The Last Inauguration the U.S. Had Like This Year’s

First Inauguration of President Abraham Lincoln, March 4, 1861 — Source: Google Images
First Inauguration of President Abraham Lincoln, March 4, 1861

In late 1859, Abraham Lincoln, then a failed U.S. Senate candidate, who had also served one term in Congress ten years earlier, embarked upon an anti-slavery speaking tour in the Kansas Territory. Though the violence had pretty much ended by then, Kansas had been the site of miniature version of the great conflagration that was to come. There were two different territorial capitals, Lecompton and Lawrence/Topeka, two different constitutions (the anti-slavery Topeka Constitution and pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution), and two different legislatures, the so-called “bogus legislature” in Lecompton and the anti-slavery body in Lawrence. Both sides sought and received help from outside, the pro-slavery side from the federal government. Both claimed to reflect the will of the people of Kansas. The pro-slavery partisans used violence and threats of violence, and free-soilers, led by John Brown, felt they had no choice but to respond with violence. After about 180 casualties, the sacking of Lawrence and brutal murder of five pro-slavery men by Brown, his sons and other followers near Pottawatomie Creek , it became clear that a majority of Kansans wanted the territory to be a free state. However, this required Congressional approval, and was blocked there by Southerners.

This was well before Lincoln achieved demigod status in the pantheon of American political leadership. At this stage in his political career, he impressed few people at first gaze, with his gangly frame, rumpled suits and lack of the over the top rhetorical style people were more accustomed to seeing in Victorian Age orators. But then he began to speak and his years of intense self-education, which somehow managed to put him on par with those who had attended the best schools, began to shine through. According to Ted Widmer’s, Lincoln on the Verge: Thirteen Days to Washington, on the evening of December 2, Lincoln spoke for about an hour and a half to a crowd of forty people at the courthouse in a tiny village ambitiously named, Troy. A man in the audience, who left an account felt that if Lincoln’s fellow Illinoisans considered him a great man, their ideas on greatness must be “very peculiar.” But after listening to Lincoln, he was overwhelmed by the clarity of his logic, the depth of his research and force of his argument against slavery. The man remarked further that was like watching a black smith forge a chain, link by link. After Lincoln finished, the audience turned to a prominent local slave owner for a rebuttal. The slave owner merely said he could never agree with the doctrines just propounded but that it was the most able and logical speech he had ever listened to.

The next morning, Lincoln was asked to speak again, in Leavenworth and there this normally mild mannered man made a startling statement that revealed he could be ruthless when he felt it was necessary. Addressing the South directly, he said:

If we shall constitutionally elect a President, it will be our duty to see that you submit. Old John Brown has just been executed for treason against a state. We cannot object, even though he agreed with us in thinking slavery wrong. That cannot excuse violence, bloodshed, and treason. It could avail him nothing that he might think himself right. So, if constitutionally we elect a President, and therefore you undertake to destroy the Union, it will be our duty to deal with you as old John Brown has been dealt with.

As Widmer notes, it was eerily as if Lincoln could already see the future. It was as if somehow he knew the South would secede if it lost its stranglehold on the presidency (8 of the 15 pre-Civil War presidents were Southern slave owners and others like Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan were supportive of the South and slavery). It would pull out of the Union, not because it had been invaded or coerced but simply because it did not like the result of an election.

As Widmer tells us, the very same morning, the New York Herald released details of a secret southern plan to declare an “independent Southern Confederacy” should a “black Republican” (a term loaded with hostility, including allegations that Republicans were for intermarriage between blacks and whites) be elected president. One by one the Southern states would secede, while taking care to maintain a quorum in Congress — just enough to immobilize the federal government. During the four-month interregnum between election and inauguration (inaugurations were held on March 4, unless it fell on a Sunday, until 1937), they would organize a new country. A civil war would follow, which the Herald article assumed the South would win.

Lincoln circa 1859 — Source: Google Images
Lincoln circa 1859 — Source: Google Images
Lincoln circa 1859 — Source: Google Images

In 1856 it had taken up to ten days for some remote areas of the U.S. to learn the results of the presidential election. But by 1860, the spread of electrical telegraphy had become so ubiquitous, news of Lincoln’s victory was nearly instantaneous everywhere. Although this communications technology might seem almost stone age compared to what we have now, the fact that it could spread both real and what we now know as “fake” news instantly had remarkably similar ramifications to today. Among the rumors circulating were that Washington, D.C. had been set ablaze; slaves were rebelling in Virginia; Jefferson Davis had declared the independence of Mississippi; James Buchanan had resigned the presidency and that blood was running down the gutters of New York City. Widmer notes that the telegraph was sometimes called, “the Lightening” and that, “By the time the news sparks had traveled South, they might well have been a lit fuse.” `

As Widmer tells us, to virtually everyone South of the Mason-Dixon Line, Lincoln was a monster, a tyrant, a would-be-dictator — that is, when he was not being portrayed as a weak and vacillating politician, the creature of others. No rumor was too extreme: the Republicans were Communists (as indeed a few of them were — see my article, The Republican Party’s Red Roots for more on this), they wanted to redistribute wealth, they even shared their wives. Lincoln’s running mate, Maine Senator, Hannibal Hamlin, was falsely described as a mulatto. As Widmer relates, “A sexual hysteria simmered close to the surface,” as Republicans were accused of embracing, “free love, free lands and free Negroes.”

