Lincoln inaugural foreshadowed Civil War

Tuesday, March 1, 2011; 8:00 PM

A lot can happen in just four months. Between Abraham Lincoln's election as president and the day he took office 150 years ago this week:

l Seven Southern states broke away, or seceded, from the United States and formed their own country, the Confederate States of America.

l This Confederacy wrote a constitution, chose a president and was preparing to defend itself.

l The Confederate states took over all U.S. government property inside their borders except for three forts off Florida's coast and Fort Sumter in South Carolina's Charleston Harbor.

Lincoln - and everyone else - knew his election had caused these things to happen. As a candidate, Lincoln had made it clear that he was against the spread of slavery beyond the Southern states where it was legal. This made Southern leaders so furious that they threatened secession if Lincoln were elected president. He was, with virtually no one in the South voting for him, and some of those states carried out their threat.

All across America, people worried. Would more slave-holding states secede? Would there be war? Would the new president allow the country to be broken up?

Lincoln answered that last question in his Inauguration Day speech, on March 4, 1861:

l He explained that the Constitution didn't allow states to leave the Union.

l He pointed out that a free country must have majority rule.

l He said he wouldn't interfere with slavery in the South because it was legal under the Constitution.

l He added that there would be no conflict unless the South started it.

l He warned that he would use his power to hold onto U.S. government property. (He was talking about those forts - especially Sumter.)

Lincoln ended his speech with this message to the people of the South: "In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war." Then he reminded them that as president, his duty would be to "preserve, protect and defend, the Constitution of the United States."

Some thought his speech offered peace. Others were sure it meant war. As one senator said, the new president had shown "a hand of iron and a velvet glove." And all across America, people were worried about what would happen next.

Less than six weeks later, they had their answer. Confederate forces attacked Fort Sumter - U.S. government property that Lincoln had pledged to protect - beginning four years of civil war.

- Carolyn Reeder

© 2011 The Washington Post Company