It was a divided United States, and slavery was at the heart of it. Pro-slavery Southern states were threatening to leave the Union and the nation was on the verge of collapse.
Now in 1861 Abraham Lincoln — who had won the presidency with the lowest popular vote in history — was heading to Washington, D.C., to take the oath of office and face unprecedented moral, political, and physical battles.
Historian Ted Widmer’s recently released book, “Lincoln on the Verge,” brings the era to life by taking readers on Lincoln’s 13-day, 1,900-mile train multi-city journey from his home in Springfield, Illinois, to the nation’s capital.
It also takes us on Lincoln’s own spiritual journey, one inspired by his early reading of John Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress.”
Among the many appeals of the book, including a thwarted murder attempt detected by Trenton Psychiatric Hospital founder Dorothea Dix, are the sections describing Lincoln’s February 21 visit to central New Jersey.
One is Princeton, where the historian and City University of New York distinguished lecturer notes, “The train slowed down just long enough for (Lincoln) to hear a few college songs before resuming his progress south. Despite their harmonies, Princeton students were more deeply divided over the war than any other college in the North. Many students would soon leave for the South, to join the Confederacy; by one account, as many as 200 left their bucolic campus to join the Lost Cause.”
Yet it is the next stop in Trenton and Lincoln’s visit to the New Jersey State Capitol where a transformation is described — in both the president-elect and the public.
Part of it, notes the historian, is connected to Trenton’s history as the site of George Washington’s victory that turned the tide of the American Revolution and Washington’s impact on the Lincoln’s imagination.
Widmer then sets the scene. “New Jersey’s legislature was housed in an attractive structure that, like most of them, did its best to project the grandeur of Greece. That grandeur had been elusive in Trenton’s early years; to save money, the first version of the state capitol used stucco painted to resemble granite. But if Lincoln was looking for George Washington, Trenton was good place to find him. No state saw more revolutionary battles fought than New Jersey, and it was in Trenton that the tide had turned when he crossed the Delaware in December 1776, in the scene captured so dramatically by the famous painting. Washington had secured an unexpected victory with his tactical action, surprising an encampment of Hessians, who surrendered. “
Lincoln understood that it was more than just a battle victory. “It was a moral victory as well as a military victory. By taking action, Washington had altered the story of a war that was going badly and given his fellow Americans a new reason to believe in their country.”
And since Washington had treated his Hessian prisoners humanely, “Trenton had shown the world that a new kind of country was coming into existence, determined to earn a decent respect form the world for its ideals as well as it determination to defend itself. It was only after the victory that Congress sent out copies of the Declaration to the states.”
Widmer then uses the occasion of Washington’s 1789 inaugural journey and visit to Trenton to show a contrast of mood.
Using references from early Washington biographies, Widmer notes that the former commander and chief of the Continental Army made his journey from the south and “came through a ‘triumph arch’ made of laurel and evergreen, supported by 13 columns. A large artificial sunflower was placed near him, as if he were the sun. Other flowers were strewn in his path by a small army of ‘little girls, dressed in snow-white robes,’ and ‘low rows of young virgins,’ tilling a song to the new president as he passes through this surreal scene.
“Lincoln’s approach from the north was less regal. Another large crowd had gathered, and inside, the legislators were not behaving well. John Hay described the chaos and crowing inside the New Jersey State House, where ‘there was rather more tumult than would generally be considered consistent with the owl-like gravity of a legislative assembly.’ Hay gave the exact words these would-be owls screeched at one another: ‘Down in front!’ and ‘Hats off!’ They were also passing inane resolutions: after Republicans proposed a bill asserting that Abraham Lincoln was ‘a man six foot four inches in height,’ Democrats responded with one declaring the official policy that ‘when this House shall have seen Abraham Lincoln, They will have seen the ugliest man in the country.’”
The account continues by noting that while Lincoln usually engaged such humor to offset his own awkwardness and connect with audiences, he now “paid no attention to the sophomoric high jinks of the legislators and the jokes that were flying around the chamber. He had come to Trenton with a higher purpose: to strengthen the sinews of Union. It was a request that carried the implicit demand for young men to fight, and presumably die, in order to make their country whole again.
