Lincoln: Address to Special Session of Congress (4 July 1861)

On 4 July, 1861, President Lincoln stood before a special session of Congress to give voice to the central questions raised by the outbreak of the Civil War three months before:

[The war] presents the question whether discontented individuals, too few in numbers to control administration according to organic law in any case, can always, upon the pretenses made in this case, or on any other pretenses, or arbitrarily without any pretense, break up their government, and thus practically put an end to free government upon the earth. It forces us to ask, Is there in all republics this inherent and fatal weakness? Must a government of necessity be too strong for the liberties of its own people, or too weak to maintain its own existence?

How the federal government and the American people answered these questions would determine the survival of the country.  Lincoln looks over and beyond the immediate tactical questions of the day, to articulate themes that we still struggle with today:

Our popular Government has often been called an experiment. Two points in it our people have already settled–the successful establishing and the successful administering of it. One still remains–its successful maintenance against a formidable internal attempt to overthrow it. It is now for them to demonstrate to the world that those who can fairly carry an election can also suppress a rebellion; that ballots are the rightful and peaceful successors of bullets, and that when ballots have fairly and constitutionally decided there can be no successful appeal back to bullets; that there can be no successful appeal except to ballots themselves at succeeding elections. Such will be a great lesson of peace, teaching men that what they can not take by an election neither can they take it by a war; teaching all the folly of being the beginners of a war.


In our “Rally ‘Round the Flag” shows, we often pair this quote with Julia Ward Howe’s Battle Hymn of the Republic — both documents present stirring calls to collective action in the face of great challenges.

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