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Posted at 11:01 AM ET, 03/ 7/2011

Edna Greene Medford: How influential was Abraham Lincoln's inaugural speech in keeping the border states in the Union?

By Edna Greene Medford

Professor and chairperson of the Department of History at Howard University


When Lincoln addressed the nation on March 4, 1861, his chief aim was conciliation, both toward the Deep South states that had already seceded and toward the border states that remained, at least momentarily, loyal to the national government. Delivering a less strident message than was evident in his original draft, he sought to appease those states with a measured response to the unfolding crisis. While he spoke of an undissolvable Union and challenged the constitutionality of secession, he reassured the southern states that they had nothing to fear from his administration. Their constitutionally-protected rights would be upheld as vociferously as those of all Americans, and the government would refrain from violence unless forced to do so in the nation’s defense.

As important as these concessions were to allaying the fears of southerners, the reassurance that a Lincoln administration would not attack the South’s “domestic” institutions was paramount. Lincoln understood that the desire to protect slavery was the cause of secession. Hence, he apparently believed that it was not enough that he tell them that he did not have the authority to touch the institution within their borders; he wanted them to know that he had “no inclination” to do so as well. Moreover, he assured them that the nation would stand with them in the protection of their rights as slave owners. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850—which strengthened the ability of the slaveholder to retrieve his runaway “property” from the free northern states—would remain in force, despite secession.

The seceded states were unimpressed with Lincoln’s conciliatory overtures.They had already formed a new government that would protect the linchpin of their society. Those states still contemplating secession remained suspicious of this new president who had been elected on a platform championing slavery’s non-expansion. But the Unionists among them heard enough to encourage them to continue their efforts to slow the rush toward secession. Of course, within a few weeks, Fort Sumter would provide the catalyst that enabled the secessionists to prevail, at least in four of the remaining southern states. For the next several months, Lincoln would pursue a cautious policy toward slavery as he struggled to keep the rest of the border states in the Union ranks. We can never know how a less tempered address might have been received by border state listeners. History only tells us that by keeping those states within the Union, Lincoln acquired the time he needed to devise an emancipation plan that would help to end the war and reunite the nation.

By Edna Greene Medford  | March 7, 2011; 11:01 AM ET
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I applaud most contributors to this section of the Post - including Ms. Medford - who used caution when writing about "The South," and "Southerners" during the Civil War. The labels invite generalizations and prejudice, like the labels used in today's political polemics. See my blog for more, Question: Did "Southerners" Lose The Civil War?

Posted by: civilwarodyssey | March 8, 2011 1:30 PM | Report abuse

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