But the worst fear of all for the Southerners was that their four million slaves would rise up against their masters if Lincoln won. Widmer notes that, “All summer, as the election drew nearer, observers had noticed a rising independence among African-Americans, merely because of the possibility that Lincoln might win. In addition to the underground railroad network of travel routes and safe houses that helped slaves escape to freedom, there was also an “underground telegraph” — an informal communications network that spread news unavailable to slaves from the official sources. As November 6 approached, many of the Christianized slaves anticipated the possibility of a Day of Jubilee like that described in the Old Testament, when debts were forgiven and slaves were freed.

White Southerners saw things very differently and began to identify with their revolutionary forebearers as soon as the election results had been announced. A local Charleston South Carolina paper wrote, “The tea has been thrown overboard — the revolution of 1860 has been initiated.” As Widmer tells us, “many desperate plans were contemplated and wild rumors whispered in the shadows of the Capitol.” Texas Senator Louis Wigfall, was later accused of plotting to kidnap President James Buchanan in order to elevate Vice-President John C. Breckenridge, who was also one of the three candidates to run against Lincoln. Northern leaders suspected the Southerners were negotiating with the British, who’s government was said to be rejoicing over the breakup of their former colonies.

Another rumor going around was that Washington faced imminent invasion by Southern militias. The capital was vulnerable, not only because it was in the South geographically but because roughly two out of three residents supported the secessionists. As Widmer relates, Henry Wise, a recently governor of Virginia, was openly calling for an attack. On December 18, the Richmond Enquirer urged Virginians to resist Lincoln’s inauguration by any means possible. Newspapers as far away as New York City, where pro-slavery and Southern sympathy was high, urged Southerners to, “save the republic of Washington from the taint of niggerism” and to physically, “expel Lincoln and his free-nigger horde from the federal district.”

Morse Telegraph, internet of its age, which helped to spread wild rumors and fake news about the 1860 election — Wikipedia
Morse Telegraph, internet of its age, which helped to spread wild rumors and fake news about the 1860 election — Wikipedia
A Morse Telegraph, the internet of its age, which helped to spread wild rumors and fake news about the 1860 election — Source: Wikipedia

Seizing Washington would have been a simple matter, from a military perspective. The British had done it with ease in 1814. The American army was very small, a tenth of the size of Switzerland’s, according to Widmer and most of these troops were deployed far off on the western frontier. Fewer than five hundred federal troops were available to defend Washington with perhaps another five hundred who could be called up — but their loyalty was no certain in a city that was more against Lincoln than for him. But there were still a few Southerners who were loyal to the Union, if not to Lincoln personally. The most important of these was native Virginian, Winfield Scott, a hero of both the War of 1812 and Mexican War, who had been commanding general of the U.S. Army since 1841. Sometimes known as, “Old Fuss n’ Feathers,” for his insistence on proper military etiquette, Scott took charge of the defense of Washington with the assistance of an able younger officer, General Charles Pomeroy Stone. Stone quickly shored up the defenses of government buildings and began to recruit volunteers from the working class of Washington, including, firemen, stone cutters, house painters and more than a few immigrants. Stone later wrote of these rank-and-file Americans, “Without them, Mr. Lincoln never would have been inaugurated.

Kate Warne, first female detective, provided essential undercover intelligence to protect President-elect Abraham Lincoln
Kate Warne, first female detective, provided essential undercover intelligence to protect President-elect Abraham Lincoln
Kate Warne, the first female detective, who provided essential undercover intelligence to protect President-elect Abraham Lincoln — Source: Google Images

On February 11, 1861, President-elect Lincoln began the journey from his hometown of Springfield, Illinois to Washington D.C. He traveled by rail along a circuitous route that would take him through Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and Maryland. This itinerary was dual purposed both to keep Lincoln away from Southern states, where possible danger to him would be far greater but also to allow the president-elect to meet and speak to people in states that had gone for him the Electoral College (with the exception of Maryland, which had gone for the Southern Democratic candidate, John C. Breckenridge). Baltimore, where pro-Southern sympathy was high, would be the last stop before Washington and was considered the most high risk on the route by the people protecting Lincoln. The private, Pinkerton Detective Agency had been hired to provide security. Among the Pinkerton agent’s was Kate Warne, a twenty-seven-year-old, recent widow, who had convinced founder, Allan Pinkerton that a woman could be useful in obtaining intelligence on plots against Lincoln. Wearing the black and white cockade of a Southern sympathizer, Warne brilliantly played the role of a recently arrived Alabaman belle and began to scoop up gossip regarding Lincoln, the inauguration and Southern secession in Baltimore.

