–by Don Kennon
The Capitol’s East Front remained the usual site for Presidential Inaugurations until 1981. Abraham Lincoln’s first inauguration (March 4, 1861) took place in an atmosphere of danger and apprehension. Seven Southern states had seceded and Jefferson Davis had been inaugurated President of the Confederacy two weeks earlier. Because Maryland was a slave state of dubious loyalty, Lincoln had to slip into Washington unannounced.
Troops guarded the inaugural route and sharpshooters were stationed on rooftops. Lincoln and departing President James Buchanan rode in an open carriage from the White House to the Capitol, flanked however by a mounted guard. The Capitol during the Civil War was still a work in progress. The two new wings designed by architect Thomas U. Walter and constructed by Army engineer Montgomery C. Meigs had been completed and occupied, but the cast-iron dome was still under construction. Its completion, Lincoln is reported later to have said, was a sign that the Union would survive the Civil War.
Lincoln’s second inaugural (March 4, 1865) came just as the Civil War was drawing to a close. The weather was appropriately sullen. Days of rain and wind had left streets nearly impassable with mud. A war-weary President ennobled the occasion with his inaugural address which many consider the greatest speech in American history.
His second inaugural address is a somber, deeply-felt, and articulate meditation on the meaning of the Civil War to the soul of America. To those in the North who saw the war as a divinely-ordained crusade and who sought to exact retribution on the conquered enemy, he urged mercy tempered by understanding. Both sides, he reminded listeners, “read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully.”
The last paragraph is the most famous of any Presidential Inaugural speech: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
The speech received a mixed reaction. The Chicago Times praised the speeches of Lincoln’s predecessors as “the grandest monuments of American statesmanship,” but Lincoln’s speech was “slip-shod, so loose-jointed, so puerile, not alone in literary construction, but in its ideas, its sentiments, its grasp. . . . He has literally come out of the little end of his own horn. By the side of it, mediocrity is superb.” On the other hand, Oliver Wendell Holmes, a future Supreme Court Justice was impressed: “That rail-splitting lawyer is one of the wonders of the day. Once at Gettysburg and now again on a greater occasion he has shown a capacity for rising to the demands of the hour which we should not expect from orators or men of the schools. This inaugural strikes me in its grand simplicity and directness as being for all time the historical keynote of this war.”
In our final Presidential Inauguration post on Monday, January 21, we’ll present an inaugural trivia quiz. Test your knowledge of some of the unusual facets of past inaugurations.