Nearly 160 years ago, President Abraham Lincoln stood on the Capitol steps of the East Portico to deliver his first inaugural address. Things were not looking good. Though he was the first president from the new Republican Party founded only seven years before, he’d won with less than 40% of the popular vote. He wasn’t even on the ballot in nine Deep South states.
In direct response to his win, seven Deep South states had already seceded, and had elected Jefferson Davis as their provisional president. The outgoing U.S. president, James Buchanan, made no real effort to stop them. Upper South and Border states like Virginia, Maryland, and his birth state of Kentucky were on the verge. (A month later, an island fort in Charleston Harbor was under siege. Lincoln tried to relieve the siege, not by increasing the military complement, but by sending provisions. Confederate forces thus began firing on Fort Sumpter, causing the state legislatures of four more states to vote for secession, starting the Civil War.)
Sabers were loudly rattling but had not been drawn. Traveling through Southern-sympathetic Baltimore, Lincoln changed trains, donned a disguise, and snuck into Washington to evade threatened assassination attempts, for which he was roundly criticized and ridiculed as a coward. Even his luggage was misplaced for some time, with his speech in it. Some in the crowd jeered at him, with one woman vociferously calling him an “ape” and worse.
What do you say to a nation so deeply divided? To a large region of a country so committed to their agenda that they have left rather than submit to a president not of their choosing, and to the remaining majority, many of whom say “good riddance” in response? To presumptively sane people who want to kill you for your political philosophy?
For President Lincoln, though the moral underlying dispute was about slavery, the overarching concern was to preserve the Union. A lawyer and staunch believer in the Constitution, President Lincoln did not believe states could legally secede. Although Lincoln clearly and rightly believed that slavery was wrong and must cease, obviously secession would not lead to abolition in the South.
Permitting secession was also a slippery slope – if a minority of states could leave the Union over a dispute with the majority over slavery, in the future another minority could leave the Union over another dispute with the majority, and so on, so splintering the United States until there was no Union left and giving each minority a golden opportunity to control the majority by threatening secession.
President Lincoln could have stood on those Capitol steps and urged war with the South to preserve the Union and end slavery. Those were, after all, his ultimate goals. He could have called for the capture and trial of Jefferson Davis for treason. He could even have, like the woman in the audience, pandered to and goaded the mob, attacking secessionists generally or casting aspersions on their honor.
The president did none of this. Instead, he defused the rapid amplification of anger and emotion, and sued for peace. While staying firm to his stance that the Southern states’ action was rebellion, a resistance to federal power, rather than secession, he reassured them that he did not plan to force an alteration of their way of life, much less invade. He offered some concessions and confirmed that the Union would not shed blood or instigate violence unless forced to do so. And then he extended the olive branch, proclaiming that “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 battlefield 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.”
History tells us that Lincoln’s first inaugural speech didn’t really work – southern distrust of federal power was too entrenched. Nonetheless, we can learn from the man who ultimately was shot for his philosophy: standing firm with the Constitution and your beliefs does not mean it is right, proper, or even particularly helpful to insult or otherwise provoke your antagonists. Instead, appeal to the “better angels of our nature” and find a way to talk, to engage in civil discourse, and persuade with humor, kindness and compassion rather than rage, obstinacy and name-calling. Let’s all be Lincolns and strive to find a way to find peace.