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Lincoln on the Verge

Thirteen Days to Washington



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About The Book


“A Lincoln classic...superb.” ­—The Washington Post

“A book for our time.”—Doris Kearns Goodwin

Lincoln on the Verge tells the dramatic story of America’s greatest president discovering his own strength to save the Republic.

As a divided nation plunges into the deepest crisis in its history, Abraham Lincoln boards a train for Washington and his inauguration—an inauguration Southerners have vowed to prevent. Lincoln on the Verge charts these pivotal thirteen days of travel, as Lincoln discovers his power, speaks directly to the public, and sees his country up close. Drawing on new research, this riveting account reveals the president-elect as a work in progress, showing him on the verge of greatness, as he foils an assassination attempt, forges an unbreakable bond with the American people, and overcomes formidable obstacles in order to take his oath of office.


1. The Lightning 1 THE LIGHTNING
he drilled

through every plank and fitted them together,

fixing it firm with pegs and fastenings.

As wide as when a man who knows his trade

Marks out the curving hull to build a ship…

—Homer, The Odyssey, book 5, lines 246–2502
NOVEMBER 6, 1860
Abraham Lincoln was in the headquarters of the Illinois & Mississippi Telegraph Company, on the north side of Springfield’s public square, when he received the news that he was likely to win New York, and with it, the presidency.3 It began with a sound—the click-clack of the telegraph key, springing to life as the information raced toward him. A reporter for the New-York Tribune heard the returns begin to “tap in,” audibly, with the first “fragments of intelligence.”4 Then, a flood, as more returns came in from around the country, bringing news as electric as the devices clattering around the room.

All wires led to Springfield that evening, or so it felt to John Hay, who wrote that Lincoln’s room was “the ear of the nation and the hub of the solar system.”5 As dispatchers danced around the suite, Lincoln sat languidly on a sofa, like a spider at the center of an enormous web. That word had already been used to describe the invisible strands connecting Americans through the telegraph.6 Every few minutes, the web twitched again, as an electromagnetic impulse, transmitted from a distant polling station, was transcribed onto a piece of thin paper, like an onion skin, and handed to him.7 Not long after ten, one of these scraps was rushed into his hands. The hastily scribbled message read, “The city of New York will more than meet your expectations.”8

Immediately after, he crossed the square to meet his rapturous supporters, when he was handed another telegram, from Philadelphia. He read it aloud: “The city and state for Lincoln by a decisive majority.” Then he added his all-important commentary: “I think that settles it.” Bedlam ensued.9

Lincoln elected!

It was the headline of the century, and Americans sent it all night long, tapping out the Morse code for Lincoln as quickly as possible: the single long dash, for L, beginning the word that would be repeated endlessly through American history from that night forward. It was already so familiar that many just compressed his name to a single letter, especially when paying to send a telegram. “L and H were elected,” James A. Garfield noted into his diary, omitting needless letters (the H stood for Hannibal Hamlin of Maine, Lincoln’s running mate). “God be praised!!” he wrote when he finally heard the news, wrested from the wires, in a rural Ohio telegraph station. The future president had driven his horse and carriage fifteen miles in the middle of the night, just to be connected.10

In newspaper offices, editors struggled to find type sizes big and bold enough to match the import of what they were hearing. Across the country, crowds stayed up late, hoping to glean new scraps of intelligence from the wires that thrummed with the sensational news. In New Haven, Connecticut, people flat-out screamed for a full ten minutes when the result was announced.11 In Port Huron, Michigan, a thirteen-year-old boy, Thomas Alva Edison, was so eager to get the news that he put his tongue on a wire to receive its electric impulse directly. In Galena, Illinois, young Republicans held a spontaneous “jollification” inside a leather shop, where they were served oysters by the owner’s son, Ulysses Grant. Despite the fact that he leaned toward Democrat Stephen Douglas, the younger Grant seemed “gratified.”12

In Springfield, it seemed like the entire town was out in the streets, as a crowd described as “10,000 crazy people” descended upon the square, “shouting, throwing up their hats, slapping and kicking one another.” The last stragglers went home around dawn, after yelling themselves hoarse.13

But the news did not go to sleep; it traveled all night along the wires that stretched across the oceanic expanse of the United States. The word telegraph derived from Greek, to connote “far writing,” an accurate description of an American grid extending from the frigid wastes of northern Maine to tropical Florida. No one built them more quickly: not far from Troy, Kansas, an English traveler was astonished to see new lines racing across the prairie, six miles closer to the Pacific each day.14

Not everyone had welcomed the clunky overhead lines when they were first introduced; New York City had briefly refused, for fear that “the Lightning,” as the telegraph was called, would attract real lightning.15 The wires were not always reliable in the early years; the news might vanish along the way, due to storms or atmospheric disturbances. A year earlier, at the end of August 1859, an intense solar flare known as the Carrington Event wreaked havoc on the grid, causing flames to shoot out, and machines to turn on and off, as if operated by witches. In a small Pennsylvania town—Gettysburg—a minister recorded his observation of “a mass of streamers,” red and orange, streaking across the sky.”16

In the years leading up to the election, the Lightning had become a part of the republic’s bloodstream. Readers thrilled to the “telegraphic intelligence” that filled newspaper columns, with hard information about stock prices, ship arrivals, and the movements of armies around the world. They also enjoyed news that was not quite news, describing royal birthdays in Europe or the arrival of visiting “celebrities”—to use a term that was coming into vogue to describe people who were known simply for being known.17

