The Writings of Abraham Lincoln Vol. 1-7


iSpeech

It is seventy-two years since the first inauguration of a President
under our national Constitution. During that period fifteen
different and greatly distinguished citizens have, in succession,
administered the executive branch of the Government. They have
conducted it through many perils, and generally with great success.
Yet, with all this scope of precedent, I now enter upon the same task
for the brief constitutional term of four years under great and
peculiar difficulty. A disruption of the Federal Union, heretofore
only menaced, is now formidably attempted.

I hold that, in contemplation of universal law and of the
Constitution, the Union of these States is perpetual. Perpetuity is
implied, if not expressed, in the fundamental law of all national
governments. It is safe to assert that no government proper ever had
a provision in its organic law for its own termination. Continue to
execute all the express provisions of our national Constitution, and
the Union will endure forever--it being impossible to destroy it
except by some action not provided for in the instrument itself.

Again, if the United States be not a government proper, but an
association of States in the nature of contract merely, can it as a
contract be peaceably unmade by less than all the parties who made
it? One party to a contract may violate it--break it, so to speak;
but does it not require all to lawfully rescind it?

Descending from these general principles, we find the proposition
that in legal contemplation the Union is perpetual confirmed by the
history of the Union itself. The Union is much older than the
Constitution. It was formed, in fact, by the Articles of Association
in 1774. It was matured and continued by the Declaration of
Independence in 1776. It was further matured, and the faith of all
the then thirteen States expressly plighted and engaged that it
should be perpetual, by the Articles of Confederation in 1778. And,
finally, in 1787 one of the declared objects for ordaining and
establishing the Constitution was "to form a more perfect Union."

But if the destruction of the Union by one or by a part only of the
States be lawfully possible, the Union is less perfect than before
the Constitution, having lost the vital element of perpetuity.

It follows from these views that no State upon its own mere motion
can lawfully get out of the Union; that resolves and ordinances to
that effect are legally void; and that acts of violence, within any
State or States, against the authority of the United States, are
insurrectionary or revolutionary, according to circumstances.

I therefore consider that, in view of the Constitution and the laws,
the Union is unbroken; and to the extent of my ability I shall take
care, as the Constitution itself expressly enjoins upon me, that the
laws of the Union be faithfully executed in all the States. Doing
this I deem to be only a simple duty on my part; and I shall perform
it so far as practicable, unless my rightful masters, the American
people, shall withhold the requisite means, or in some authoritative
manner direct the contrary. I trust this will not be regarded as a
menace, but only as the declared purpose of the Union that it will
constitutionally defend and maintain itself.

In doing this there needs to be no bloodshed or violence; and there
shall be none, unless it be forced upon the national authority. The
power confided to me will be used to hold, occupy, and possess the
property and places belonging to the Government, and to collect the
duties and imposts; but beyond what may be necessary for these
objects, there will be no invasion, no using of force against or
among the people anywhere. Where hostility to the United States, in
any interior locality, shall be so great and universal as to prevent
competent resident citizens from holding the Federal offices, there
will be no attempt to force obnoxious strangers among the people for
that object. While the strict legal right may exist in the
government to enforce the exercise of these offices, the attempt to
do so would be so irritating, and so nearly impracticable withal,
that I deem it better to forego for the time the uses of such
offices.

The mails, unless repelled, will continue to be furnished in all
parts of the Union. So far as possible, the people everywhere shall
have that sense of perfect security which is most favorable to calm
thought and reflection. The course here indicated will be followed
unless current events and experience shall show a modification or
change to be proper, and in every case and exigency my best
discretion will be exercised according to circumstances actually
existing, and with a view and a hope of a peaceful solution of the
national troubles and the restoration of fraternal sympathies and
affections.

That there are persons in one section or another who seek to destroy
the Union at all events, and are glad of any pretext to do it, I will
neither affirm nor deny; but if there be such, I need address no word
to them. To those, however, who really love the Union may I not
speak?

