Philosophy and rhetoric in Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address

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Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address was not designed to coax the seceded states back into the Union, because he never conceded that they had left. Rather, he sought to define the situation so that, if war broke out, the secedes would be cast as the aggressors and the federal government as acting in self-defense. To this end, he presented a principled case against the legitimacy or even possibility of secession while applying the arguments to the exigence at hand. He identifies the cause of the trouble as “unwarranted apprehension” among the southern states, announces his policy as a minimalist assertion of national sovereignty, and urges that disaffected southerners not act in haste to threaten that sovereignty further. Not only does he explicitly call for slowing the push to war, but the speech itself enacts a slowing of time. In sum, the First Inaugural illustrates both Lincoln’s philosophical grounding and his rhetorical dexterity.


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