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Posted at 10:55 AM ET, 03/ 7/2011

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

By Harold Holzer

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


Magnificently written, by all accounts calmly delivered, and unfairly underrated by most historians ever since—it pales in comparison, after all, with the magisterial second inaugural address—Lincoln’s March 4, 1861 oration certainly deserves credit as one of the greatest speeches of his career.

But in the end, it did very little to reunite the divided country that teetered that day on the precipice of civil war.

True, not a single Southern state seceded from the Union between February 1 and mid-April, when the march into the Confederacy resumed following Lincoln’s decision to call for volunteers in the wake of the attack on Fort Sumter. So if Lincoln’s conciliatory address did indeed prevent the Upper South states of Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina from quitting the Union earlier, its effect was, at best, only temporary.

Lincoln’s inaugural day appeal to the “better angels of our nature” had little to do with keeping Maryland out of the Confederacy, either. Keeping the “Old Line State” in the Union required suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, and unprecedented interference in the traitorous work of its secession-minded legislature by President Lincoln—action, not words. Kentucky and Missouri stayed “loyal” in name only, and only barely, with large populations of slave-holding whites remaining openly supportive of Southern hopes and armies.

However brilliant his rhetoric, sound his legal reasoning, or heart-wrenching his emotional appeal for the perpetuity of the “heart and hearthstone” of an indissoluble Union, Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address probably changed not a single mind, heart, or loyalty in the South. Ingeniously as it was crafted, convincingly as it was spoken, it fell on deaf ears.

By Harold Holzer  | March 7, 2011; 10:55 AM ET
Categories:  Views  | Tags:  Harold Holzer  
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Mr. Holzer This is a seious question. What legal argument are you refering too? I have never been able to justify leagally why a state can not leave the Union. I am talking legaly only. Not a Confederate or Union view. I understand that the Supreme Court gave an informal opinion to the Radical Republicans about the legality of leaving the union. This was the reason they did not pursue reparations and other legal remedies after the war.
Also were the Confederate States still in the Union if they could not leave? If so what about the West Virginia question that is clearly a violation the constitutions prohibition of splitting states without the original states agreement.I don't mean to start an argument but I would like your opinion and knowledge on this subject..

Posted by: wardenerd | March 9, 2011 9:22 AM | Report abuse

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