Lincoln's First Inaugural Address: Summary & Analysis

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  • 0:01 Summary of the Speech
  • 3:44 Analysis of the Speech
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: J.R. Hudspeth

Jackie has taught college English and Critical Thinking and has a Master's degree in English Rhetoric and Composition

Abraham Lincoln became president at a time when the United States looked sure to split apart over the issue of slavery. Learn more about what he said about this problem in his First Inaugural Speech and why he hoped that it would help keep the country from descending into a civil war.

Summary of the Speech

Abraham Lincoln's election to the presidency as a Republican in 1860 was not welcomed by the Southern slave states. Those states saw the Republicans as not supportive of keeping the institution of slavery alive in the South, or even worse, as a group of abolitionists who wanted to set all the slaves free. Abraham Lincoln wanted to calm the leaders of these states and keep them from seceding from the United States, so he tried to put them at ease in his First Inaugural Address.

President Lincoln gets right down to talking directly to the Southern (or slave) states, saying that he only wants to talk about the big issue that he knows everyone cares about. He goes on to reassure the South that even though he is a Republican, he is not interested in taking away their 'property' - slaves - or their peace. He goes on to quote himself from past speeches saying that he is not interested in making slavery illegal in order to prove that he has always been against using force of any type to end slavery.

President Lincoln continues by reassuring the South that he is not even interested in ending the Fugitive Slave Act, a law which made it so that any slaves escaping from a slave state to a free state were still not considered free by the government and could be sent back to their owner. He notes that he and his government will uphold the Constitutionally-protected laws of the country, including that one. He also says that even though there is a disagreement whether the Fugitive Slave Act should be enforced by the states or the federal government, that is a minor disagreement in the scheme of things and should not be a reason for the Southern states to panic.

Continuing on, President Lincoln stresses that the country could not legally be broken up and that the Constitution binds the states together. He points out that when states tried to strike out on their own and not be bound under one federal power, it did not work out so well (when the U.S. was under the Articles of Confederation). The Constitution, Lincoln says, was created because we already tried to go it alone as separate states, and that attempt was a failed experiment.

Furthermore, President Lincoln says that signing the Constitution is like signing a 'contract.' In other words, unless all states choose to dissolve the contract, no one state or group of states is allowed to leave. The president wants the South to know that the North will not agree to let them violate the contract by seceding from the United States.

Finally, President Lincoln addresses the issue with slavery moving into the territories that were not yet states, but that would one day become states. President Lincoln knew that the slave states were worried that new states would mostly choose to be free, and once there were enough free states, those states would have the votes in Congress to band together and to end slavery by law. He points out that even though the Constitution does not answer what to do about slavery in the territories, the Supreme Court will help to answer that question, and the states must come together and compromise about what to do in order to keep the minority of slave states happy and secure. However, if a minority of states just leaves the Union, that would set a bad precedent where any minority, whether one or a group of states, could just leave the United States at any time it felt slighted.

In closing, President Lincoln tells the Southern states that they can choose to peacefully work with the free states to come up with a solution, but that if they are aggressive and they secede from the United States, the president will have to answer that aggression in order to protect the U.S. from breaking up. He asks them, and everyone in the United States, to choose to be friends rather than enemies and to not pursue any actions that could lead to a civil war.

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