Lincoln’s First Inaugural

December 2, 2009

This year, 2009, marks the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. For those beginning studies of the sectional conflicts that led to civil war in 19th century America, we offer this comment on the sixteenth President’s understanding of the United States’ constitutional union:

A Last Appeal to Avert Civil War: Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address (March 4, 1861)

Abraham Lincoln“Plainly, the central idea of secession is the essence of anarchy.” In his First Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln explained why his duty as the newly-elected president required him to treat secession as an act of rebellion and not a legitimate political action. Nothing less than the survival of self-government was at stake. As the duly elected president, Lincoln believed that majority rule constrained by “constitutional checks” and informed by public opinion was “the only true sovereign of a free people.” Rule by any other principle would lead to chaos or despotism. Moreover, Lincoln thought the union of the American states was perpetual, and that it could not be “peaceably unmade by less than all the parties who make it.”

By the time Lincoln took office, disgruntled citizens of the seven Deep South states had declared their separation from the federal union and formed a provisional Confederate States of America. The first Republican president of the United States, Lincoln drew less than forty percent of the popular vote, all from northern free states, though he received a clear constitutional majority of the electoral votes. His leadership of a party opposed to the spread of slavery led to his name appearing on no ballots in nine slaveholding states, where no Republican Party surfaced. Southerners therefore viewed Lincoln and the Republicans as representing sectional interests in opposition to those of the slaveholding states, who claimed to uphold the constitutional rights of all property owners. But though Lincoln hated slavery and argued against its expansion into federal territory, he was not an abolitionist. He acknowledged the legal right to own slaves under state constitutions that permitted the “peculiar institution,” which the Constitution respected through longstanding compromises that helped produce “a more perfect union.”

Closing the inaugural address with an appeal to “the better angels of our nature,” Lincoln hoped that the passions generated from a divisive election would give way to the reason of the citizenry. By hearkening to “the mystic chords of memory” and submitting to the rule of law, Americans could preserve the union of the states and prove to the world that self-government could work.

Professor Lucas Morel, Washington and Lee University

Read the document:

For lesson plans and multimedia-rich websites on Abraham Lincoln, visit the EDSITEment spotlight “Teaching American Lincoln.” Among other features here, visit the site “A Word Fitly Spoken,” prepared under the guidance of Professor Lucas Morel and high school teacher Constance Murray, an interactive timeline of Lincoln’s most famous speeches on Union. The site offers audio versions of speeches, gives their historical context, and provides interactive maps and other features to show the unfolding Civil War conflict.

Partner with the Ashbrook Center on a Teaching American History Grant

Each year, the Ashbrook Center works closely with a few school districts and local education agencies to develop customized Teaching American History Grant partnerships. These grants support professional development projects that aim to raise student achievement by improving teachers’ knowledge, understanding, and appreciation of traditional American history.

The Ashbrook Center can provide assistance to local education agencies in writing their Teaching American History Grant applications and in planning and identifying educational opportunities for teachers served by the grant. Grant funds can be used to facilitate high-quality in-service or pre-service professional development activities to improve American history content knowledge of teachers, collaboration between teachers and history experts, and mentoring and coaching of teachers. They may be designed to combine study at Ashbrook’s intensive week-long summer institutes with training and enrichment programs, offered by other grant partners, through one- or two-day workshops held during the school year.

Grant applications are usually prepared in the fall and due in the early spring. For more information about partnering with Ashbrook, contact Christian Pascarella at

Earn a Master of American History and Government at Ashland University

Ashland University’s Masters program in American History and Government is designed with high school teachers in mind. Courses are offered only during the summers, and you may earn the degree in as little as three summers of intensive coursework. You may also attend specific courses for continuing education graduate credit. Uniquely, the program engages in the substantive study of history and government, with no courses limited to teaching methodology.

All courses emphasize the use of primary historical documents.

Six one-week intensive sessions are offered each summer, with a choice of over thirty seminars. Courses are taught by noted scholars drawn from universities across the country. For more information, visit:

Bill of Rights Day is December 15

For an unusual–by no means comprehensive–perspective on the first ten amendments to the Constitution, listen to this audio file featuring Hadley Arkes, Edward Ney Professor of American Institutions at Amherst College. Arkes, leading an Ashbrook seminar for high school teachers in 2004, explains why some of the Founders thought the Bill of Rights might actually undermine the individual rights of Americans by obscuring their basis in philosophical first principles. Along with the audio file, readings and focus questions are available here:¬†

New Lesson Plans at EDSITEment

The National Endowment for the Humanities invites you to check out these new features relating to American history at EDSITEment, an on-line catalogue of lesson plans in the humanities:

Emanuel Leutze’s Symbolic Scene of Washington Crossing the Delaware

George Washington’s bold action on Christmas night in 1776, when he launched a surprise attack on Britain’s Hessian army at Trenton, NJ, gave the Americans revolutionaries a much-needed victory. This exhibit analyzes our iconic image of that event, the 1851 painting of Washington leading his troops across the Delaware, by German artist Emanuel Leutze. Metropolitan Museum of Art Curator Carrie Rebora Barratt explains the symbolic purpose of the painting–and its creative departures from historical accuracy–in a podcast you can download here, along with a written summary and other resources.

The recent PBS series We Shall Remain (partially funded by NEH) depicted American history through Native American experience. Now EDSITEment has made the entire series viewable online and offers an accompanying transcript and teachers guide for those who wish to use the series in class. This month’s EDSITEment newsletter also suggests ways of pairing the first three episodes with lesson plans already available at the site. Part One, After the Mayflower, covers the encounter between British settlers and Native Americans during the colonial period. Part Two, Tecumseh’s Vision, focuses on the Shawnee warrior who grew up in the midst of the American Revolution and led Shawnee troops to fight in support of the British against the American revolutionaries. Part Three, Trail of Tears, deals with the forced removal of thousands of Cherokee from their homes in south-eastern United States in 1838, during the presidency of Andrew Jackson. For more details, visit¬†EDSITEment.

Another PBS program, the American Experience miniseries The 1930s, examines America’s response to the unprecedented economic crisis that threatened the nation during one of history’s most tumultuous decades. EDSITEment suggests ways of pairing this series with relevant lesson plans. See

The phrase “City on a Hill” has been part of the American political lexicon for three centuries. Discover its origins in a 17th century Puritan sermon in the new lesson: Colonizing the Bay.

Constitution Booklets Available

A pocket-sized booklet that holds key texts of the American founding, including the Declaration of Independence and the entire text of the US Constitution and its amendments, as well as key primary texts interpreting these. Copies of the booklet are available for $1.00 each. A 10% discount is available for purchases of 25 or more.

To order, call (877) 289-5411 or visit our website.


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