The Mystic Chords of an Inaugural Post

A photograph of Lincoln's first inauguration

Lincoln’s inauguration in front of the Capitol building and its unfinished dome.

On Tuesday, November 6, 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States and everything changed. On March 4 of the following year, Lincoln gave his first inaugural address. Over the Secession Winter between those dates, seven states of the Deep South declared their secession from the Union and came together to form the Confederate States of America. They seized Federal assets of all kinds, most famously military forts and arsenals but also customs houses and other property.

And why did a section of the nation embark on a quest to overthrow and sunder the entire constitutional order? What prompted those men to unmake over the winter of 1860-1861 what their revered founding fathers made in the summer of 1787? In the most immediate sense, the election of the tall, homely man from Illinois who stood before the unfinished dome of the Capitol drove them. Their very way of life stood imperiled by his election.

Lincoln closed his speech with these famous words:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

Lincoln’s hope here must go with his declaration that “[t]he world will little note, nor long remember what we say” at Gettysburg, whilst giving one of the most celebrated political speeches in American history. Those mystic chords of memory did not bring the South back to Union, but four long years of new battlefields and  graves did and became a part of the American epics.

I don’t mean to glorify this war, but one cannot deny that it is still with us. The fault lines in American culture and politics that yawned so wide in the middle decades of the nineteenth century and the work, both that done and that left unfinished, are still with us. The war brought the first federal social welfare program in its wake. It brought the income tax and the draft. Like no period before it sense, the Civil War era demonstrated that freedom is a word shared by all Americans, but which bears on its back many different meanings and conjures to mind many different Americas.

The war is long passed, but still with us as we are with it. Whether we know the pedigrees of our notions or come to them innocently, the era’s stories are our stories and resonate in our own lives even at a century and a half removed.

We come from the past and we are going to the past. Its actors died long ago, but the same will be said of us in time. Their mystic chords stretch not just from the graves and battlefields, but from the ideas that drove people of all races and sexes to those battles and others waged in Congresses, in the newspapers,  and on the streets. We share those legacies, but we are not just passive recipients. In our own ways we carry on some and spurn others as we write our chapters of the unfinished stories of all our Americas.

This blog is an attempt to explore those stories and how they connect us to our shared, and not-so-shared, national pasts.

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