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Posted at 10:39 AM ET, 03/ 7/2011

Dennis Frye: How influential was Abraham Lincoln's inaugural speech in keeping the border states in the Union?

By Dennis Frye

Chief Historian at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park


Time was Abraham Lincoln's principle ally as he presented his first inaugural address.

Time was his proposal. Time was his plea. Time would stave off insanity. "My countrymen, one and all, think calmly and well upon this whole subject," Lincoln urged near the end of his speech. "Nothing valuable can be lost by taking time."

Lincoln understood the future of the Union depended upon eight slave states that had not yet divided from the United States. This was his audience. Here he intended to influence. "Fellow citizens" in these states could not hear Lincoln (no radio), could not see Lincoln (no TV), and could not tweet Lincoln. But they could read Lincoln--read his words in their hometown newspapers and read meaning into his words.

The words repeated ad infinitum by today's textbooks from Lincoln's first inaugural address are "mystic chords of memory" and "better angels of our nature." These words did not resonate or reverberate or inspire anyone in the border states in 1861. The most important words Lincoln uttered or inferred were slavery, secession, separation, succession, and suppression.

No slave state trusted the Republican Party. Though Lincoln expended the first quarter of his address on assurances that he would protect property and not interfere with slavery "where it existed," Southerners dismissed him as disingenuous.

Lincoln, himself, dismissed secession as "the essence of anarchy," and many border state leaders agreed. Lincoln won this argument with this question--"Is there such a perfect identity of interests among the States to compose a new union as to produce harmony only and prevent renewed secession?"

The issue of separation also gained Lincoln positive traction. "We cannot remove our respective sections from each other nor build an impassable wall between them." Perhaps no other Lincoln utterance sounded more reasonable in the border states. Economy, geography, and even genealogy, made barriers artificial and archaic.

Lincoln's pronouncement of succession stimulated shutters. Citing the Constitution, Lincoln announced the "power confided in me will be used to hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the Government." This directly challenged Confederate demands that the US abandon all its possessions in the new nation. Lincoln's absolute assertion unnerved the Border States--conflict seemed inevitable.

Finally on suppression, reserved for Lincoln's next to last paragraph, he directed this declaration to the secession states and warning to the border states: "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 yourselves being 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.'"

By Dennis Frye  | March 7, 2011; 10:39 AM ET
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