“The president-elect, dressed again in funeral black, seemed to understand the nature of sacrifice better than the others in the room. Something inside him was expanding on this day, as if anticipating Washington’s birthday. He had already given more than 50 speeches on his journey. In a few of them, he had misspoken. In a great many others, he had said very little. But on this day, Lincoln would soar.”
He gave two speeches to overflowing audiences in the senate and assembly chambers, but, as the writer notes, rather than resorting to a few written down platitudes Lincoln “found fresh words about the predicament they faced. Each speech said something genuinely new, as he reached to find meaningful words in a setting that mattered.”
Before the senate, Lincoln talked about Washington in Trenton, “but as he vented his feelings, he spoke about himself as well and allowed more light to shine into the dark spaces of childhood than was the norm. He told the suddenly hushed room that in ‘the earliest days of being able to read,’ he had found ‘a small book’: the famous biography of Washington by Mason Weems. At the dawn of his literacy, this book had registered deeply. He remembered all the stories Weems told, but Washington’s heroism ‘here at Trenton’ stood out in particular:
‘The crossing of the river; the contest with the Hessians; the great hardship endured at the time, all fixed themselves on my memory, more than any single revolutionary event, and you all know, for you have been boys, how these early impressions last longer than any others. I recollect thinking then, boy even though I was, that there must have been something more than common that these men struggled for.’”
Widmer says the legislators “remained rapt as Lincoln continued his surprisingly personal foray into his memories. An important thought was struggling to come out — it would emerge fully formed at Gettysburg. The cause of the democracy mattered to all people on earth. Something more than common had untied Americans when they threw off the yoke of British rule. This yearning for self-determination had given courage to other peoples. A remarkable catalogue of rights had been woven into the country’s founding document, suggesting that human beings were capable of governing themselves, humanely. Winning the war was important; but it was even more important that they articulated ‘something that held out a great promise to all the people of the world to all time come.’ This ‘great promise’ had made a difference. If the Confederacy succeeded in starting a new country based on slavery, it would destroy the special hope that the world’s millions had vested in America.
“Lincoln then made a promise of his own: that the Union would be ‘perpetuated’ in accordance with ‘the original idea’ of the Revolution. In other words, he would not consent to the dismemberment, the way that so many were urging him. He would not become the president of a half country, or even worse, a country with a half-baked understanding of its history. On the contrary, he would insist that the original idea be remembered. He would do all that he could to uphold the principles of republican self-government and the Declaration’s thundering chorus of equality. Lyrically, he added, ‘I shall be most happy indeed if I shall be a humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty; and of this, his almost chosen people.’ Almost chosen — a carefully chosen phrase spoken by a craftsman who did little by accident.”
But what about Dix and the assassination?
Noted mental health reformer Dix had come to Washington and heard rumors about a Southern plot to assassinate the pro-Union anti-Slavery president during his inaugural.
With knowledge of Southern militias drilling along the rail lines, she used her analytic mind to examine the tracks and found key points where Lincoln’s train needed to pass into the capital.
She then consulted Samuel Felton, the president of the railroad line Lincoln was traveling.
Dix had realized a conspiracy that would stop railroad traffic and isolate Lincoln’s car and, according to Widner’s account, the conspirators would disguise themselves as Negroes and “pour combustible material over a bridge near Baltimore as Lincoln’s train was approaching. In the chaos that ensued, they would kill him with whatever weapons were handy.”
Felton took Dix’s information seriously and dispatched 200 observers disguised as bridge whitewashers to monitor the militia movements.
He also involved the Pinkerton Detective Agency, which had developed a specialty in train-related crimes. Pinkerton involved “the captivating, quite vivacious, and brilliant conversationalist” agent Kate Warne, who was able to infiltrate the conspirators’ circle and provide information.
Their collective actions diluted the plans and remained secret until Felton wrote about it 20 years later. Dix never mentioned it.
“Lincoln on the Verge: 13 Days to Washington” by Ted Widmer, $35, 607 pages, Simon and Schuster.