But even if the Lightning could race across great distances, it could not bring Americans closer together. Some worried that it was actually driving them apart. In 1858, three days after the first Atlantic Cable connected New York and London, the New York Times asked if the news would become “too fast for the truth?”18 Two years later, as Lincoln ran for the presidency, hateful innuendoes were streaking from one end of the country to another, accelerated by the Lightning.19 Many observed that the first word in the country’s name—United—had become a glaring misnomer. Things got so bad that the Architect of the Capitol, Benjamin Brown French, began to put quotation marks around it.20

Every day, the news made one side or the other angry. In the North, law-abiding citizens were sickened by the never-ending degradation of African-Americans, as the Slave Power stretched its tentacles into the other sections.21 It was one thing to ignore slavery, as many Northerners were perfectly content to do. But when the federal government sent U.S. marshals into free states to find runaways, readers in the free states wondered what had happened to the moral purpose of the republic.22 Southern politicians never stopped asking for more: more slave states, more empire, to encircle the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. In their conclaves, they began to fantasize about a new kind of realm, modeled on the ancient Mediterranean, to be funded by the open plunder of Mexican silver and an inexhaustible supply of Africans.23 That did not sound much like the United States of America.24

But Southerners were no less wary of the news, particularly when they heard about John Brown’s bloody raid on Harpers Ferry or simply read the 1860 census returns that were already coming in. Since 1850, the population of just one state, Lincoln’s Illinois, had shot up more than the combined increase of South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Virginia. Who were all these people? Were they even American?

Could these two versions of the same country be reconciled? No one would ever expect a thoughtful answer from the White House. It almost seemed as if Buchanan’s regime was leasing the country’s name, as his friends enriched themselves and presided over a machinery of government that was lubricated with bribery, brandy, and insider deals. In New York, a lawyer, George Templeton Strong, wrote in his diary that he felt like he was reliving “the Roman Empire in its day of rotting.”25

Younger Americans, especially, felt estranged. A few years earlier, in Brooklyn, a carpenter had poured out his feelings of rage in a language quite unlike the curious poems he sometimes published at his own expense. Walt Whitman brimmed with anger as he wrote of the “crawling, serpentine men” who held office in Washington, “gaudy outside with gold chains made from the people’s money.”26 The Capitol had turned into a hiding place for nocturnal creatures (“bats and night-dogs”) and swamp-dwellers (“lobbyers, sponges”). Instead of reporting on corruption, the administration’s pet journalists were “spaniels well trained to carry and fetch.” Supplying much of the money was the largest lobby of all, the Slave Power, the “freedom sellers of the earth.” So pervasive was the culture of fear and intimidation that Whitman found an unusual word to describe it: terrorist.27

It was not merely that slavery seemed unstoppable; even more insulting was the fact that the Slave Power now claimed to be the genuine voice of America. It was almost as if the other parts of the story were being erased, as the ink faded a little more from the Declaration of Independence every year. Whitman complained, “Slavery is adopted as an American institution, superior, national, constitutional, right in itself, and under no circumstances to take any less than freedom takes.” The country was being run by “blusterers” and “braggarts,” “screaming in falsetto.” “Where is the real America?” he wondered.28

But even as he despaired, Whitman had a vision of the kind of leader he longed for. In his mind, he imagined a westerner, bearded, speaking words as straight as the prairie grass. Whitman could see him as clearly as if he were already standing before him:

“I would be much pleased to see some heroic, shrewd, full-informed, healthy-bodied, middle-aged, beard-faced American blacksmith or boatman come down from the West across the Alleghanies [sic], and walk into the Presidency, dressed in a clean suit of working attire, and with the tan all over his face, breast, and arms; I would certainly vote for that sort of man.”29

Remarkably, Whitman’s daydream grew real in the spring of 1860, as a new candidate stepped into view. Lincoln did not yet have a beard, but the former boatman fit the poet’s description in almost all other ways. To many easterners, he seemed to have sprung out of the western clay fully formed, with barely any known history. He was unlike anyone who had ever run for president. But could such a strange candidate actually win? Whitman spoke for many: “No man knows what will happen next, but all know that some such things are to happen as mark the greatest moral convulsions of the earth.”30

Even the heavens seemed to portend great change. A little before ten o’clock on the evening of July 20, Americans were astonished to see the skies light up, as a meteor procession flew over the country before exploding in a shower of sparks. The meteors were followed by a long tail, which one observer described as “a great glowing train in the sky.” Another stunned eyewitness called it a “train of fire.” To many, it was a sign of Lincoln’s impending victory, since the meteors originated in the upper Midwest before sweeping over the East.31

On November 6 the Lightning struck quickly. Only four years earlier, it had taken up to ten days for some remote sections of the United States to learn the result of the presidential election. In 1860 Lincoln’s triumph was absorbed in one night. But as the news spread; a second wave of false stories followed closely. The New-York Tribune reported that “gigantic” rumors were spreading like a prairie fire through Lincoln’s Springfield, already fearful for its native son. It was whispered that Washington, D.C., had been set ablaze; slaves were rebelling in Virginia; Jefferson Davis had declared independence for Mississippi; James Buchanan had resigned the presidency; blood was running down the gutters of New York City.32 None of it was true, but the rumors conveyed as well as any fact that democracy had reached a breaking point.33 “God help me, God help me,” Lincoln sighed, as the news finally settled in.34

As he trudged home to his family, with celebrants firing off guns behind him, the president-elect had a great deal to ponder. No doubt a change was coming: he saw two shooting stars on his way home, as if nature, too, wanted to join in the fireworks. The people had spoken, but in so many voices that it would take some time to process what they had said.

