Actions Without Precedent
As president-elect, Abraham Lincoln faced the secession of several states from the Union he was soon supposed to govern. He proved ill-prepared to address the challenge with a unifying explanation of the country's national identity. In the previous decade, he had thought constantly of the freedoms and rights denied to slaves. There had been little necessity for thinking about salutary assertions of government power. On the way to Washington for his inauguration, Lincoln betrayed his inexperience in formulating his verbal defenses of government authority. For example, when he stopped in Indianapolis on February 11,1861, he attempted to describe the ultimately wayward tendency of secession by saying that secessionists thought of the union of the states not as a sacred marriage but as "a sort of free-love arrangement." The vulgar simile surely shocked some people. 1
By the time of his inaugural address on March 4, Lincoln had found a more sober family analogy, saying that husbands and wives might divorce and separate physically, but the two sections of the country could not do so. Yet when he felt the need for a peroration for this, the most important speech of his political career to date, the right words did not come to mind. He needed a ringing appeal to sentiment for national unity. Though an able speech-maker, Lincoln had to ask for help with this task. He turned to Secretary of State William H. Seward, who wrote the initial draft of the famous conclusion that would evoke the "mystic chords of memory, stre[t]ching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone" of the old Union. 2
Fewer than six weeks after Lincoln made his appeal to these mystic chords of Union, they fell silent, and secession led to civil war. Still lacking a systematic ideology of nationalism to buttress government power, he grasped at any available practical measure that promised to meet the crisis of dissolution. And again he turned to Seward, this time to exert the authority of the national government over disloyal individuals in the North.