In his first inaugural address, Lincoln appeals to Southerners on a number of different levels. (Recall that, by the time of Lincoln's inaugural, seven southern states had already seceded, and Jefferson Davis had been inaugurated as the first President of the Confederacy.) Lincoln's address was, of course, directed at these states, but it was also aimed at those slave states that had not yet left the Union. He first disavows any intention to end slavery, and points out that, in any case, the Constitution did not empower him to do so:
Apprehension seems to exist among the people of the Southern States that by the accession of a Republican Administration their property and their peace and personal security are to be endangered. There has never been any reasonable cause for such apprehension... I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.
He also argues, on constitutional grounds, that the states of the Deep South had no right to secede from the Union. This argument, legalistic and logical in nature, rejects the "compact" theory of the Constitution upon which secession was based. According to this theory, states had formed the Union, and were free to leave it if the terms of their admission were violated. This point had been argued in most of the secession resolutions set forth by state conventions following Lincoln's election. Lincoln contended, on the other hand, that the union formed by the Constitution was by its very nature "perpetual," there being no stipulation in the document allowing for secession. Moreover, he added, the logical end of secession was "anarchy," since secession essentially eviscerated the authority of a central government.
But the core of the address, and that which has earned it fame as a masterpiece of rhetoric, was Lincoln's appeal to emotion at the end of the speech. By the act of secession, he claimed, the South had placed itself in a hostile stance toward the Union, and it was his duty to preserve the Union. Still, he said that any conflict that broke out between the two could only be initiated by the South (because, he did not say, acts of aggression by the North would result in the mass secession of the border states as well, perhaps, in recognition by England and France.) But Lincoln expressed his hope that historical ties between the two regions would avert any conflict:
I am loath to close. 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 battlefield and patriot grave to every living 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.
So while the speech was in large part a legal and logical refutation of the justifications for secession, and a warning that the North was bound to oppose it, it closed on a conciliatory note, with the hope that mutual affection would avert a bloody conflict.