The phrase e pluribus unum had been adopted by the founders for the Great Seal of the United States, suggesting a whole greater than the sum of its parts. It rang true when the poet Virgil wrote it, centuries earlier, to describe a pesto he was assembling from cheese, garlic, and parsnips.35 But what if the people proved to be less compatible? In New York, George Templeton Strong confided to his diary that the country would need to change its motto to “e pluribus duo.36

The lessons of history were hard to ignore. Every democracy ever known had failed, beginning with the Greeks twenty-four centuries earlier. They had succumbed, one by one, to all the well-known vices of the people: corruption, greed, lust, ethnic hatred, distractibility, or simply a fatal indifference.

On his walk home, Lincoln passed a Greek Revival capitol, a Greek Revival courthouse, and a Greek Revival insurance building.37 The persistence of the ancient forms may have offered a momentary comfort—a reminder of the power of an idea to endure. But no underwriter could offer the slightest assurance that government of the people would survive. Even before the night was over, great forces were arrayed against this solitary figure making his way home in the dark.
Far from Springfield, the Lightning continued to do its work. By the time the news sparks had traveled down the wires to the South, they might as well have been a lit fuse. Seven hundred miles away, one of Lincoln’s rivals, Stephen Douglas, was in Mobile, Alabama, where he too heard the results as they tapped into a telegraph key, clacking inside a newspaper office. On the last day of the campaign, he had come down the Alabama River from Selma, after a bruising tour through the South. Douglas was injured in a dockside mishap, taunted by crowds, and targeted by “a shower of eggs.” In a suspicious accident, his train was nearly derailed.39

Two days after Lincoln’s election, the citizens of Savannah held a rally around a bonfire with a flag that read “Don’t Tread on Me”38

It was a lonely crusade for the Illinois Senator, whose friendliness toward the South had once seemed likely to propel him to the White House. As joy was spreading above the Ohio River, rage was fanning out below it, as fast as the Lightning could carry the news. In fact, the Lightning seemed to be part of the problem, as far as Southerners were concerned.40 For many, the speed of modern life was yet another reason to hate the North. It was all too fast—too much information, coming too quickly, from too many people. The New Orleans Bee editorialized, “The election of Abraham Lincoln is a fixed fact. The telegraph made known the disastrous result almost before the expiration of the day on which the contest took place.”41 Another Southern editor harrumphed, “Newspapers and Telegraphs have ruined the country.”42 That was a curious view for a newspaper editor, but Southern opinion shapers had painted Lincoln in such lurid colors before the election that they became unhinged as the result crackled through the wires.

Inside their hothouse, Lincoln was a monster, a tyrant, a would-be dictator—that is, when he was not a weak and vacillating politician, the creature of others. No rumor was too extreme: the Republicans were Communists, they wanted to redistribute wealth, they even shared their wives. Lincoln’s running mate, Hannibal Hamlin, was falsely described as a mulatto; it was said that he “looked, acted, and thought so much like a Negro” that he could be sold as a field hand. A sexual hysteria simmered close to the surface, as Republicans were accused of embracing “free love, free lands, and free Negroes.” Northern newspapers were not above hysteria, either: the New York Herald warned that “hundreds of thousands” of fugitive slaves would come north if Lincoln won, specifically to consummate “African amalgamation with the fair daughters of the Anglo Saxon, Celtic, and Teutonic races.”43

But the worst fear of all was that four million slaves would rise up and slit the throats of their masters if Lincoln won.44 All summer, as the election drew nearer, observers had noticed a rising independence among African-Americans, merely because of the possibility that he might win. In addition to the underground railroad, there was also an underground telegraph—an informal network of gossip, spread from one plantation to the next, by African-Americans eager for any scrap of information about the election. As November 6 approached, they were awakening to the possibility of a Day of Jubilee. Booker T. Washington was a four-year-old child in southwestern Virginia, enslaved and illiterate. But he recalled later, “The slaves on our far-off plantation, miles from any railroad or large city or daily newspaper, knew what the issues involved were.”45

Slave owners did their best to distort the news. To their slaves, they told lurid tales of a monstrous Lincoln, a cannibal, “with tails and horns,” who would “devour every one of the African race.” Unafraid, African-Americans began to tell stories of a Lincoln who was larger than life, coming soon “on the train” to liberate them.46

After the result came through, a wave of terror swept over the Southland. In the early hours, it was difficult to separate what was real from what was feared, as rumors swept from one plantation to the next. In Texas, the wells were thought to be poisoned. In Virginia, slave owners claimed to have uncovered an insurrection. In Alabama, plantation owners prepared for fires—in part because of a drought that seemed to be punishing the South at the same time that weather conditions had favored the North with a historic harvest. In rural Georgia, a group of sixty slaves wandered from their plantation, believing that they had been set free.47 Not far away, in Augusta, a four-year-old boy named Tommy overheard a stranger pass by his house, speaking with “intense tones,” saying “Mr. Lincoln was elected and there was to be war.” Decades later, Woodrow Wilson would identify this searing moment as his earliest memory.48

In Florida, Mary Chesnut was traveling by train to see her mother, when the Lightning brought the news. Immediately, the car was in an uproar. She called it an “earthquake,” shattering all known reality. “The excitement was very great,” she wrote. “Everybody was talking at the same time.” She resolved to keep a new journal, as if conscious that a new age had begun. “From to-day forward, I will tell the story in my own way,” she explained to herself. It would become one of the great documents of the war.49

Another train was carrying Edmund Ruffin, one of the South’s so-called fire-eaters. All night long, as he traveled from Virginia toward South Carolina, he saw people gathered around the stations, eager for any scrap of information. “It is good news for me,” he wrote triumphantly in his diary, so ready to leave the United States that he could barely write the name. Emotions were running high, and in Charleston, angry citizens borrowed the language of the Boston Tea Party, even as they rushed to separate from Boston and everything associated with the North. A local paper wrote, “The tea has been thrown overboard—the revolution of 1860 has been initiated!50 Each district of the state soon had a branch of “Minute Men,” and they were quickly arming themselves. Volunteers gave “a pledge of honor to provide a rifle and revolver to march at a minute’s notice to Washington for the purpose of preventing Lincoln’s inauguration.”51

