President Lincoln's Inaugural Message
New York Journal of Commerce, March 5, 1861
The transfer of the reins of government from the outgoing to the incoming Administration, is accompanied with a declaration on the part of the latter of the principles and policy which it proposes to make the basis of its official action. Ordinarily this would not be deemed a matter of vital moment; but in the present distracted state of the country this announcement is regarded as the turning point of our national destiny.
We publish the Inaugural in this day’s issue, and are sure that we have never given to our readers an official document upon which the mingled hopes and fears of the people rested with deeper interest. While we desire all to read and to reflect upon its language—to weigh its doctrines and estimate at their true value its principles—we are compelled to avow our belief that it will fail to accomplish that great wish of every patriotic heart—the restoration of peace and harmony and union between all the States. The President puts forth earnest professions of love for the Union, and places justly and properly much stress upon his duty to preserve it and to execute the laws. But he commits the practical error of setting up the theory of an unbroken Union, against the stubborn fact of a divided and dissevered one. He proceeds upon this false assumption—false in practical fact, however correct in mere theoretical reasoning—to speak of enforcing the laws and collecting the revenue in all the States—a measure which, in the existing relations of the seceded States to the Union, is nothing less than a proclamation of war.
The principal points in the Message are the following: 1. That legally there is no right of secession, and therefore the withdrawal of the States now comprising the Southern Confederacy, is without authority and void. 2. The Union being theoretically unbroken, it is the duty of the President to execute the laws in all the thirty four States. 3. No war need ensue unless the people of the seceded States resist the execution of these laws; and no force will be used on the part of the Government, except to hold and possess the public property and to collect the revenue in all the States. 4. In communities where the popular voice is so strong that residents will not accept the Federal offices, they will remain vacant.
We apprehend that the President, before he shall have been long in office, will discover that there is an essential difference between the working out of a problem in theory, and carrying the conclusion to which it leads, into practical effect. He will discover that while the positions which he has enunciated, were sound enough as expositions of Executive duty so long as the Union remained intact, the case is essentially different, now that a separation has taken place. He will find, as a question of fact, that in attempting to carry out his policy, he will have to encounter an organized, earnest and determined resistance, from a large and powerful portion of the late Union, and that the question of jurisdiction, so easily disposed of in theory in the Inaugural Address, is in fact to be determined only by force. The case then is resolved into the simple, practical, and yet momentous question, Will the government of the United States attempt, by force, to retake the Forts[,] to collect the revenue, and to exercise jurisdiction in the territory covered by the “Confederate States?” If the reply is in the affirmative, we are on the eve of a disastrous, bloody and desolating war.
We have not deemed it necessary to discuss the minor points of the message. It is sufficient to look at the great issues involved in the President’s declaration of principles on the great questions now before the country, and to await the result, if he shall attempt to carry those principles into practical execution. We do not believe he has adequately considered the difficulties which the Government has to encounter, or that he has any clear conception of the disastrous and overwhelming ruin in which a literal carrying out of his policy will involve the country. He cannot have fully apprehended the evils which will be entailed upon the people by a war between two such powerful forces as will be opposed to each other, if the differences between the North and the South are to be decided by force of arms.
Of the remedies proposed by the President for the difficulties in which we are involved, it is scarcely necessary to speak. They are of a character so dilatory, involving so much delay, and affording so little hope of an auspicious result, that we regard them as no remedies at all. The best that he offers us—and in this he is treading in the path indicated by Mr. Seward and other party leaders in the Senate—is a National Convention, one, two, or three years hence, to revise the Constitution. Even this poor relief is offered grudgingly and hesitatingly, with the declaration that no wrong has been done, and no injustice suffered in one section, at the hands of the other, and the inference is left to be drawn from the language of the Message, that there are no wrongs to be righted—no just complaints to be listened to.
The effect of the President’s policy upon the slave States which have not yet seceded, remains to be seen. If these could all continue in the Union, animated by the spirit which once existed, and cooperating vigorously with the free States, the preponderance of force would be decidedly against the new Southern Confederacy. But if, as seems probable, Virginia and other border States shall join those already out of the Union, the two powers will be more nearly equalized, and the struggle which must ensue, under the policy indicated by the President, will be protracted and fearful.
What a spectacle do we contemplate? Three months ago, Congress assembled for public business, and the eyes of the country turned to that body, in the hope that some plan of relief would be devised and offered to the country. Two months later a Conference of Commissioners from a majority of the States was convened, in the hope that the counsels of men selected as peacemakers, might produce auspicious results. Both have adjourned without any beneficial action, and the new Administration, representing the sectional party of the North, which succeeded in achieving a victory at the last election, is installed, in the face of the most alarming evidences that the Government cannot be administered upon the basis of that party platform, without producing speedy and final dissolution.
We will not enlarge. Others may see more cheering omens, and we hope with a more correct vision than ours. We await the development of the policy now inaugurated, with the deepest concern for the future of our country. Time, to which the President refers with so much emphasis, will settle the question—if not in the manner he anticipates, nevertheless effectually and irrevocably.