|Fellow citizens of the United States:
In compliance with a custom as old as the government itself, I appear before
you to address you briefly, and to take, in your presence, the oath prescribed by the
Constitution of the United States, to be taken by the President "before he enters on
the execution of his office."
I do not consider it necessary, at present, for me to discuss
those matters of administration about which there is no special anxiety, or excitement.
Apprehension seems to exist among the people of the Southern
States, that by the accession of a Republican Administration, their property, and their
peace, and personal security, are to be endangered. There has never been any reasonable
cause for such apprehension. Indeed, the most ample evidence to the contrary has all the
while existed, and been open to their inspection. It is found in nearly all the published
speeches of him who now addresses you. I do but quote from one of those speeches when I
declare that "I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the
institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to
do so, and I have no inclination to do so." Those who nominated and elected me did so
with full knowledge that I had made this, and many similar declarations, and had never
recanted them. And more than this, they placed in the platform, for my acceptance, and as
a law to themselves, and to me, the clear and emphatic resolution which I now read:
"Resolved, That the maintenance inviolate of the rights
of the States, and especially the right of each State to order and control its own
domestic institutions according to its own judgment exclusively, is essential to that
balance of power on which the perfection and endurance of our political fabric depend; and
we denounce the lawless invasion by armed force of the soil of any State or Territory, no
matter under what pretext, as among the gravest of crimes."
I now reiterate these sentiments: and in doing so, I only
press upon the public attention the most conclusive evidence of which the case is
susceptible, that the property, peace and security of no section are to be in anywise
endangered by the now incoming Administration. I add too, that all the protection which,
consistently with the Constitution and the laws, can be given, will be cheerfully given to
all the States when lawfully demanded, for whatever cause -- as cheerfully to one section,
as to another.
There is much controversy about the delivering up of
fugitives from service or labor. The clause I now read is as plainly written in the
Constitution as any other of its provisions:
"No person held to service or labor in one State under
the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation
therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up on claim of
the party to whom such service or labor may be due."
It is scarcely questioned that this provision was intended by
those who made it, for the reclaiming of what we call fugitive slaves; and the intention
of the law-giver is the law. All members of Congress swear their support to the whole
constitution -- to this provision as much as to any other. To the proposition then, that
slaves whose cases come within the terms of this clause, "shall be delivered
up," their oaths are unanimous. Now, if they would make the effort in good temper,
could they not, with nearly equal unanimity, frame and pass a law, by means of which to
keep good that unanimous oath?
There is some difference of opinion whether this clause
should be enforced by national or by state authority; but surely that difference is not a
very material one. If the slave is to be surrendered, it can be of but little consequence
to him, or to others, by which authority it is done. And should any one, in any case, be
content that his oath shall go unkept, on a merely unsubstantial controversy as to how it
shall be kept?
Again, in any law upon this subject, ought not all the
safeguards of liberty known in civilized and humane jurisprudence to be introduced, so
that a free man be not, in any case, surrendered as a slave? And might it not be well, at
the same time, to provide by law for the enforcement of that clause in the Constitution
which guaranties that "The citizens of each State shall be entitled to all privileges
and immunities of citizens in the several States?"
I take the official oath to-day, with no mental reservations,
and with no purpose to construe the Constitution or laws, by any hypercritical rules. And
while I do not choose now to specify particular acts of Congress as proper to be enforced,
I do suggest, that it will be much safer for all, both in official and private stations,
to conform to, and abide by, all those acts which stand unrepealed, than to violate any of
them, trusting to find impunity in having them held to be unconstitutional.
It is seventy-two years since the first inauguration of a
President under our national Constitution. During that period fifteen different and
greatly distinguished citizens, have, in succession, administered the executive branch of
the government. They have conducted it through many perils; and, generally, with great
success. Yet, with all this scope for precedent, I now enter upon the same task for the
brief constitutional term of four years, under great and peculiar difficulty. A disruption
of the Federal Union heretofore only menaced, is now formidably attempted.
I hold, that in contemplation of universal law, and of the
Constitution, the Union of these States is perpetual. Perpetuity is implied, if not
expressed, in the fundamental law of all national governments. It is safe to assert that
no government proper, ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination.
Continue to execute all the express provisions of our national Constitution, and the Union
will endure forever -- it being impossible to destroy it, except by some action not
provided for in the instrument itself.
Again, if the United States be not a government proper, but
an association of States in the nature of contract merely, can it, as a contract, be
peaceably unmade, by less than all the parties who made it? One party to a contract may
violate it -- break it, so to speak; but does it not require all to lawfully rescind it?
Descending from these general principles, we find the
proposition that, in legal contemplation, the Union is perpetual, confirmed by the history
of the Union itself. The Union is much older than the Constitution. It was formed in fact,
by the Articles of Association in 1774.. It was matured and continued by the Declaration
of Independence in 1776. It was further matured and the faith of all the then thirteen
States expressly plighted and engaged that it should be perpetual, by the Articles of
Confederation in 1778. And finally, in 1787, one of the declared objects for ordaining and
establishing the Constitution, was "to form a more perfect union."