Other secret societies sprang up as well, particularly in Maryland. Baltimore was the largest slaveholding city in the country, and proud of it. In saloons and back alleys, angry young men fueled by alcohol, money, and a blind fury against Lincoln were enlisting in furtive organizations. One secret society, the Knights of the Golden Circle, had originally formed to promote Southern expansion into Mexico and the Caribbean. But the election results transformed it into a more extremist group, with the specific purpose of preventing Lincoln from arriving in Washington. John Wilkes Booth was likely a member.52

Many Southerners simply rejected the news as unacceptable. In Charlottesville, Virginia, a newspaper tried to argue that Lincoln’s supporters were guilty of undermining democracy by daring to outnumber Southern voters, an offense the paper tried to pass off as “numerical tyranny.” In Washington, after hearing the results, a group of Democrats stormed the Republican headquarters, firing pistols, throwing rocks through its windows, and destroying its furniture, flags, and printing type, as if to prevent any more news from flowing.53

Could the news of Lincoln’s election be turned back as if it were a piece of mail delivered to the wrong address? Many Southerners thought so. To them, Lincoln was not only unlikable, he was unthinkable. A New Orleans newspaper reported soberly to its readers that they could relax because he would never become president—it was not possible to conceive.54 The paper urged its readers to continue going on as before, as if no election had taken place at all.

Even many Northerners found the news difficult to believe. Nathaniel Hawthorne was a specialist in fantasy, and yet his creative powers simply shut down when he tried to imagine a Lincoln presidency. It was the “strangest” thing, Hawthorne wrote, and a true measure of “the jumble” of the times, that Lincoln, “out of so many millions,” had prevailed. He was “unlooked for,” “unselected by any intelligible process,” and “unknown” even to “those who chose him.” How could such a nonentity have found a way “to fling his lank personality into the chair of state?”55

Lincoln as a comet; envelope image, 186156

The morning after the election, Lincoln surveyed the new political landscape from his parlor, where the chair of state was likely in need of upholstering. He was undeniably the president-elect, but of what? A very hard road lay ahead, beginning with the challenge of persuading his fellow Americans that he had actually been elected. That would take some doing, given the modesty of his victory and the intensity of the South’s emotions.

It was not simply that Lincoln threatened slavery’s expansion. He also struck at its vitals, because a new party could offer jobs and contracts to supporters, in the time-honored tradition, and chip away at all the protections that Southern politicians had so carefully built into the architecture of power. That would send the lobbyists scurrying—and the Slave Power had many, eager to do its bidding. Controlling the War Department meant abundant jobs to give out in the shipyards of New York and Philadelphia, and all the advantages in presidential elections that stemmed from that. The New-York Tribune believed that Southern politicians were more interested in protecting “the spoils” than in anything else. Or, as a Washington insider put it, more graphically, they would secede simply because they could not “have all the old sow’s teats to suck.”57

Since the beginning of the United States, the South had controlled the lion’s share of the patronage. Its politicians were skilled at deploying the language of states’ rights whenever slavery was threatened, but, in fact, the South had a far more sophisticated understanding of federal power than the North did. The future vice president of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, admitted as much when he urged Georgia not to secede, saying, “We have always had the control of it.” In the first sixty-one years of the government, slaveholders held the presidency for fifty years, the Speaker of the House’s chair for forty-one years, and the chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee for fifty-two years. Eighteen of thirty-one Supreme Court justices hailed from the South, even though four-fifths of the actual business of the court came from the North. No Northern president had been reelected. Most of the attorneys general and military officers had been Southerners, along with a vast majority of the officers of the Senate and House: the doorkeepers, pages, and sergeants at arms.58 In the executive branch, two-thirds of the collectors and clerks came from the South, even though the North earned three-quarters of the revenue.59 That was now going to change, with the most far-reaching consequences.60

With this new reality dawning, the two sides began to separate. Well before Lincoln’s inauguration, the tectonic plates were shifting, out of view, heralding the earthquake to come. More than ever, it felt as if there were two alternative versions of the same country. Southern papers began to report news from the North under a heading for “the Foreign Press.”61

But what would this new geography look like? Where would one America end and the other begin? Which version did Washington, D.C., belong to? All around the slaveholding section, including the capital, young men wore cockades and ribbons signaling their sympathy for the Palmetto Republic, as South Carolina was beginning to describe itself. A flag was designed and soon fluttered on South Carolina’s vessels, even in Northern harbors. Step by step, the protocountry grew. Nathaniel Hawthorne would later call the Confederate states “Secessia”—as good a name as any for a place that often seemed to be a state of mind as much as a working government.62

Secessia became more real six weeks later, on December 20, 1860, when South Carolina became the first state to withdraw from the Union. It was followed by Mississippi (January 9, 1861), Florida (January 10), Alabama (January 11), Georgia (January 19), Louisiana (January 26), and Texas (February 1).63 That brought some clarity, but much remained to be determined, as the two Americas coexisted uneasily in the weeks after the election. Secessia was not entirely its own country—many Southern buildings remained in federal control, including the forts guarding the entrances to Charleston and other Southern cities.64

But the United States was not entirely its own country, either, as Southern officials still working inside the Buchanan administration did all they could to subvert federal authority. So many future Confederate leaders were sprinkled throughout the Cabinet and Congress, it was as if a parasite were occupying the organism it sought to displace, eating away at its host.

