Bonds of Affection: Civic Charity and the Making of America--Winthrop, Jefferson, and Lincoln

By Matthew S. Holland | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 6
“This Nation, Under God”

The closing passage of Lincoln's First Inaugural—“though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection”— affirms that as Lincoln begins his presidency, roughly two decades after delivering the Lyceum and Temperance Addresses, he remains as concerned as ever over the threat that “passion” poses to America's constitutional order. In extolling the country's “bonds of affection,” he also appears to be as concerned as ever about the unity and attachments between citizens this passion threatens. And, in appealing to the nation's “better angels” and “mystic chords of memory,” he seems to again be engaged in a priestly act of political religion. The question here is how, if at all, this is different from Lincoln's earlier position.

To begin with, it is clear that Lincoln's carefully argued commitment to and plea for a scrupulous honoring of the Constitution, which dominates his First Inaugural, very much reflects the main aim of his political religion as originally formulated in the Lyceum Address—that aim being to thwart a disregard for law. Lincoln opens his address by reassuring the South that he had no intention for—had formally bound himself against—a “lawless invasion” of the South to eradicate slavery, an institution he would not interfere with anywhere it was legally allowed. And even though the “moral sense of the people imperfectly supports” something like the Constitution's fugitive slave law, his administration would continue to enforce it. Nor would he “construe the Constitution or laws, by any hypercritical rules,” acknowledging that it will be “safer for all” to abide by all those “acts which stand unrepealed.” On the basis of this same reasoning, though, he denies Southern states a right to revolt. They would have such a right, “in a moral point of view,” if they were being deprived of any “vital” natural or constitutional right. But since all such rights were “plainly assured,” grounds for Southern revolution break

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