplies. If not relieved — and Anderson estimated that because of the Confederate forces massed on the shore, it would take 20,000 men to accomplish that mission — he would have to surrender the fort in six weeks. Lincoln had devised a strategy that could be expressed in one phrase: Nothing valuable can be lost by taking time. Now, suddenly, time was running out.

Related Civil War Timeline

An unfolding history of the Civil War with photos and articles from the Times archive and ongoing commentary from Disunion contributors.

This news did not reach President Lincoln until the afternoon following the inauguration, when the outgoing secretary of war, Joseph Holt, gave him a complete report — complete, that is, with explanations and assurances that the previous administration knew nothing of Major Anderson’s difficulties, that he had submitted no request for supplies, nor for reinforcements, nor had he warned about the construction of the rebels’ works. By that point, Buchanan was on a train, on his way back to his beloved Wheatland.

He had spoken to Lincoln since receiving the news; at the reception at the White House after the inauguration, the two men had a tete a tete. Buchanan was observed to be doing nearly all the talking, holding forth with urgent animation. Was the outgoing president imparting some final advice, sharing some guidance that would prove vital in the days ahead? Indeed. “I think you will find the water of the right hand well of the White House better than that at the left,’’ an eavesdropper overheard Buchanan say. Insights about the pantry and kitchen followed. The state of Sumter was never a topic.

Sources: To learn more about these events, please see “President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman,’’ by William Lee Miller (Alfred A. Knopf, 2008); “Lincoln President-Elect,’’ by Harold Holzer (Simon and Schuster, 2008); and “Days of Defiance,” by Maury Klein (Alfred A. Knopf, 1997).

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Jamie Malanowski has been an editor at Time, Esquire and Spy, and is the author of the novel “The Coup.”

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