Oddly, Washington acted like the capital of both Americas. From the Capitol, Southern senators spoke ramblingly about their intention to start a new country centered around slavery, and began to resign. But they lingered in their farewell speeches, as if they did not want to leave, and continued to attack Lincoln as the root of all evil. A senior Cabinet official, Treasury Secretary Howell Cobb, called the president-elect “an enemy of the human race.”65

Northerners, too, were restless. In an essay titled “E Pluribus Unum,” the writer James Russell Lowell wondered if the stars on the flag represented “a grand and peaceful constellation” or something far less ordered, with no gravitational pull of any kind—a chaos of “jostling and splintering stars,” more like the universe we know.66

One thing was certain: the antidote to secession was succession—a normal transfer of power. It would require meticulous planning to assemble a new government and to determine a safe route to Washington, nestled so uncomfortably between two slave states. With the world watching, it was essential to preserve continuity between the regimes. If Lincoln failed to arrive, it would signal to the world that democracy was little more than a pretty daydream—an idealistic footnote, from ancient Greece, like one of Plato’s airy dialogues—but no blueprint for a working government.

All eyes now turned to the agent who had precipitated the crisis. To solve the gravest challenge in American history, the people—all 31,443,321 of them—began to wait for the unlikely victor of the presidential contest. Abraham Lincoln had not won an election since 1846, when he became a U.S. congressman for a grand total of two years. Since then, he had failed in two attempts to become a senator, after indifferently pursuing a few other offices earlier. He had never been the executive of anything. Yet somehow, from this litany of underachievement, he had assembled the victory that had eluded so many better-known politicians. All knew that a giant was needed to solve the immense problems looming over the republic; but to most Americans, the incoming president seemed to be more of a “tall dwarf,” as even a supporter, Carl Schurz, admitted.67

Could anyone live up to these expectations? George Templeton Strong wrote in his diary that Lincoln’s election was “an experiment that tests our Boiler.”69

Lincoln made of rails; a cartoon by Frank Bellew, 186068

As the results were tabulated over the next few days, it was evident that Lincoln’s victory concealed some anemic numbers. A huge percentage of voters, 81.2 percent, had gone to the polls to choose one of four candidates in the most charged political contest Americans had ever seen. The Democratic Party had split into Northern and Southern wings, led by Stephen Douglas and the current vice president, John Breckinridge, respectively. A new party named after “Constitutional Union,” whatever that was, had divided the country further, peeling off Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee from the rest of the South behind its candidate, John Bell.

Those fissures had helped Lincoln but did not build confidence in his mandate. In fact, he won only 39 percent of the vote; the lowest margin any victor has ever received, except John Quincy Adams in 1824. He won almost no votes in the South, even in the five states where he was on the ballot, and most of that came from German-Americans in Saint Louis. In Virginia, where he was on the ballot, he received a pitiful 1 percent of the state’s total. In his native Kentucky, he received less than that.70 He won California by only 734 votes. In Illinois, he won by only 12,000 out of 350,000 cast, and he lost his home county, Sangamon, though he won his hometown, Springfield, by a whisker: 73 votes.71

A strategy of silence had worked during the campaign, when Lincoln avoided campaigning and let the Republican platform speak for him. Though moderate in many ways, it was firm on an essential point: that slavery must not be extended out of the states where it already existed.72 That was the rock that now loomed before the ship of state.

As president-elect, Lincoln needed to reassure an anxious people that all was well. Yet there were few tools available to him, and his strengths in the campaign turned into liabilities as soon as the result was known. Lincoln’s distance from Washington—attractive in a candidate—now made it difficult to coordinate policy with his allies. The newness of the Republican apparatus—founded only six years earlier—added to his weakness. Not yet grand or old, the party remained a work in progress, organized state by state, and woefully unprepared for the national crisis that came with victory.

For all their foresight, the founders had never anticipated a threat as fundamental as the one that began the day after Lincoln’s election. His victory made the outgoing president, James Buchanan, seem even more irrelevant, but it did not bring Lincoln any real power. Through a long interregnum, stretching from November 6 until March 4, the government would be rudderless at exactly the moment leadership was most needed. In such a vacuum, it was far easier to secede than to hold the country together. Stuck in Springfield, Lincoln could do precious little to slow the momentum of disunion. To his secretary, John Nicolay, the soon-to-be sixteenth president worried aloud about his predicament. Surely any government had the authority to maintain its integrity; but in a democracy, the people were supposed to come together voluntarily. Ominously, he added, “The ugly point of the matter is the necessity of keeping the government together by force, as ours should be a government of fraternity.”73

Foreign observers had marveled at the chaotic way in which Americans elected their presidents. The French writer, Alexis de Tocqueville, saw it as a quadrennial “crisis,” like a recurring fever in an otherwise healthy patient. “Artificial passions” could be easily stoked, he wrote, raising the temperature. A self-absorbed president, catering to the “worst caprices” of his supporters, could easily distract their attention from plodding matters of governance, and whip their enthusiasms into a frenzy, especially if he divided his supporters and his critics into “hostile camps.” With the cooperation of the press, all conversation would turn to the present rather than the future, until the nation would begin to “glow” with its “feverish” obsessions.