General Winfield Scott, took charge of Washington’s defenses pending Lincoln’s arrival for his inauguration — Source: Google
General Winfield Scott, took charge of Washington’s defenses pending Lincoln’s arrival for his inauguration — Source: Google
U.S. Army Commander General Winfield Scott (1786–1866) aka “Old Fuss n’ Feathers,” who took charge of the defense of Washington D.C. pending Lincoln’s arrival for his inauguration — Source: Wikipedia

Only two days into Lincoln’s journey, Warne and the other Pinkerton agents in Baltimore uncovered evidence of a massive plot both fixating on the president-elect’s train and plans to, “blow up the Capitol” and destroy other government buildings on February 13, the day the electoral votes for the 1860 presidential election were to be counted. In fact, on that day, while en route from Cinncinati to Columbus, Ohio, an explosive device was discovered in a carpetbag on Lincoln’s train before it could do any damage. And back in Washington, “Old Fuss n’ Feathers” was ready for anyone who might try to interfere with the electoral count. Scott posted armed guards at the all of the Capitol building’s entrances and refused entry to anyone but members of Congress and authorized visitors carrying passes. Guns and ammunition were stacked in committee and federal troops were dressed in civilian clothes to mingle with the crowd outside, ready to restore order, if necessary. Scott warned that anyone who attempted to interfere with the vote count would be, “lashed to the muzzle of a twelve-pounder [cannon] and fired out the window of the Capitol.” Incredibly, almost 160 years ago, the security at the Capitol was superior in every way to that which prevailed on January 6th of this year!

Pinkerton ordered Kate Warne to intercept the presidential party when it arrived in New York City and to deliver details of the Baltimore-based assassination plot, though this would be difficult because Warne was unknown to Lincoln and his entourage. On February 20, after hours of waiting, Warne was finally able to present the assassination plot in detail to Norman Judd, one of Lincoln’s closest friends from Springfield, who had joined him on the journey to Washington. Judd may have also know that Winfield Scott was conducting an investigation of his own with the help of New York’s superintendent of police, John Kennedy. They were rapidly coming to the same conclusion as Pinkerton.

Pinkerton himself finally met with Lincoln late on the evening of February 21 in Philadelphia and revealed what he knew to the president-elect. The plan was for a mob to surround Lincoln after his train pulled into Baltimore’s Calvert Street and he got into a carriage. There, in a vulnerable choke point, Lincoln would be stabbed or shot after a diversionary brawl was created nearby to distract the police guard. Pinkerton informed Lincoln that the police might even be in on the plot. In response to this Judd suggested a new plan for Lincoln to travel the final distance of the journey through the night incognito. Lincoln donned an overcoat and some kind of soft cap that made him unrecognizable. In the main station of the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad, the last southbound train was preparing to depart when the conductor was told to wait for an “important package.” Only a tiny number of people knew the “package” was Lincoln. The redoubtable Kate Warne was part of Lincoln’s security team. She bribed the conductor with a half dollar, explaining that she needed four berths cordoned off so her invalid brother could rest in peace.

One of the many images ridiculing Lincoln for sneaking into Washington secretly, allegedly wearing a “scotch cap” — Source — Google Images

By the time Lincoln’s train got to Baltimore, the streets were deathly quiet. He got through the city without incident other than a night watchman, likely drunk, trying to wake up a ticket agent by banging on the door of the wooden shed the latter was sleeping in, which amused Lincoln. At six in the morning, the train pulled into the Washington depot of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Once again, it looked like Lincoln would be able to slink into the capital unrecognized when a man standing nearby at track side, reached out and said, “Abe, you can’t play that on me.” Pinkerton quickly jabbed the stranger hard with his elbow and prepared to strike him when Lincoln said, “Don’t strike him, Allan, don’t strike him! That’s my friend Washburne — don’t you know him?” It was Illinois Congressman Elihu Washurne, another old friend, who had been alerted to the plan to sneak into Washington by the son of New York Senator, William H. Seward (who would soon become secretary of state) and had come to join the tiny security phalanx around Lincoln.

Lincoln was widely ridiculed, in both the North and South, for sneaking into Washington in disguise. A reporter for the New York Times, which generally supported Lincoln and the Republican Party, concocted the story that he had worn a “scotch cap” as part of his disguise. Political cartoonists had a field day with this, portraying Lincoln in a bonnet with his bony knees protruding from a kilt. But from then on in, Lincoln was safe, able to be sworn in and to give his first inaugural address on March 4, 1861, on the steps of the Capitol building, front of a large crowd, although sharpshooters could be seen along the parade route, on nearby rooftops and arrayed along the Capitol’s windows. And just below the wooden platform where Lincoln stood, Winfield Scott had deployed artillery as a grim deterrent to anyone who might try to interfere with the proceedings or threaten the new president’s life. As we who have witnessed recent events know, it would be a hundred and sixty years before the United States saw an presidential inauguration like this again.

Al Ronzoni is a writer, historian and political activist based in New York City

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