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“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.”

Abraham Lincoln1

Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States on November 6, 1860. Between his election and his inauguration, seven southern states seceded from the union. Mr. Lincoln’s predecessor, James Buchanan, declared the secessions illegal but claimed that the federal government could do nothing to prevent them. During the months prior to taking office, the president-elect maintained a strict code of silence regarding his policy toward the new Confederacy. Those privy to his thinking were sworn to silence. He drafted his inaugural speech in the back room of his brother-in-law’s store in his home town of Springfield, Illinois, and he locked the working drafts in the safe of a local newspaper office. The president-elect and his family and friends left Springfield on February 11 to travel by train to Washington, D.C. for his inauguration. Along the way he toured the North and made stops in a number of cities including Pittsburgh, Cleveland, New York and Philadelphia. In a grim foreshadowing of fate, an alleged assassination plot forced the president-elect to sneak into the capital in the middle of the night accompanied by two private detectives.

Mr. Lincoln’s inaugural address was aimed at reassuring the Southern states that slavery was not at risk from his administration. He provided that assurance while refusing to recognize the secessions. The Constitution, he argued, was a legal contract among the states. A contract can only be abrogated by all of the parties that entered it; it cannot be unilaterally broken by one party. If the South wanted to exit the union, it could only do so with the North’s assent. No such assent would be forthcoming, but the new president assured the South that the North would not initiate any conflict with it. He kept his word, but civil war ensued nonetheless in April 1861 after the Confederacy attacked Fort Sumter.

Less than two years later, on January 1, 1863, Mr. Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Based on his authority as commander-in-chief, this executive order proclaimed that all slaves in the Confederate States were forever free. No longer would the United States countenance slavery. Had the president acted contrary to the assurances given in his inaugural address? Of course. Had he effectively usurped the sovereignty of the states? Absolutely. Did that make him any less of a leader? Of course not. It made him a great leader because he acted with moral courage to end the scourge of slavery.

1. First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861.