Lincoln’s first inaugural address has been much recounted and recanted in the last few days. Most of us are familiar with the story of him having written a draft in Springfield, being careful not to give away too much of his views on the train trip to Washington, and then asking William H. Seward to review it. Seward did so, and, along with a timeless combination of “mystic chords”, “Union”, and “memory”, Lincoln wound up coming off as much more conciliatory towards his main audience of the border states than he wanted.
But what of those changes? Did it make a difference to be less combative? What might have happened if the original tone was kept?
The border states maintained their allegiance to the Union after this speech and continued to do so until after the bombardment of Fort Sumter and Lincoln’s call for troops from Upper South governors. One is left with the paradox of the Confederates having fired the first shot, themselves bucking Lincoln’s conciliation, but the border states having seen the incident on the whole as a provocation by Lincoln and the North. To understand this further, consider the part of the first inaugural address regarding invasion. Lincoln originally wanted to say (underlined to highlight changes):
There needs to be no bloodshed or violence; and there shall be none, unless it is forced upon the national authority. All the power at my disposal will be used to reclaim the public property and places which have fallen; to hold, occupy and posses these, and all other property and places belonging to the government and to collect the duties on imposts; but beyond what may be necessary for these objects, there will be no invasion of any State.
But what he wound up saying was:
There needs to be no bloodshed or violence; and there shall be none, unless it is forced upon the national authority. The power confided in me will be used to hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the Government, and to collect the duties and imposts; but beyond what may be necessary for these objects, there will be no invasion, no using of force, against or among the people anywhere.
At first glance, these paragraphs seem very similar. But there are two major differences, the most obvious of which are the last words of each. In the original wording, Lincoln’s proclamation against the use of force was not all-encompassing; he specifically targeted the “States” as the recipient of any potential aggression. This would have cast the belligerents as conceptual governmental entities, somewhat alleviating the citizenry of fault in the crisis and making it a little easier for them to swallow some sort of force if properly directed (not to mention it might have encouraged Southern Unionists). But in the final version, he spoke not only of “the people”, losing the opportunity to justify military action against hostile secessionist abstract “State” governments, he went so far as to make it seem like he would never use any sort of force at all unless a loyal state’s territory was first attacked. The second major change between the two versions was the difference in the government’s objects. The original draft set out to “reclaim” government property, but the final one only spoke to that which remained in Federal hands. Reclaiming, in theory, would necessitate invasion, but would also be very specific in military objective, having nothing to do with the people.
Putting the call for troops after Sumter in this context shows that Lincoln still believed in his original tone, causing confusion between the words he wound up saying in his address and the words he wound up writing into the proclamation. Lincoln clearly listed the seceded states themselves as the problem, something that was supported in the original version of the address but had no traction as a concept in his final version. He went on to say that the troops’ purpose would “probably be to repossess the forts, places, and property which have been seized from the Union,” again something that was clear in Lincoln’s draft, but where the final version gave the idea that anything already gone was gone, and that the government would only seek to hold what it still had. Following that, very careful instructions were given to the military to leave “peaceful citizens” alone, implying it might be acceptable to use force against not-so-peaceful citizens; this idea was against the final draft’s promise about not using force even “among the people”, a phrase not originally present.
Could the border states’ backfiring secessionist reaction to the troops call have been averted if Lincoln kept the original paragraph? To them, the call on the whole must have seemed deep with hypocrisy after saying both that he would not use force among the people and also that the government would only attempt to maintain its remnants and not “repossess” anything (even though Sumter was attacked, it surrendered, so there was no further need of its defense in their reasoning). For states teetering on the edge of what to do, hearing what must have come off as political double-talk from Lincoln might have made it easier for them to side with the Confederates, who at least seemed straightforward in their desire to form a new country regardless of Lincoln’s tone. Of course, to pin the actions of state governments and the votes and allegiances of their populations on one paragraph of a speech, however consequential, can be a huge stretch, but it causes one to wonder what might have been if Lincoln had remained more honest (putting the foot down) than politically correct on March 4, 1861. If he had simply said, “I will not use force unless the rebellious States do so first, but if they do, then you had better believe that I will, too,” would that have rallied the Upper South around the Union flag or at least helped to dampen the rally against it?
Take a look at the evolution of the speech here.