Lincoln Calls the Civil War a People’s Contest
July 4, 1861. Lincoln addressed a special session of Congress; he had called the special session shortly after Fort Sumter was shelled in April, obviously choosing the historic date for symbolic reasons. His address deserves to be better known.
Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg wrote,
“The message was a brief for a client, a letter to the American people. The Northern press gave it greater approval than any utterance hitherto from Lincoln. The editor of Harper’s Weekly, George William Curtis, vented his enthusiasm in a letter:
‘I envy no other age. I believe with all my heart in the cause, and in Abe Lincoln. His message is the most truly American message ever delivered . . . Wonderfully acute, simple, sagacious, and of antique honesty! I can forgive the jokes and the big hands, and the inability to make bows. Some of us who doubted were wrong. . . .’
Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and The War Years, pp. 251-252.
Lincoln said in part:
“It might seem, at first thought, to be of little difference whether the present movement at the South be called ‘secession’ or ‘rebellion.’ The movers, however, well understand the difference. At the beginning, they knew they could never raise their treason to any respectable magnitude, by any name which implies violation of law. They knew their people possessed as much of moral sense, as much of devotion to law and order, and as much pride in, and reverence for, the history, and government, of their common country, as any other civilized, and patriotic people. . . . Accordingly they commenced by an insidious debauching of the public mind. They invented an ingenious sophism, . . . that any state of the Union may, consistently with the national Constitution, and therefore lawfully, and peacefully, withdraw from the Union, without the consent of the Union, or of any other state. . . .
“With rebellion thus sugar-coated, they have been drugging the public mind of their section for more than thirty years; and, until at length, they have brought many good men to a willingness to take up arms against the government the day after some assemblage of men have enacted the farcical pretence of taking their State out of the Union, who could have been brought to no such thing the day before.
“This sophism derives . . . from the assumption, that there is some omnipotent, and sacred supremacy, pertaining to a State — to each State of our Federal Union.”
But, Lincoln argued that, with the exception of Texas, the states had never existed as independent states or nations. They went directly from being colonies to being states within the Union. Moreover, he continued,
“The express plighting of faith, by each and all of the original thirteen, in the Articles of Confederation, two years later, that the Union shall be perpetual, is most conclusive. . . .
“What is now combatted, is the position that secession is consistent with the Constitution — is lawful, and peaceful. It is not contended that there is any express law for it; . . . The nation purchased, with money, the countries out of which several of these States were formed [e.g., Louisiana and Florida]. Is it just that they shall go off without leave, and without refunding? . . .”
“This is essentially a People’s contest. On the side of the Union, it is a struggle for maintaining in the world, that form, and substance of government, whose leading object is, to elevate the condition of men. . . .”
Then Lincoln addressed himself to an issue that he would famously comment upon in his Gettysburg Address two years later, when he said that the war was testing whether the nation “could long endure.”
“Our popular government,” he said, “has often been called an experiment. Two points in it, our people have already settled — the successful establishing, and the successful administering of it. One still remains — its successful maintenance against a formidable [internal] attempt to overthrow it. It is now for them [“our people”] to demonstrate to the world, that those who can fairly carry an election, can also suppress a rebellion — that ballots are the rightful, and peaceful, successors of bullets; and that when ballots have fairly, and constitutionally, decided, there can be no successful appeal, back to bullets; that there can be no successful appeal, except to ballots themselves, at succeeding elections. Such will be a great lesson of peace; teaching men that what they cannot take by an election, neither can they take it by a war — teaching all, the folly of being the beginners of a war.”
Lincoln then alluded implicitly to the inaction of President Buchanan, who had left the Presidency just four months earlier; Buchanan had felt that he lacked the constitutional authority to compel the Southern states to remain in the Union — even though he believed they had no right to secede.
“It was with the deepest regret that the Executive [he, Lincoln] found the duty of employing the war-power, in defence of the government, forced upon him. He could but perform this duty, or surrender the existence of the government. No compromise, by public servants, could, in this case, be a cure; not that compromises are not often proper, but that no popular government can long survive a marked precedent, that those who carry an election, can only save the government from immediate destruction, by giving up the main point, upon which the people gave the election [opposition to the spreading of slavery into the territories]. . . .”
“And having thus chosen our course, without guile, and with pure purpose, let us renew our trust in God, and go forward without fear, and with manly hearts.”
— Submitted by Peter A. Gilbert, Executive Director, Vermont Humanities Council
SOURCES AND INTERESTING LINKS:
Full text of Abraham Lincoln’s July 4, 1861 address to Congress
Harper’s Weekly during the Civil War
More on Harper’s Weekly (Parts of this site require payment. Other parts are free and designed as an educational resource.)