Abraham Lincoln delivered his first inaugural address on March 4, 1861, as the nation was literally coming apart. Several southern states had already announced their intention to secede from the Union, and it appeared the nation was headed toward open rebellion and armed conflict.
One of the first of many problems facing Lincoln was exactly what to say in his inaugural address. Lincoln had drafted a speech before he left Springfield, Illinois, for the long train trip to Washington. And when he showed drafts of the speech to others, most notably William Seward, who would serve as Lincoln’s secretary of state, some changes were made.
Seward’s fear was that if the tone of Lincoln's speech was too provocative, it might lead to Maryland and Virginia, the slave-holding states surrounding Washington, to secede. And the capitol city would then be a fortified island in the midst of a rebellion.
Lincoln did temper some of his language. But reading the speech today, it’s striking how he quickly dispenses with other matters and devotes the speech to the crisis over secession and the issue of slavery.
A speech delivered at Cooper Union in New York City a year earlier dealt with slavery, and had propelled Lincoln toward the presidency, elevating him above other contenders for the Republican nomination.
So while Lincoln, in his first inaugural, expressed the notion that he meant the southern states no harm, any informed person knew how he felt about the issue of slavery.
"We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection," he said in his final paragraph, before ending with an often-quoted appeal to the "better angels of our nature."
Lincoln's speech was lauded in the north. The south took it as a challenge to go to war. And the Civil War began the following month.