Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Abraham Lincoln Speaks: The President's Job Description

Abraham Lincoln Speaks: The President's Job Description

Abraham Lincoln began his political career with the speech entitled A House Divided, establishing himself as a great orator. He was eventually elected Senator from Illinois, and ran for President of the United States in 1860. When he succeeded, the South feared that their way of life was in jeopardy. They fought vigorously against Lincoln’s candidacy, apprehensive that "by the accession of a Republican Administration their property and their peace and personal security are to be endangered." Abraham Lincoln took the Oath of Office for his first term on Monday, March 4, 1861, and addressed the nation with another great speech, his First Inaugural Address.

Primarily addressed to the people of the South, it was intended to succinctly state Lincoln's intended policies towards their concerns. In it, Lincoln states that it is his job as President is to uphold the Constitution. He reminds the South that the Constitution is the ultimate law of the land, and although he intends to uphold the law as peacefully as possible, the choice to amend the constitution or revolt against it lies in the hands of the people.

The phrase law of the land is a legal term, referring to all of the laws in force within a country or region, including both statute law and common law. This term was used in 1787 to write the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution. The Supremacy Clause states:
This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the land...

Why would Lincoln remind the South of the Constitution? He emphasized that Southern states need not take drastic action. The Constitution did not speak to slavery in any state. He had no intentions of invading the South, and the Fugitive Slave Act would be vigorously enforced, as it too was the “law of the land.”

Conversely, the bond between States created by the Constitution could not be easily broken. Lincoln denounced secession as anarchy. After all, he had just taken the oath to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution, which he had every intention of doing:
I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.
Lincoln believes it is not his duty to take a pen and start changing laws - that is Congress’ job. If the people - on either side of the slavery issue - want something changed, he is not their guy. Majority rule had to be balanced by constitutional restraints in the American system of Republicanism.

Lincoln's First Inaugural Adresss 1861

While Lincoln knows that his job is to uphold the laws, not change them, he still believes that the nation remains “a house divided,” and needs to make a decision to either be all slave or all free. He does not state a personal preference; he merely points out that a decision must be reached. Until the final draft, Lincoln's address had ended with a question for the South: "Shall it be peace or sword?" However, he feared such an ending would be seen as a threat for war, which Lincoln desperately wished to avoid. In the final draft, Lincoln instead moderated his tone. He chose a conciliatory approach:
I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. 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 battlefield 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.
While much of the Northern press praised or at least accepted Lincoln's speech, the newly formed Confederacy met his inaugural address with contemptuous silence. (Though the United States never recognized the secession and considered them still part of the nation, South Carolina and the Gulf Coast states had seceded before the Inauguration.) The speech also did not impress other states who were considering secession from the Union. They remained unconvinced that Lincoln would not outlaw slavery.

In his first inaugural address, Lincoln reminds the American people that the Constitution, not the President, is the ultimate law of the land. The campaign he ran - to which he intends to stay true - was to employ the Presidential Oath to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution as peacefully as possible. He leaves the choice - slave or free, to amend the Constitution or revolt against it - entirely in the hands of the people, reminding them that the choice and its consequences are no more his than theirs. Modern writers and historians generally consider the speech to be a masterpiece and one of the finest presidential inaugural addresses, with the final lines having earned particularly lasting renown in American culture.

Abraham Lincoln Speaks:
Part 1:  A House Divided 
Part 2: The President's Job Description
Part 3: Liberty for All?
Part 4: A New Birth of Freedom
Part 5: With Malice Toward None
Part 6: Now He Belongs to the Ages

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