But if destruction of the Union, by one, or by a part only,
of the States, be lawfully possible, the Union is less perfect than before the
Constitution, having lost the vital element of perpetuity.
It follows from these views that no State, upon its own mere
motion, can lawfully get out of the Union, -- that resolves and ordinances to that effect
are legally void; and that acts of violence, within any State or States, against the
authority of the United States, are insurrectionary or revolutionary, according to
I therefore consider that, in view of the Constitution and
the laws, the Union is unbroken; and, to the extent of my ability, I shall take care, as
the Constitution itself expressly enjoins upon me, that the laws of the Union be
faithfully executed in all the States. Doing this I deem to be only a simple duty on my
part; and I shall perform it, so far as practicable, unless my rightful masters, the
American people, shall withhold the requisite means, or, in some authoritative manner,
direct the contrary. I trust this will not be regarded as a menace, but only as the
declared purpose of the Union that it will constitutionally defend, and maintain itself.
In doing this there needs to be no bloodshed or violence; and
there shall be none, unless it be forced upon the national authority. The power confided
to me, will be used to hold, occupy, and possess the property, and places belonging to the
government, and to collect the duties and imposts; but beyond what may be necessary for
these objects, there will be no invasion -- no using of force against, or among the people
anywhere. Where hostility to the United States, in any interior locality, shall be so
great and so universal, as to prevent competent resident citizens from holding the Federal
offices, there will be no attempt to force obnoxious strangers among the people for that
object. While the strict legal right may exist in the government to enforce the exercise
of these offices, the attempt to do so would be so irritating, and so nearly impracticable
with all, that I deem it better to forego, for the time, the uses of such offices.
The mails, unless repelled, will continue to be furnished in
all parts of the Union. So far as possible, the people everywhere shall have that sense of
perfect security which is most favorable to calm thought and reflection. The course here
indicated will be followed, unless current events, and experience, shall show a
modification, or change, to be proper; and in every case and exigency, my best discretion
will be exercised, according to circumstances actually existing, and with a view and a
hope of a peaceful solution of the national troubles, and the restoration of fraternal
sympathies and affections.
That there are persons in one section, or another who seek to
destroy the Union at all events, and are glad of any pretext to do it, I will neither
affirm or deny; but if there be such, I need address no word to them. To those, however,
who really love the Union, may I not speak?
Before entering upon so grave a matter as the destruction of
our national fabric, with all its benefits, its memories, and its hopes, would it not be
wise to ascertain precisely why we do it? Will you hazard so desperate a step, while there
is any possibility that any portion of the ills you fly from, have no real existence? Will
you, while the certain ills you fly to, are greater than all the real ones you fly from?
Will you risk the commission of so fearful a mistake?
All profess to be content in the Union, if all constitutional
rights can be maintained. Is it true, then, that any right, plainly written in the
Constitution, has been denied? I think not. Happily the human mind is so constituted, that
no party can reach to the audacity of doing this. Think, if you can, of a single instance
in which a plainly written provision of the Constitution has ever been denied. If, by the
mere force of numbers, a majority should deprive a minority of any clearly written
constitutional right, it might, in a moral point of view, justify revolution -- certainly
would, if such right were a vital one. But such is not our case. All the vital rights of
minorities, and of individuals, are so plainly assured to them, by affirmations and
negations guaranties and prohibitions in the Constitution, that controversies never arise
concerning them. But no organic law can ever be framed with a provision specifically
applicable to every question which may occur in practical administration. No foresight can
anticipate, nor any document of reasonable length contain express provisions for all
possible questions. Shall fugitives from labor be surrendered by national or by State
authority? The Constitution does not expressly say. May Congress prohibit slavery in the
territories? The Constitution does not expressly say. Must Congress protect slavery in the
territories? The Constitution does not expressly say.
From questions of this class spring all our constitutional
controversies, and we divide upon them into majorities and minorities. If the minority
will not acquiesce, the majority must, or the government must cease. There is no other
alternative; for continuing the government, is acquiescence on one side or the other. If a
minority, in such case, will secede rather than acquiesce, they make a precedent which, in
turn, will divide and ruin them; for a minority of their own will secede from them,
whenever a majority refuses to be controlled by such minority. For instance, why may not
any portion of a new confederacy, a year or two hence, arbitrarily secede again, precisely
as portions of the present Union now claim to secede from it. All who cherish disunion
sentiments, are now being educated to the exact temper of doing this. Is there such
perfect identity of interests among the States to compose a new Union, as to produce
harmony only, and prevent renewed secession?
Plainly, the central idea of secession, is the essence of
anarchy. A majority, held in restraint by constitutional checks, and limitations, and
always changing easily, with deliberate changes of popular opinions and sentiments, is the
only true sovereign of a free people. Whoever rejects it, does of necessity, fly to
anarchy or to despotism. Unanimity is impossible; the rule of a minority as a permanent
arrangement, is wholly inadmissible; so that rejecting the majority principle, anarchy, or
despotism in some form, is all that is left.
