Eyewitness: 1861 Inaugural speech draws mixed reviews for Abe

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Thanks to the communications revolution brought about by the telegraph, Pittsburgh readers could debate the meaning of Abraham Lincoln's inaugural address within hours of the time it was delivered in Washington, D.C.

Lincoln took his oath of office on March 4, 1861 -- 150 years ago this month -- and Pittsburgh's daily newspapers put out "extras" that same afternoon and evening.

Journalism is always the art of the possible, and those earliest editions, hurried into print, contained garbled phrases and missing words.

The next morning, The Daily Pittsburgh Gazette apologized to its readers for the errors, "which in many instances destroyed the meaning of whole sentences."

"We this morning give a more correct copy of this interesting document," the paper said on March 5.

"When the reader is informed that this address was sent out over the wires and put in type in less than two hours from the time of its delivery in Washington, they will readily excuse the printers and the telegraph operators for the errors," the paper suggested.

The Gazette, Pittsburgh's strongly Republican newspaper, hailed Lincoln's speech for its firm but not radical tone.

"It will be observed that Mr. Lincoln does not recognize the abominable doctrine of secession, but has announced his determination to administer the laws according to the requirements of his oath," the paper noted with approval.

"There is no bravado, no irritating threats ... and yet no language could more distinctly and emphatically declare his purpose, faithfully to execute the laws and maintain the Union in its integrity ..."

Not surprisingly, the city's main Democratic paper, The Pittsburgh Post, was scornful of the new president's remarks. Its editor appeared equally upset about "the enormous price of sixty dollars" the Associated Press news service charged for its special dispatch of the address. That $60 translates into between $1,200 and $1,500 in modern currency.

Lincoln's speech "from which so much was expected ... was, we venture to say, a sad disappointment," the Post opined on March 6.

The olive branch that Lincoln seemed to extend toward the South -- a promise that he would not interfere with slavery where it now existed -- was meaningless, according to the Post, since the Constitution already legalized slavery.

The two real issues were whether the Republicans would bend enough to allow slavery into new territories and whether Lincoln would seek to retake federal property held by secessionist governments.

"We are grieved to look over this production of Mr. Lincoln's and to think that so puerile a paper should have come to dash down the hopes and sadden the hearts of the people," the paper concluded.

History generally has favored the Gazette's more generous analysis of the speech's tone and content.

Both papers included the full text of Lincoln's address, including its often-quoted conclusion.

"I am loath to close," the president said in the version printed by the Gazette on March 5. "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 loving 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."

Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1159. Past stories in the "Eyewitness" series, based on contemporary reports in Pittsburgh's newspapers, can be read at www.post-gazette.com/pgh250 . First Published March 17, 2011 11:30 PM


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