Jan. 16, 2009
March 4, 1861
Wheezing old General Winfield Scott, gouty but doughty, was determined. The hero of a score of battles since 1812 would not let rebels disrupt the inauguration of the first Republican President. Virginia-born but Army-bred, great Scott stationed sharpshooters on the roofs of all the prominent buildings along the inaugural route. If anyone tried anything, Scott thundered, he would use his cannon to "manure the Virginia hills" with their bodies.
Scott's brave show worked. Abraham Lincoln's path to power was unimpeded. Lincoln rose before the as-yet-uncompleted Capitol building. As he spoke, seven states had already declared themselves out of the Union. They had set up their own rival government in Montgomery, Alabama. Lincoln weighed his every word. If he came down too strongly, he could tip Virginia and Maryland against the Union--and then the nation's capital would itself be surrounded. But if he did not take a strong enough stance, his own supporters would be disheartened.
Holding Lincoln's stovepipe silk hat on that Inaugural stand was his defeated rival, Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois, the Democrat. Another Democrat, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, author of the infamous Dred Scott decision, would administer the oath. Taney had said "the black man has no rights which the white man is bound to respect."
Lincoln appealed to reason. Secession, he said, was illegal. And it was impossible. A husband and wife can get a divorce, but how can sections of the same country separate? He spoke eloquently of those "mystic chords of memory stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone." He urged his "dissatisfied fellow-countrymen" not to take the momentous step of civil war, reminding them: "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.'" Finally, he called upon "the better angels of our nature" to avert the looming catastrophe. Those better angels would not abandon this troubled land--despite four long and bloody years of fratricidal conflict.