All of these symptoms would be bad enough in normal cycles; but Tocqueville warned that America’s hatreds could become “perilous” if left unchecked. He used a vivid metaphor, that of a river dangerously overflowing its banks. After an election, he expected that the river would recede back to its usual level. But still, the potential for lasting damage was always lurking.74

Tocqueville knew something about surging rivers. He had seen many of them during his travels in the interior, in 1831 and 1832, and had gone a considerable length of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers—the very rivers that Lincoln was navigating when Tocqueville arrived. It is hard to imagine what they would have said to each other if the diminutive Frenchman had encountered the towering youth. Lincoln later described himself at this time as “a strange, friendless, uneducated, penniless boy working on a flatboat—at ten dollars per month.”75

How did that strange and friendless boy transform himself into a mighty instrument of change? There were glimmers of a special destiny—presentiments among friends and neighbors, frontier people who often consulted oracles and soothsayers. An early acquaintance, remembering Lincoln’s mother, recalled the day when she arrived in their Kentucky settlement, pregnant with the future president, or as he put it, “enceint [sic] with Abe Lincoln the man of destiny yet unborn.”76

But the man of destiny took a long time to prove himself. Already, artists were complaining that there was something difficult to capture about Lincoln. Despite the fact that all eyes were upon him, they noted certain features that were nearly impossible to get right: the quick mood changes, the dreamy look in his gray eyes, the melancholy that “dripped from him as he walked,” in the words of his law partner, William Herndon.77 With the advantage of hindsight, it seems fitting that our most bipolar president arrived at the moment the country was splitting in two.

A few months earlier, the mere possibility of Lincoln’s election would have struck most Republican insiders as inconceivable. Near the end of 1859, a New York publisher had printed a list of Twenty-one Prominent Candidates for the Presidency in 1860, and Lincoln’s name was not among them.78 While attending early meetings of Republicans to plan the 1860 campaign, he had to put his own name forward as a possibility, because the thought had not occurred to anyone else.79 There had been other dark horses, but few whose fortunes changed as dramatically in so short a time.

As he himself furnished the details, in the various autobiographies that he provided for the 1860 campaign, it was clear that he came from an unusual background: the poverty deeper, the setbacks more severe, and the upward thrust more surprising than that of the first fifteen presidents. Lincoln remembered arresting moments from his long obscurity. At age ten, “He was kicked by a horse, and apparently killed for a time.” At nineteen, he took a flatboat to New Orleans, and below Baton Rouge, he was “attacked by seven negroes with intent to kill.”80 Any one of these brushes with mortality could have quietly removed him from consideration.

The nearness of death was a fact of life on the frontier, but Lincoln retained his fatalism to an unusual degree for a working politician. He wrote odd poems about trees that were shedding dewdrop tears, and described the sound of a funeral dirge that followed him, which only he could hear, “as if I dreamed.” In fact, Lincoln did dream, intensely, and his verses also spoke of a “midway world” that he liked to visit, where he could be a “companion of the dead.” It was a well-known political trick to register the names of deceased voters; but Lincoln seemed to be actually conversing with them. In his poem, he was “living in the tombs.”81

In 1860 he emerged from these shadows quickly, and the fact that he was so unlikely began to turn into an advantage. A westerner was appealing, and a nonincumbent even more so, as Washington sank deeper into the swamp of its dysfunction. Lincoln also benefited dramatically from a decision to stage the Republican Convention in Chicago. That had been arranged only a few months earlier, at a conclave held at New York City’s Astor House, on December 21, 1859, only weeks after his visit to Troy. As a gesture to Chicago’s surging importance, it was chosen over Saint Louis by a single ballot.82 Without that vote, Lincoln might never have been nominated.

In other ways as well, the doors seemed to open at just the right moment. Before the Chicago convention, a meeting of Illinois Republicans was held in Decatur, the same town where Lincoln had arrived from Indiana, thirty years earlier. His friend Richard Oglesby was seeking to lift him and, with a flash of insight, came up with the perfect lever. With a relative of Lincoln’s, he visited a nearby field and liberated two old fence rails that had possibly been split by Lincoln as a young man. At a dramatic moment, they carried them into the crowded convention hall, with a banner that proclaimed Lincoln as “The Rail Candidate.” According to the Weekly Illinois State Journal, “the effect was electrical.”83

A future House Speaker, Joseph Cannon, was a young man at the time and never forgot the moment. To Cannon, it was almost as if Lincoln had walked out of an enchanted forest to save his country. He used the word forest often as he remembered the frame Lincoln walked through, “with posts cut from the forest, stringers cut from the forest, and covered with boughs cut from the forest.”84

The rail was the perfect symbol for the lanky nominee, straight and true, easily drawn by the caricaturists of the newspapers. They showed Lincoln handling rails in every imaginable context: sitting on a fence, playing the newly popular game of baseball, or, as tensions heightened in the fall, wielding a sharpened wooden stake that looked decidedly lethal.

The “rail enterprize,” as Lincoln called it, worked on many levels.85 Rails spoke of honest labor, self-sufficiency, and well-marked boundaries, all relevant to the argument over slavery.86 There was something rough-hewn about Lincoln, too.87 Henry Villard, the same pioneer whom Lincoln had met on the prairie a year earlier, described him as “lean, lank,” and “indescribably gawky.” Villard was horrified by a glimpse of democracy up close, when two young farmers carried the Rail Candidate on their shoulders, a “grotesque figure,” with “his legs dangling from their shoulders, and his pantaloons pulled up so as to expose his underwear almost to his knees.”88

That kind of indignity did Lincoln no harm in the West and advertised to people that this was a new kind of politician. He did not speak with the formal gestures that so many politicians still used: neoclassical poses, stiff gestures, hortatory words delivered formally. Instead, he spoke to Americans in their own language, with an exquisite moral clarity. When talking about human dignity, he could transport himself—and his audience—into a higher realm. A journalist listening to him in 1856 wrote, “At times Lincoln seemed to reach up into the clouds and take out the thunderbolts.”89

