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
"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
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 circumstances.
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
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
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 purposes.
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
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 intervals.
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 our nature.
March 4, 1861