What Should Biden Say?

In his inaugural address, Lincoln spoke to a divided nation. The incoming president should echo those words.

Not since Abraham Lincoln entered the capital under cover of darkness to evade possible assassination has a presidential inauguration been given under such a shadow of violence and mutual recrimination. What kind of address should president-elect Biden give? He might take a cue from Lincoln’s first inaugural.

When Lincoln ascended to the podium on March 4, 1861, seven southern states had declared their independence from the Union. Violent extremists from the South convinced themselves and many of their compatriots that the election of a Republican president would bring not only the abolition of slavery but an end to the southern way of life. 

On the morning of Lincoln’s inauguration, things could not have looked worse. The oath of office was administered by Chief Justice Roger Taney, the principal architect of the infamous Dred Scott decision of only four years earlier, in which the Supreme Court deemed black people ineligible for U.S. citizenship.

Lincoln’s speech is best remembered as a conciliatory message of national unity with its appeal to “the mystic chords of memory” and “the better angels of our nature.” But it was in fact a lecture on the nature and limits of constitutional government. 

He used the occasion as a teachable moment. Is the government the result of a compact between the states in which each party retains its full sovereign rights, as those of the South believed? Or is the government a Union in which sovereignty resides not in the states but in the people as a whole, as Lincoln believed?

The Union, he told his audience, was born in 1774 with the Articles of Association, matured two years later with the Declaration of Independence, and further consolidated under the Articles of Confederation. Finally, the Constitution—with its pledge to create a “more perfect union”— conferred a national identity to what was still a less-than-perfect form of association. 

“The central idea of secession,” Lincoln said, “is the essence of anarchy.” There is no right to overturn the results of a free and fair election. If a minority cannot accept the decision of the majority, the only possible result is either anarchy or despotism.

What lessons could president-elect Biden take from Lincoln’s address? 

First, a statesman displays magnanimity toward his opposition. Lincoln offered an olive branch to those contesting the election outcome. “There needs to be no bloodshed or violence,” he affirmed. The government would continue to do its duties to the best of its ability. “There will be no invasion—no using of force against or among the people anywhere.”

Second, it is important to adopt a firm but non-confrontational tone. “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow citizens, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war,” he said. At the same time, firmness must be coupled with a willingness to use strength. “You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to ‘preserve, protect, and defend’ it,” he intoned.

Finally, it is necessary to express confidence in the power of the people to choose their elected leaders. “Is there any better or equal hope in the world?” Lincoln asked. A majority held in check by constitutional constraints and free to move with deliberate changes of popular opinion remains “the only true sovereign of a free people.”

The problem we face today is in some ways more perplexing than in Lincoln’s time. We face a revolt of the disaffected throughout the Union. The refusal to acknowledge the results of a free and fair election derive not from some special set of regional interests but from a deep alienation from the very institutions of representative government.

Lincoln’s election, tragically, led to a bloody civil war, so there are limits to the powers of speech. But as a new administration prepares to take its place in history—amid an unprecedented military presence following the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol—we might recall Lincoln’s plea for moderation and deliberation. Far from claiming that he alone could save the Union, he placed responsibility in the hands of his “dissatisfied fellow citizens” and urged them to “think calmly and well upon this whole subject.”

Steven B. Smith, professor of political science at Yale University, is the author of the forthcoming Reclaiming Patriotism in an Age of Extremes.