20Girding for War:
The North and
the South
I consider the central idea pervading this struggle is the necessity
that is upon us, of proving that popular government is not an
absurdity. We must settle this question now, whether in a free
government the minority have the right to break up the government
whenever they choose. If we fail it will go far to prove the
incapability of the people to govern themselves.
ABRAHAM LINCOLN, MAY 7, 1861Abraham Lincoln solemnly took the presidential
oath of office on March 4, 1861, after having
slipped into Washington at night, partially disguised
to thwart assassins. He thus became president not
of the United States of America, but of the disUnited States of America. Seven had already
departed; eight more teetered on the edge. The girders of the unfinished Capitol dome loomed nakedly
in the background, as if to symbolize the imperfect
state of the Union. Before the nation was restored—
and the slaves freed at last—the American people
would endure four years of anguish and bloodshed,and Lincoln would face tortuous trials of leadership
such as have been visited upon few presidents.The Menace of Secession
Lincoln’s inaugural address was firm yet conciliatory: there would be no conflict unless the South
provoked it. Secession, the president declared, was
wholly impractical, because “physically speaking,
we cannot separate.”
434 Lincoln and the Secession CrisisHere Lincoln put his finger on a profound geographical truth. The North and South were Siamese
twins, bound inseparably together. If they had been
divided by the Pyrenees Mountains or the Danube
River, a sectional divorce might have been more feasible. But the Appalachian Mountains and the
mighty Mississippi River both ran the wrong way.
Uncontested secession would create new controversies. What share of the national debt should
the South be forced to take with it? What portion of
the jointly held…