Even in New York, Lincoln’s homespun style won over the sophisticates, although one of them recalled that the first impression was “wild and wooly.”90 When the Westerner came to speak at the Cooper Union, a reporter commented on his disheveled clothes (“ill-fitting, badly wrinkled”), and a body that seemed out of place in the East: “His bushy head, with the stiff black hair thrown back, was balanced on a long and lean stock, and when he raised his hands in an opening gesture, I noticed that they were very large.” A snide comment followed: “Old fellow, you won’t do. It is all very well for the wild west, but this will never go down in New York.” By the end of the speech, the writer himself had been westernized: “Forgetting myself, I was on my feet with the rest, yelling like a wild Indian.”91

Over the course of a frantic year, “the Rail Candidate” evolved into “the Rail-Splitter.” Rails seemed to be everywhere, carried by Lincoln supporters in cities and towns throughout New England, New York, and the Northwest. Lincoln stayed at home in Springfield, where he kept a home that was quite far from frontier conditions. In fact, most of his political career had been dedicated to eliminating those conditions, as Springfield grew into a modern state capital with well-appointed hotels and elegant homes on “Aristocracy Hill.”92

But if wooden rails were hard to find in Springfield, iron ones were never far away. Railroads brought thousands of Lincoln partisans to Chicago during the Republican Convention, held in a huge barn called the Wigwam.93 It was a marvel of light and speed, brilliantly illuminated, and wired with telegraph lines to get its result out to a nation hanging on its deliberations.94 On the third ballot, a reporter felt the weather change and described a leveling gust that seemed to come straight off the prairie—a “great wind” clearing everything before it. As he put it, “There was a silence for a moment, and the next instant there was a noise in the Wigwam like the rush of a great wind in the van of a storm.” In another breath, he continued, “the storm was there,” and “thousands were cheering with the energy of insanity.”95

That noise, “the Lincoln yawp,” soon swept across the entire United States.96 As quickly as the Lightning could carry the news, a huge noise followed, with church bells tolling, factory whistles shrieking, locomotives blasting their horns, and cannon fire.97 Within minutes, in Springfield, Lincoln was notified by a small boy, running from the telegraph office.

From relative obscurity, Lincoln went quickly to the opposite extreme. The information economy demanded fuel, and his supporters supplied it with prints, speeches, and human interest stories. One paper wrote, “Mr. Lincoln’s admiring friends will be delighted to hear that he eats, sleeps, coughs, sneezes, and obeys the other calls of nature regularly.”98 Another paper wrote that Lincoln had received fifty-two applications to write his biography. He joked that he was being besieged with “attempts on my life.”99

Unfortunately, that was all too true. In the toxic climate of 1860, there was a long list of people ready to stop Lincoln’s bandwagon. Even in the North, the newspapers could be cruel, and they routinely insulted his appearance. A Massachusetts newspaper wondered half-jokingly if it was safe for expectant mothers to purchase his image. The New York Times opined that he could split rails simply by looking at them. A Republican newspaper amused many when it misprinted a headline: “Hurrah for Old Ape!”100 In the South, it was far worse, as Lincoln was hanged in effigy, over and over again.101 In Baltimore, the Republican headquarters was gutted, and his image shredded.102

In the final days of the campaign, the Democrats made a furious push. They were willing to use all tricks at their disposal, including racial taunts, patronage, and rivers of alcohol. Charles Dickens, who happened to be in New York for a campaign event, wrote a lurid account of democracy in America, darker than anything Tocqueville had seen. To the author of A Christmas Carol, it felt almost as if he were wandering in his nightshirt through a nightmare. The “Monster Democratic Rally and Ox-Roast” broke down into chaos as soon as the ox and pig carcasses were wheeled out. Thousands of people, squinting through “rowdy eyes,” tore down fences to get at them, tearing the meat off in a carnivorous rampage. The strongest and “most brutal” got there first and helped themselves. Nearby, stumbling drunks bumped into one another, and gangs such as the Rough Skins, the Dead Rabbits, and the dreaded Double Pumps of Baltimore looked for trouble. Orators called for Lincoln to be hanged, and the crowd roared its approval, “seething,” its angry faces illuminated by torchlight.103

But the Republican rallies were equally intense, as Lincoln’s partisans rejoiced in the feeling that their moment had come. The candidate hardly spoke a word during the campaign, but it mattered not to his supporters, swept up in the whirlwind. It kept blowing, right up to the day of the election. As Lincoln voted, a reporter wrote that the crowd cheered with an intensity that bordered upon mental derangement. When the Lightning finally brought its tally of “the Republican thunder” rolling in from New York and Pennsylvania, there was a final yawp, and the crowd responded with “a forty-horsepower shout,” like a locomotive.104

Four decades later, John Hay remembered the force of those winds. In 1902, near the end of his life, he stood up in the Capitol to give the memorial address to another assassinated president, William McKinley, shot in the abdomen by an anarchist in Buffalo the year before. McKinley’s murder might have led Hay to conclude that democracy, for all of its good intentions, was too idealistic for a world of such visceral hatred.

Instead, he said something close to the opposite: democracy was worth the struggle to get right. As he looked back on McKinley’s career, he found himself remembering the fall of 1860, when so many young people were awakened by the dignity of Lincoln’s appeal. It was an awakening as spiritual as it was political, in Hay’s retelling. Democracy had been tarnished by corruption, insider deals, and broken promises. It had been degraded, specifically, by the Slave Power, aggressively intensifying its assault on the basic human rights that the republic had been founded upon. With Lincoln’s election, the people had drawn a line.

