-- Lincoln`s Inaugural Address --

March 4, 1861

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Commentary: What Did Lincoln Intend?

It is evident that Lincoln's Inaugural Address represented a modification of his initial thinking concerning property seized by the Confederacy. In the period between his election and inauguration, Lincoln spoke on a number of occasions about reclaiming captured forts and other property. In December 1860, for example, he conveyed to General Winfield Scott his wish that Scott be "as well prepared as he can to either hold or retake the forts, as the case may require, at and after the inauguration." On his trip from Springfield to Washington in February, he told an audience in Indianapolis that it could not be considered coercion if the United States should "merely hold and retake its own forts and other property." And the Illinois State Journal, which spoke authoritatively about Lincoln's views, informed the country that when inaugurated, he would perform his duties at every hazard.

In his initial draft of his Inaugural Address, written before he left Springfield for Washington, Lincoln pledged to use his power "to reclaim the public property and places which have fallen." At the urging of Orville H. Browning and William H. Seward, however, Lincoln agreed to moderate his words and refer only to holding rather than reclaiming federal property.

There is considerable disagreement as to whether Lincoln, by adopting different phrasing, was now actually pursuing a more conciliatory policy towards the South. David M. Potter, for example, thinks so. He views Lincoln as determined to avoid conflict and give time for the heated atmosphere in the South to cool. Unionist forces would then overturn the secessionist regimes and restore the Union. Lincoln's position was based on the assumption-- which, alas, proved to be false-- that secessionists were a minority only temporarily in the ascendancy. Lincoln, therefore, never seriously entertained the idea of reclaiming federal property, and in his first official policy statement, he adopted a conciliatory stand designed to assure a "peaceable reunion." The President, without waiving the theoretical supremacy of federal authority, refrained from asserting that authority where it would be resisted. Thus, he declined to reclaim forts presently in Confederate hands, and pledged to continue to send the ma ils except when "repelled."

Potter further argues that Lincoln even seriously considered, at one time, the recommendation of conservatives like William C. Rives, that he abandon federal forts in order to avoid conflict, save the upper South, and calm the deep South. Lincoln suggested a bargain by which, in exchange for his abandoning the forts, Virginia would adjourn its secession convention and bind itself to the Union. "Why not?" Lincoln is alleged to have replied to Rives. "If you will guarantee to me the State of Virginia I shall remove the troops from Sumter. A State for a fort is no bad business." The deal collapsed because the Rives party demurred.

But other historians think that Lincoln, in advocating only that the forts be held may not have been so conciliatory. Kenneth M. Stampp thinks that Lincoln remained determined to enforce the laws, refused to accept peaceable secession, or to compromise on fundamental issues like the expansion of slavery. While he hoped to avoid conflict, he fully appreciated the gravity of the crisis he confronted and the possibility of conflict. As Stampp puts it, "Never did the President-elect, directly or indirectly, hint that the government could abstain from exercising such vital functions as collecting its revenues and holding its property. It was not that he regarded force as desirable in itself, or that he wished to provoke a war. Rather it was that he was profoundly impressed with the idea that there were points at which the government could not tolerate defiance without destroying its elf, and that as President he would have an inescapable obligation to 'enforce the laws.'"

According to Stampp, Lincoln intended to avoid coercing the South and to abstain from exercising his authority in certain cases. But he would defend and maintain the integrity of the Union to the extent he could, and place the burden of responsibility on the South for undertaking initiatives against remaining federal authority. According to Stampp, therefore, Lincoln's revision of his Inaugural Address may have made its tone less aggressive, but it did not change his true position. The President, for example, never relinquished federal claims to the seized forts or repudiated the idea of retaking them. Orville H. Browning's recommendation to delete the reference to retaking the forts did not mean that the government abandoned that objective. Instead, as Browning himself thought, the government could ultimately accomplish that end better without broad casting its purpose. Stampp, in effect, sees little underlying difference between Lincoln's Inaugural Address and his previous statements regarding the retaking of federal property.

As for the Rives incident, Richard N. Current, who generally agrees with Stampp's position, insists that Lincoln was never serious about exchanging Fort Sumter for Virginia's pledge to remain in the Union. According to Current, Lincoln did not believe that the Rives delegation could deliver a guarantee of Virginia's unionism. He considered the idea of an exchange of a state for a fort "something of a joke."

In the end, historians differ about the context and implications of Lincoln's statements. This disagreement demonstrates how much more difficult it is to assess the motives and underlying perceptions of an act than to describe it.

Bibliography: Current, Lincoln and the First Shot, pp. 34-35; Potter, Lincoln and His Party, pp. 320-30, 352-55; Stampp, And the War Came, pp. 182-203.

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