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Posted at 9:50 AM ET, 01/10/2011

Harold Holzer: Why was Abraham Lincoln so silent following his election?

By Harold Holzer

Author or editor of 36 books, many on Lincoln, and chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation


In point of fact, Lincoln was silent from the day he returned home from his Eastern speaking tour in March 1860, on through his departure from Springfield for his inauguration 11 months later -- an astonishingly long hibernation for such a celebrated orator and debater.

During the presidential campaign, political tradition alone dictated silence: mid-19th-century candidates were neither seen nor heard. Once elected, Lincoln remained mute for more complex reasons. For one thing, his victory had yet to be ratified by the Electoral College, and virtually from the moment of his sectional victory, some fearful supporters began suggesting that electoral votes be cast for compromise alternatives to avert national ruin. Anything Lincoln uttered might encourage such defections.

He also understood that nothing he said could ease the crisis, while anything he said might worsen it. Tilting toward coercion might hasten secession and anger Northern Democrats who had voted against him. Tilting toward conciliation could infuriate his base -- abolitionists and free-soilers. Silence distressed anxious Americans seeking meaningless reassurance, but it also held Lincoln’s fragile coalition together until the inauguration.

Then there was the issue of pride: the President-elect refused to beg for the right to take office. As he put it: “I could say nothing which I have not already said, and which is in print, and open for the inspection of all. To press a repetition of this upon those who have listened, is useless; to press it upon those who have refused to listen, and still refuse, would be wanting in self-respect, and would have an appearance of sycophancy and timidity, which would excite the contempt of good men, and encourage bad ones to clamor the more loudly.” In Lincoln’s view, “party malice" and not "public good" inspired such demands. “They seek a sign,” he confidently insisted, “and no sign shall be given them.”

Lincoln’s policy of “masterly inactivity” not only kept him out of trouble during the four-month-long interregnum, it allowed him to work “masterfully” behind the scenes to prevent compromises that would have extended slavery in return for peace.

Not everyone approved of public silence or noticed the private string-pulling. As one New York journalist observed. “Every mail brought him written, and every hour verbal, entreaties to abandon his paralyzed silence…and pour the oil of conciliatory conservative assurances upon the turbulent waves of Southern excitement.” A Washington correspondent complained that Lincoln seemed to be “serenely smiling at the ominous tidings that rush over the wires from the cotton-growing States.” Little did such reporters know: behind Lincoln’s public silence lay a private eloquence that effectively reaffirmed the sanctity of Union and, years before emancipation became national policy, all but doomed the institution of slavery.

By Harold Holzer  | January 10, 2011; 9:50 AM ET
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