Shortly after noon on March 4, 1861, Abraham Lincoln stepped to a platform on the east portico of the U.S. Capitol. He was about to deliver what Historian James M. McPherson has termed “the most important such speech in American history.” Seven slaveholding states of the Deep South had already seceded from the Union and the nation was on the brink of civil war. Lincoln knew that he had to convey his firm intention to defend the Union, while reassuring Southerners that his administration did not threaten their vital interests, particularly slavery.
His job, said Lincoln, was “to take care, as the Constitution itself expressly enjoins upon me, that the laws of the Union be faithfully executed in all the States.” While the government intended to “hold, occupy, and possess” its property in the South and collect customs duties, there would be no invasion or use of force. In his eloquent conclusion, Lincoln left it to the secessionists to decide whether or not there would be war, while appealing to the shared legacy of the American experience.
“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. You have no oath registered in Heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to ‘preserve, protect, and defend’ it.
“. . . We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
The Nebraska State Historical Society has in its collections an original ambrotype portrait of Abraham Lincoln. It is believed to have been taken in May 1860 soon after his nomination for the presidency. It is one of the 131 photographs of Lincoln known to exist. To read more about this photograph, and another Lincoln ambrotype in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Special Collections, see Jill M. Koelling, “Nebraska’s Lincoln Ambrotypes,” Nebraska History 83 (Spring 2002).
It is also worth mentioning that although Lincoln never visited Nebraska, his presidency had a significant effect on our history. The passage during his administration of the Homestead Act and the Pacific Railroad Act for a transcontinental railroad are only two examples. The upcoming April 28-30 Fort Robinson History Conference on the theme “The Civil War in the American West,” will feature a paper about Lincoln’s role in the history of the West. For more on the conference and how to register see the NSHS website. – James E. Potter, Senior Research Historian, Nebraska State Historical Society