Abraham Lincoln,
Messages to Congress (Excerpts)
1861-2

Lincoln won the election of 1860 without receiving a single electoral vote from the southern states. By February of 1861, seven states from the lower south had passed resolutions of secession. Shortly after the fighting broke out at Fort Sumter on 12 April 1861, four more southern states seceded. The following messages to Congress show how Lincoln early on tried to define the meaning of both the Union and the conflict.--D. Voelker


From his First Message to Congress, at the Special Session. July 4, 1861.

And this issue [the dissolution of the Union] embraces more than the fate of these United States. It presents to the whole family of man the question whether a constitutional republic or democracy--a government of the people, by the same people--can, or cannot, maintain its territorial integrity against its own domestic foes. It presents the question whether discontented individuals, too few in numbers to control administration according to organic law, in any case, can always . . . break up their Government, and thus practically put an end to free government upon the earth. It forces us to ask: "Is there, in all republics, this inherent, and fatal weakness?'' "Must a government, of necessity, be too strong for the liberties of its own people, or too weak to maintain its own existence?''

***

It may be affirmed without extravagance that the free institutions we enjoy have developed the powers and improved the condition of our whole people, beyond any example in the world. Of this we now have a striking, and an impressive illustration. So large an army as the government has now on foot was never before known, without a soldier in it but who had taken his place there of his own free choice. But more than this, there are many single regiments whose members, one and another, possess full practical knowledge of all the arts, sciences, professions, and whatever else, whether useful or elegant, is known in the world; and there is scarcely one, from which there could not be selected, a President, a cabinet, a congress, and perhaps a court, abundantly competent to administer the government itself. Nor do I say this is not true, also, in the army of our late friends, now adversaries in this contest; but if it is, so much better the reason why the government which has conferred such benefits on both them and us should not be broken up. Whoever in any section proposes to abandon such a government would do well to consider, in deference to what principle it is, that he does it--what better he is likely to get in its stead--whether the substitute will give or be intended to give so much of good to the people. There are some foreshadowings on this subject. Our adversaries have adopted some declarations of independence in which, unlike the good old one penned by Jefferson, they omit the words "all men are created equal.'' Why? They have adopted a temporary national constitution, in the preamble of which, unlike our good old one, signed by Washington, they omit "We, the People,'' and substitute "We, the deputies of the sovereign and independent States.'' Why? Why this deliberate pressing out of view, the rights of men, and the authority of the people?

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--to lift artificial weights from all shoulders, to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all, to afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance, in the race of life. Yielding to partial and temporary departures from necessity, this is the leading object of the government for whose existence we contend.

***

Our popular government 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 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.


From the Annual Message to Congress. December 1, 1862.

Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this Administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance or insignificance can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it.

We, even we here, hold the power and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free,--honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve. We shall nobly save or meanly lose the last, best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just,--a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless.

Source: Speeches & Letters of Abraham Lincoln, 1832-1865. (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1907), 176, 182-3, 200.

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