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The United States of America: A History
Book 3: Chapter XIII - The Two Presidents


Mr. Lincoln was elected, according to usage, early in November, but did not take possession of his office till March. In the interval President Buchanan remained in power. This gentleman was Southern by birth, and, as it has always been believed, by sympathy. He laid no arrest upon the movements of the seceding States.; nay, it has been alleged that he rather sought to remove obstacles from their path. During all these winter months the Southern leaders were suffered to push forward their preparations for the approaching conflict. The North still hoped for peace. Congress busied itself with vain schemes of conciliation. Meetings were held all over the country, at which an anxious desire was expressed to remove causes of offence. The self-willed Southerners would listen to no compromise. They would go apart, peacefully if they might; in storm and bloodshed if they must.

Early in February Mr. Lincoln left his home in Illinois on his way to Washington. His neighbours accompanied him to the railroad depot, where he spoke a few parting words to them. "I know not," he said, "how soon I shall see you again. A duty devolves upon me, which is, perhaps, greater than that which has devolved upon any other man since the days of Washington. He never would have succeeded except for the aid of Divine Providence, upon which he at all times relied. I feel that I cannot succeed without the same divine aid which sustained him, and on the same Almighty Being I place my reliance for support; and I hope you, my friends, will all pray that I may receive that divine assistance without which I cannot succeed, but with which success is certain."

With these grave, devout words, he took his leave, and passed on to the fulfilment of his heavy task. His inauguration took place as usual on the 4th of March. A huge crowd assembled around the Capitol. Mr. Lincoln had thus far kept silence as to the course he meditated in regard to the seceding States. Seldom had a revelation involving issues so momentous been waited for at the lips of any man. The anxious crowd stood so still, that to its utmost verge the words of the speaker were distinctly heard.

He assured the Southerners that their fears were unfounded. He had no lawful right to interfere with slavery in the States where it exists; he had no purpose and no inclination to interfere. He would, on the contrary, maintain them in the enjoyment of all the rights which the Constitution bestowed upon them. But he held that no State could quit the Union at pleasure. In view of the Constitution and the laws, the Union was unbroken. his policy would be framed upon that belief. lie would continue to execute the laws within the seceding States, and would continue to possess Federal property there, with all the force at his command. That did not necessarily involve conflict or bloodshed. Government would not assail the discontented States, but would suffer no invasion of its constitutional rights. With the South, therefore, it lay to decide whether there was to be peace or war.

A week or two before Mr. Lincoln's inauguration Jefferson Davis had entered upon his career as President of the Southern Republic. Mr. Davis was an old politician. He had long advocated the right of an aggrieved State to leave the Union; and he had largely contributed, by speech and by intrigue, to hasten the crisis which had now arrived, lie was an accomplished man, a graceful writer, a fluent and persuasive speaker. lie was ambitious, resolute, and of ample experience in the management of affairs; but he had many disqualifications for high office. his obstinacy was blind and unreasoning. He had little knowledge of men, and could not distinguish "between an instrument and an obstacle." His moral tone was low, lie taught Mississippi, his native State, to repudiate her just debts. A great English statesman, who made his acquaintance some years before the war broke out, pronounced him one of the ablest and one of the most wicked men in America.

In his Inaugural Address Mr. Davis displayed a prudent reserve. Speaking for the world to hear—a world which, Upon the whole, abhorred slavery—lie did not name the grievances which rendered secession necessary. He maintained the right of a discontented State to secede. The Union had ceased to answer the ends for which it was established; and in the exercise of an undoubted right they had withdrawn from it. lie hoped their late associates would not incur the fearful responsibility of disturbing them in their pursuit of a separate political career. If so, it only remained for them to appeal to arms, and invoke the blessing of Providence on a just cause.

Alexander H. Stephens was the Vice-President of the Confederacy. His health was bad, and the expression of his face indicated habitual suffering. He had nevertheless been a laborious student, and a patient, if not a very wise, thinker on the great questions of his time. In the early days of secession he delivered at Savannah a speech which quickly became famous, and which retains its interest still' as the most candid explanation of the motives and the expectations of the South. The old Government, he said, was founded upon sand. It was founded upon the assumption of the equality of races. Its authors entertained the mistaken belief that African slavery was wrong in principle. "Our new Government," said the Vice-President, "is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery is his natural and normal condition." Why the Creator had made him so could not be told. "It is not for us to inquire into the wisdom of His ordinances, or to question them." With this very clear statement by the Vice-President, we are freed from uncertainty as to the designs of the Southern leaders, and filled with thankfulness for the ruin which fell upom their wicked enterprise.

It is a very curious but perfectly authenticated fact, that notwithstanding the pains taken by Southern leaders to show that they seceded merely to preserve and maintain slavery, there were many intelligent men in England who steadfastly maintained that slavery had little or nothing to do with the origin of the Great War.


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