An essay by Christopher Henkel, translated by Gregor Deissler
The USA brought to the scratch: President Lincoln’s speech at his accession to office
President Lincoln is an icon for the national unity of the USA. His inaugural speech on 4 March, however, represents a turning point to the identity of the United States.
Lincoln’s Inauguration Address on 4 March 1861 signified one of the main conflicts in the American constitutional history. Back then and still today, „Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness“represent the three corner pillars of American society. The fourth is the federal Act of Settlement of the United States. The United States of America founded in 1787 were a propriety society, even though not explicitly pointed out and only paraphrased by the claim for “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” And after a gory battle for independence, the protection of this propriety society defined the main achievement for the nation.
Constitutional facts change over time; this applies for the USA as well. Seventy years after its foundation, the agricultural South and the slowly but surely industrializing North interpreted the Constitution differently. The balance between the civil rights & liberties and the guarantee of property that lasted for a decade was now to be readjusted to the changing interest of the U.S. states. With the „Louisiana Purchase“new states came into existence and the situation worsened. The colonization of the recently obtained western territories destabilized the balance of power in the senate. The United States were heading towards a constitutional conflict over ideas and structure and the strategy to sustain the union by leaving aside disputable constitutional issues reached its absolute limits. Especially the still unsolved slavery issue added more fuel to the fire. Witnessing the ongoing tensions, Lincoln outlined in his Inauguration Address in 1861 the significance of the U.S. states for the maintenance of the union in regard to the constitutional law:
“That the maintenance inviolate of the rights of the States, and especially the right of each State to order and control its own domestic institutions according to its own judgment exclusively, is essential to that balance of power on which the perfection and endurance of our political fabric depend“
No to slavery
As elected president of the Union, Lincoln also claimed for a resolution to the unsettled constitutional issues. These included also the long debated matter of dispute between the Union and Confederate States: Must the slaves, who sought refuge in the Northern states, be handed over to the Confederate States? Lincoln, however, wasn’t interested in playing the middleman and supported the demands of the Union instead.
“Again, in any law upon this subject, ought not all the safeguards of liberty known in civilized and humane jurisprudence to be introduced. so that a free man be not, in any case. surrendered as a slave?”
The Danger of secession
By declining the request to hand over the refugees of slavery, Lincoln intentionally militated against the respective clauses of the 5th amendment of the American Constitution. He also objected to the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court (Dred Scott versus Sandford) and to the „Nebraska-Kansas-Act“regulations. Both regulations indeed avoided to give an answer to the legitimacy of slavery, but at the same time approved the legal relationship between the U.S. states. Lincoln knew: A president, who took the challenge to act in this situation, would shake the Union in its very foundations. To avoid giving the Confederate States more reasons in favour of their secessionist efforts, he henceforth stopped further demands like for example the total abolition of slavery. The recollections of how America declared its independence was still very vivid. In 1776 American colonialists had enforced their secession from the British motherland by bringing reproaches on despotism, unlawful appropriation and the consequent slavery of free citizens. Instead, Lincoln emphasized the value of the Union, namely superior to legal contentions and therefore superior to the Constitution.
“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.”
A race against the clock
Despite all disputes: In the matters of justice and politics the Union was intact and the contract between the U.S. states therefore obligatory. For Lincoln, splitting-off the Union and acting in contrary to the contract implied anarchy, a violation of their treaty, and had to be prevented at all costs. Negotiations instead of hesitated actions were to bring the solution. In a race against the clock, Lincoln was looking for allies in the newly founded states west of Ohio and tried to isolate the Confederates. Also a significant part of Lincoln’s plan was to spot the guilty party in the case of a miscarriage.
“In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you, You can have no conflict, without being yourselves the aggressors.”
Given the existence-threatening slave migration at the time, this strategy even intensified the Confederate’s tendency towards secession. The phantom of secession that was all present in Lincoln’s speech took a definite shape over the following months.