When Abraham Lincoln began his fraught inaugural journey to Washington in 1861 with an “affectionate farewell” to his neighbors in Springfield, Ill., the orator had been silent for months. As if animated by both destiny and reality, he summoned divine assistance without venturing specifics about how he planned to save the fractured country.
The president-elect had kept a tight lid on future policies since his nomination. Refusing either to conciliate or coerce Southern states rushing headlong into secession, Lincoln maintained what contemporaries called a “masterly inactivity.” Publicly, he said nothing that could incite additional Southern states out of the Union, disappoint fellow antislavery Republicans or inflame conservative Northern Democrats. Privately, he urged congressional allies to resist compromise that might allow slavery to expand into the West. “Hold firm,” Lincoln instructed one, “as with a chain of steel.” The “secession winter,” as Henry Adams dubbed it, called for one of the most delicate political balancing acts in American history.