Monday, March 7, 2011

Lincoln’s First Inauguration, 1861

Lincoln1860Last Friday, March 4, marked the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s swearing-in as the nation’s 16th president.  Coming weeks after Jefferson Davis’s selection as the president of the Confederate States of America, Lincoln’s inauguration set in place the opposing administrations.

The election of the Illinois Republican in November likely sealed the fate for secession as the South now lost the pivotal position of president, long held either by southerners or northerners who were sympathetic to southern concerns.  The Republican party was seen as radical, and Lincoln was elected as a regional candidate in an unusual four-party contest.

Seven Deep South states had already seceded by the time the president-elect embarked on his 13-day whistle-stop train trip from Springfield to Washington, D.C.  En route he evaded an assassination attempt and he was secretly brought into the capital from Baltimore on February 23, 1861.

Lincoln set himself up at the old Willard’s Hotel, the site of a failed peace conference between northerners and southerners only a few weeks before.  He held various meetings at the hotel,  located across the street from the Executive Mansion, and began to prepare for his inauguration.

With some assistance from his incoming secretary of state, William Seward, the president-elect drafted one of the most notable inaugural addresses.  Although not as famous as his second inaugural, this one directly tackled the major issue of the day and reflected Lincoln’s concise and shrewd rhetorical skills.

The address highlighted the president-elect’s pragmatism, commitment to law and resolve to maintain the Union.  It noted that slavery would be protected; that secession was unlawful and seriously injurious; that caution and calm deliberation should be exercised; and that sectional reconciliation was still possible.

Of course, Lincoln’s efforts failed as Fort Sumter, South Carolina, was attacked the following month and the first full-scale battle of the Civil War took place in July at Manassas, 25 miles from the capital city.

This past Saturday, March 5, several organizations, including the Lincoln Group of the District of Columbia and the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, helped relive the inauguration.  Events were held at the U.S. Capitol and the modern Willard Intercontinental Hotel.

A reenactment of the inaugural oath was rendered and one-time Lincoln actor Sam Waterston read the inaugural address.  The Willard, which returned in spectacular fashion in 1986 on the site of the old hotel, hosted an inaugural luncheon.   The menu reprised the one which Lincoln helped develop and which was served a century and one-half ago.

Among the hundreds who attended the gala meal was Waterston and prolific Lincoln historian Harold Holzer, whose 2008 book, Lincoln President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter 1860-1861, is the definitive account of the critical period between November 1860 and March 1861.  Historian Ronald C. White, Jr., spoke on the simple eloquence of Lincoln’s address.

This day-long event was one in a series that will be held through 2015 as we observe the sesquicentennial of the war which defined the nation.  Lincoln clearly was the pivotal figure of his time, and it was appropriate that one of the first commemorative occasions underscored his role.

See the inaugural re-creation:

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