Before entering upon so grave a matter as the destruction of our
national fabric, with all its benefits, its memories, and its hopes,
would it not be wise to ascertain precisely why we do it? Will you
hazard so desperate a step while there is any possibility that any
portion of the ills you fly from have no real existence? Will you,
while the certain ills you fly to are greater than all the real ones
you fly from--will you risk the commission of so fearful a mistake?

All profess to be content in the Union if all constitutional rights
can be maintained. Is it true, then, that any right, plainly written
in the Constitution, has been denied? I think not. Happily the human
mind is so constituted that no party can reach to the audacity of
doing this. Think, if you can, of a single instance in which a
plainly written provision of the Constitution has ever been denied.
If by the mere force of numbers a majority should deprive a minority
of any clearly written constitutional right, it might, in a moral
point of view, justify revolution--certainly would if such a right
were a vital one. But such is not our case. All the vital rights of
minorities and of individuals are so plainly assured to them by
affirmations and negations, guaranties and prohibitions, in the
Constitution, that controversies never arise concerning them. But no
organic law can ever be framed with a provision specifically
applicable to every question which may occur in practical
administration. No foresight can anticipate, nor any document of
reasonable length contain, express provisions for all possible
questions. Shall fugitives from labor be surrendered by national or
by State authority? The Constitution does not expressly say. May
Congress prohibit slavery in the Territories? The Constitution does
not expressly say. Must Congress protect slavery in the Territories?
The Constitution does not expressly say.

>From questions of this class spring all our constitutional
controversies, and we divide upon them into majorities and
minorities. If the minority will not acquiesce, the majority must,
or the Government must cease. There is no other alternative; for
continuing the Government is acquiescence on one side or the other.

If a minority in such case will secede rather than acquiesce, they
make a precedent which in turn will divide and ruin them; for a
minority of their own will secede from them whenever a majority
refuses to be controlled by such minority. For instance, why may not
any portion of a new confederacy a year or two hence arbitrarily
secede again, precisely as portions of the present Union now claim to
secede from it? All who cherish disunion sentiments are now being
educated to the exact temper of doing this.

Is there such perfect identity of interests among the States to
compose a new Union as to produce harmony only, and prevent renewed
secession?

Plainly, the central idea of secession is the essence of anarchy. A
majority held in restraint by constitutional checks and limitations,
and always changing easily with deliberate changes of popular
opinions and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people.
Whoever rejects it does, of necessity, fly to anarchy or to
despotism. Unanimity is impossible; the rule of a minority, as a
permanent arrangement, is wholly inadmissible; so that, rejecting the
majority principle, anarchy or despotism in some form is all that is
left.

I do not forget the position assumed by some, that constitutional
questions are to be decided by the Supreme Court; nor do I deny that
such decisions must be binding, in any case, upon the parties to a
suit, as to the object of that suit, while they are also entitled to
very high respect and consideration in all parallel cases by all
other departments of the government. And, while it is obviously
possible that such decision may be erroneous in any given case, still
the evil effect following it, being limited to that particular case,
with the chance that it may be overruled and never become a precedent
for other cases, can better be borne than could the evils of a
different practice. At the same time, the candid citizen must
confess that if the policy of the government, upon vital questions
affecting the whole people, is to be irrevocably fixed by decisions
of the Supreme Court, the instant they are made, in ordinary
litigation between parties in personal actions, the people will have
ceased to be their own rulers, having to that extent practically
resigned the government into the hands of that eminent tribunal. Nor
is there in this view any assault upon the court or the judges. It
is a duty from which they may not shrink to decide cases properly
brought before them, and it is no fault of theirs if others seek to
turn their decisions to political purposes.