Transporting himself backward in time, Hay recalled vividly the night the Lightning struck, and Lincoln was elected. The atmosphere changed that evening, much as it does when real lightning flashes, in the electric moments that precede a thunderstorm. Hay described it as a landscape painter would, as an excitement that “filled the earth and sky when the long twilight of doubt and uncertainty was ending and the time of action had come.” In towns and villages across the North, they had decided: “The country was worth saving; it could be saved only by fire; no sacrifice was too great; the young men of the country were ready for the sacrifice; come weal, come woe, they were ready.”105

But even with victory in hand, a great ordeal remained. The people had spoken, but no one had ever been elected from so far away, with so small a mandate, in a climate of such hatred. How exactly would Lincoln claim his distant, thankless office? Before his presidency could begin, he would have to travel through the heartland of a country that simmered with resentments along every mile of his route. The New York Times quoted a French observer, who said that he had never seen a government trying so hard to end its own existence. America seemed “on the verge of the precipice,” in his words, and a step in any direction was dangerous. Lincoln was about to enter a peculiar no-man’s-land, the not-quite-president of a disintegrating nation.

To make matters worse, he faced an existential dilemma: Could he even reach his capital? And if he did, would it still be in the United States?106

James Buchanan, fading away1

About The Author

Ted Widmer is Distinguished Lecturer at Macaulay Honors College (CUNY). In addition to his teaching, he writes actively about American history in The New York TimesThe New YorkerThe Washington Post, and other venues. He has also taught or directed research centers at Harvard University, Brown University, and Washington College. He grew up in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and attended Harvard University.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (December 29, 2020)
  • Length: 624 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781476739441

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Raves and Reviews

“With stunning verve and you-are-there immediacy, Ted Widmer evokes the thirteen day journey of president-elect Abraham Lincoln from Springfield to Washington in which he sealed a fervent bond with his northern followers. Loaded with high drama, danger, and plentiful suspense, the train rides take on an almost mythic dimension, representing the democratic revolution that will soon tip the fractious country into a bloody civil war. A riveting piece of history and a first-rate read."
—Ron Chernow, Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of Grant and Washington: A Life

"Ted Widmer's Lincoln On the Verge is an impressively vivid and intimate portrait of Abraham Lincoln on his historic 1861 train journey from Illinois to Washington D.C. (where he was sworn-in as America's 16th president). With a deft blend of textured storytelling and fresh research Widmer recounts the widespread uncertainty and fear that consumed the nation on the eve of the Civil War. Highly recommended!"
—Douglas Brinkley, author of Rightful Heritage: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Land of America

“Lincoln's journey by train from Springfield to Washington in February 1861 was full of drama and tension caused by a nation breaking in two as the president-elect's passage through seven of the largest Northern states helped unify them for the impending struggle even a delegates from seven seceded states met a thousand miles to the south to form the Confederacy and conspirators in Baltimore plotted to assassinate Lincoln as he passed through their city, a conspiracy that was foiled by a secret midnight transit. Ted Widmer's narrative captures the drama and tension with sparkling prose that projects the reader back in time to that fateful journey.”
—James M. McPherson, Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era

“A positively elegiac account of the most consequential pre-inauguration journey—and pre-presidential public relations offensive—in American history. Lincoln said at the outset that he had a “task greater than” George Washington faced to preserve the Union the founders had created. Ted Widmer has successfully undertaken a great task of his own in crafting a cohesive, dramatic, and ultimately stirring account of the politically fraught, emotionally draining, and physically dangerous voyage that brought Illinois’ favorite son to the nation’s capital in time, and shape, to meet his destiny.”
—Harold Holzer, winner of the Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize

“A richly detailed and colorful narrative, Ted Widmer's book is wonderfully readable, and surely the fullest account yet of Lincoln's perilous trip to Washington as President-elect.”
—Douglas L. Wilson, author of Honor's Voice and Lincoln's Sword

“Ted Widmer is one of our best contemporary chroniclers of the American story. He immerses readers in a pivotal moment at the brink of the Civil War, bringing our greatest president to life on the page. And as America now faces another moment of seemingly irreparable disunion, Widmer finds relevance — and even reasons for hope — in the past.”
—Adam Goodheart, author of 1861: The Civil War Awakening

“In a wholly original, gorgeously crafted reimagining, Mr. Widmer portrays Lincoln’s demanding journey as a Homeric odyssey through perilous terrain toward almost preordained immortality....The story of Lincoln’s inaugural journey has never been told in such rich detail....Mr. Widmer brings off his panoramic, almost mystical interpretation with riveting panache. His book is not only a historical achievement but a literary one."
—The Wall Street Journal

“A book about a time of national crisis, in a time of national crisis.”
The Guardian

“Lincoln buffs will undoubtedly devour the book. A colorful, richly detailed overture to Lincoln’s odyssey.”
Kirkus Reviews

“Widmer’s exploration of this historical footnote delivers real depth… History buffs will be entertained and enlightened by this unique view of Lincoln and the country on the cusp of war.”
Publishers Weekly

“At last count there were about 15,000 books on Lincoln, not all of them are worth reading. Lincoln on the Verge is.”
—CBS This Morning

“Widmer’s Lincoln on the Verge is quite simply as good as it gets in the art of writing biography. Besides his thorough research and fast-paced storytelling skills, the author’s deep insights into this tipping-point experience in Lincoln’s life as he traveled to meet his ultimate fate as president charged with the nation-on-his-shoulders responsibility of reuniting the states while acting as commander-in-chief during the most horrific war in American history makes for a saga to be savored.”
Washington Independent Review of Books

"One of the most fascinating history books of the year thus far."
—The Bowery Boys Podcast

"A Lincoln classic...superb....So much has been written about Abraham Lincoln that it’s rare when a historian discovers an episode in his life that, if fully developed and interpreted, yields important new insights. Ted Widmer has done just that..."
The Washington Post

"Gripping...evocatively illustrated, and resonant with the kind of leaderly rhetoric and character that sustained the nation—and made it great."
Harvard Magazine

"Riveting. Enthralling. Rewarding. Take your pick! Ted Widmer has written a history book that jumps from the page."

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