I do not forget the position assumed by some, that
constitutional questions are to be decided by the Supreme Court; nor do I deny that such
decisions must be binding in any case upon the parties to a suit, as to the object of that
suit, while they are also entitled to very high respect and consideration, in all parallel
cases, by all other departments of the government. And while it is obviously possible that
such decision may be erroneous in any given case, still the evil effect following it,
being limited to that particular case, with the chance that it may be over-ruled, and
never become a precedent for other cases, can better be borne than could the evils of a
different practice. At the same time the candid citizen must confess that if the policy of
the government, upon vital questions, affecting the whole people, is to be irrevocably
fixed by decisions of the Supreme Court, the instant they are made, in ordinary litigation
between parties, in personal actions, the people will have ceased, to be their own rulers,
having, to that extent, practically resigned their government, into the hands of that
eminent tribunal. Nor is there, in this view, any assault upon the court, or the judges.
It is a duty, from which they may not shrink, to decide cases properly brought before
them; and it is no fault of theirs, if others seek to turn their decisions to political
One section of our country believes slavery is right, and
ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong, and ought not to be extended.
This is the only substantial dispute. The fugitive slave clause of the Constitution, and
the law for the suppression of the foreign slave trade, are each as well enforced,
perhaps, as any law can ever be in a community where the moral sense of the people
imperfectly supports the law itself. The great body of the people abide by the dry legal
obligation in both cases, and a few break over in each. This, I think, cannot be perfectly
cured; and it would be worse in both cases after the separation of the sections, than
before. The foreign slave trade, now imperfectly suppressed, would be ultimately revived
without restriction, in one section; while fugitive slaves, now only partially
surrendered, would not be surrendered at all, by the other.
Physically speaking, we cannot separate. We cannot, remove
our respective sections from each other, nor build an impassable wall between them. A
husband and wife may be divorced, and go out of the presence, and beyond the reach of each
other; but the different parts of our country cannot do this. They cannot but remain face
to face; and intercourse, either amicable or hostile, must continue between them, Is it
possible then to make that intercourse more advantageous or more satisfactory, after
separation than before? Can aliens make treaties easier than friends can make laws? Can
treaties be more faithfully enforced between aliens, than laws can among friends? Suppose
you go to war, you cannot fight always; and when, after much loss on both sides, and no
gain on either, you cease fighting, the identical old questions, as to terms of
intercourse, are again upon you.
This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people
who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government, they can
exercise their constitutional right of amending it, or their revolutionary right to
dismember, or overthrow it. I can not be ignorant of the fact that many worthy, and
patriotic citizens are desirous of having the national constitution amended. While I make
no recommendation of amendments, I fully recognize the rightful authority of the people
over the whole subject, to be exercised in either of the modes prescribed in the
instrument itself; and I should, under existing circumstances, favor, rather than oppose,
a fair opportunity being afforded the people to act upon it.
I will venture to add that, to me, the convention mode seems
preferable, in that it allows amendments to originate with the people themselves, instead
of only permitting them to take or reject, propositions, originated by others, not
especially chosen for the purpose, and which might not be precisely such, as they would
wish to either accept or refuse. I understand a proposed amendment to the Constitution --
which amendment, however, I have not seen, has passed Congress, to the effect that the
federal government, shall never interfere with the domestic institutions of the States,
including that of persons held to service. To avoid misconstruction of what I have said, I
depart from my purpose not to speak of particular amendments, so far as to say that,
holding such a provision to now be implied constitutional law, I have no objection to its
being made express, and irrevocable.
The Chief Magistrate derives all his authority from the
people, and they have conferred none upon him to fix terms for the separation of the
States. The people themselves can do this also if they choose; but the executive, as such,
has nothing to do with it. His duty is to administer the present government, as it came to
his hands, and to transmit it, unimpaired by him, to his successor.
Why should there not be a patient confidence in the ultimate
justice of the people? Is there any better, or equal hope, in the world? In our present
differences, is either party without faith of being in the right? If the Almighty Ruler of
nations, with his eternal truth and justice, be on your side of the North, or on yours of
the South, that truth, and that justice, will surely prevail, by the judgment of this
great tribunal, the American people.
By the frame of the government under which we live, this same
people have wisely given their public servants but little power for mischief; and have,
with equal wisdom, provided for the return of that little to their own hands at very short
While the people retain their virtue, and vigilance, no
administration, by any extreme of wickedness or folly, can very seriously injure the
government, in the short space of four years.
My countrymen, one and all, think calmly and well, upon this
whole subject. Nothing valuable can be lost by taking time. If there be an object to hurry
any of you, in hot haste, to a step which you would never take deliberately, that object
will be frustrated by taking time; but no good object can be frustrated by it. Such of you
as are now dissatisfied, still have the old Constitution unimpaired, and, on the sensitive
point, the laws of your own framing under it; while the new administration will have no
immediate power, if it would, to change either. If it were admitted that you who are
dissatisfied, hold the right side in the dispute, there still is no single good reason for
precipitate action. Intelligence, patriotism, Christianity, and a firm reliance on Him,
who has never yet forsaken this favored land, are still competent to adjust, in the best
way, all our present difficulty.
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 being yourselves 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.
I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must
not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of
affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot
grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the
chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of
March 4, 1861