One section of our country believes slavery is right, and ought to be
extended, while the other believes it is wrong, and ought not to be
extended. This is the only substantial dispute. The fugitive slave
clause of the Constitution and the law for the suppression of the
foreign slave trade are each as well enforced, perhaps, as any law
can ever be in a community where the moral sense of the people
imperfectly supports the law itself. The great body of the people
abide by the dry legal obligation in both cases, and a few break over
in each. This, I think, cannot be perfectly cured; and it would be
worse in both cases after the separation of the sections than before.
The foreign slave trade, now imperfectly suppressed, would be
ultimately revived, without restriction, in one section, while
fugitive slaves, now only partially surrendered, would not be
surrendered at all by the other.

Physically speaking, we cannot separate. We cannot remove our
respective sections from each other, nor build an impassable wall
between them. A husband and wife may be divorced and go out of the
presence and beyond the reach of each other; but the different parts
of our country cannot do this. They cannot but remain face to face,
and intercourse, either amicable or hostile, must continue between
them. Is it possible, then, to make that intercourse more
advantageous or more satisfactory after separation than before? Can
aliens make treaties easier than friends can make laws? Can treaties
be more faithfully enforced between aliens than laws can among
friends? Suppose you go to war, you cannot fight always; and when,
after much loss on both sides, and no gain on either, you cease
fighting, the identical old questions as to terms of intercourse are
again upon you.

This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who
inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing
government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending
it, or their revolutionary right to dismember or overthrow it. I
cannot be ignorant of the fact that many worthy and patriotic
citizens are desirous of having the national Constitution amended.
While I make no recommendation of amendments, I fully recognize the
rightful authority of the people over the whole subject, to be
exercised in either of the modes prescribed in the instrument itself,
and I should, under existing circumstances, favor rather than oppose
a fair opportunity being afforded the people to act upon it. I will
venture to add that to me the convention mode seems preferable, in
that it allows amendments to originate with the people themselves,
instead of only permitting them to take or reject propositions
originated by others not especially chosen for the purpose, and which
might not be precisely such as they would wish to either accept or
refuse. I understand a proposed amendment to the Constitution which
amendment, however, I have not seen--has passed Congress, to the
effect that the Federal Government shall never interfere with the
domestic institutions of the States, including that of persons held
to service. To avoid misconstruction of what I have said, I depart
from my purpose not to speak of particular amendments so far as to
say that, holding such a provision to now be implied constitutional
law, I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable.

The chief magistrate derives all his authority from the people, and
they have conferred none upon him to fix terms for the separation of
the States. The people themselves can do this also if they choose;
but the executive, as such, has nothing to do with it. His duty is
to administer the present government, as it came to his hands, and to
transmit it, unimpaired by him, to his successors.

Why should there not be a patient confidence in the ultimate justice
of the people? Is there any better or equal hope in the world? In our
present differences is either party without faith of being in the
right? If the Almighty Ruler of nations, with his eternal truth and
justice, be on your side of the North, or on yours of the South, that
truth and that justice will surely prevail by the judgment of this
great tribunal of the American people.

By the frame of the government under which we live, this same people
have wisely given their public servants but little power for
mischief; and have, with equal wisdom, provided for the return of
that little to their own hands at very short intervals. While the
people retain their virtue and vigilance, no administration, by any
extreme of wickedness or folly, can very seriously injure the
government in the short space of four years.

My countrymen, one and all, think calmly and well upon this whole
subject. Nothing valuable can be lost by taking time. If there be
an object to hurry any of you in hot haste to a step which you would
never take deliberately, that object will be frustrated by taking
time; but no good object can be frustrated by it. Such of you as are
now dissatisfied still have the old Constitution unimpaired, and, on
the sensitive point, the laws of your own framing under it; while the
new administration will have no immediate power, if it would, to
change either. If it were admitted that you who are dissatisfied
hold the right side in the dispute, there still is no single good
reason for precipitate action. Intelligence, patriotism,
Christianity, and a firm reliance on Him who has never yet forsaken
this favored land, are still competent to adjust in the best way all
our present difficulty.

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