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Lincoln on the Verge

Thirteen Days to Washington

Lincoln on the Verge: Thirteen Days to Washington by Ted Widmer adds a unique and vital entry into Lincoln library, chronicling the President-Elect's journey from Illinois to the Capitol. "Journey" is not just Lincoln's overland trip, but the emotional, psychological, and spiritual journey as the dark horse candidate from the backwater, who won the election, without a majority realizes the graivty of the moment.




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Lincoln on the Verge - A conversation with Ted Widmer


HistoryInFive:  What initially inspired you to study this brief period in Lincoln’s life? Did you always plan to write a book about Lincoln?    


Ted Widmer: I always wanted to write a book about Lincoln.  Like so many Americans, I felt pulled toward him for reasons I did not fully understand, as a young reader, first learning about our country.  Those feelings deepened when I became a White House speechwriter and his words were everywhere – written on walls of government buildings, and in the original manuscripts themselves, which I would see whenever I could.  In that era, I was also affected by a lot of new writing about Lincoln.  So it was really just a matter of time.  Then, it all started to happen when I became very deeply involved with a history project created by The New York Times, “Disunion,” that allowed me to write frequent articles about Lincoln on the eve of his presidency – Lincoln on the verge.  It seemed to me that an extraordinary amount was happening to him during the thirteen days of his train trip, and I wanted to capture that drama.        


H5: Describe the resource and material that you used during your research. Did you uncover any new material, or was any resource especially invaluable to your research?   


TW: I did exhaustive (but I hope not exhausting) research for this book.  I went all over the place, usually by train, to find his original manuscripts and the records left by those who knew him best.  I read a huge number of newspapers describing what it was like to see Lincoln for the first time.  Often, the small-town newspapers were the best.  It was a once in a lifetime experience, for most Americans, to see this unusual politician come through their community, and I wanted to recreate that excitement.  I did find many articles that have never been cited, and a lot of contemporary photographs and drawings never published before.    


H5: Lincoln’s journey was only thirteen days, but you make the case that these thirteen days were deeply impactful to Lincoln’s growth, and ultimately his success as president. Why was this trip so life-changing for Lincoln? 


TW: Lincoln desperately needed to unite a country that was already falling apart well before he got to Washington.  But he had limited tools to do that.  The Republican Party was not well organized, and opposition to Lincoln was formidable, even lethal.  Surprisingly, his 13-day train trip turned into an effective form of politics.  He was still unfamiliar to most Americans, but by seeing so many Americans from the train, and speaking beautifully about the feelings that united them, he was able to get off the train in Washington as a much stronger president-elect than he had been.  Also, the trip was life-changing for the simple reason that he survived, barely, an extremely serious plot to kill him.   


H5: What do you think was the most important stop on Lincoln’s journey to the White House?   

TW: They were all important and they built up in drama as he got closer to Washington.  But Philadelphia was especially momentous.  Brilliantly, he decided to go to Independence Hall on February 22 – Washington’s Birthday.  In that sacred space, on that special day, he delivered a beautiful speech about the Declaration of Independence that rescued the document – and the country – from a long period of darkness in which our founding ideals had been seriously compromised.  He brought the Declaration back into the daylight.  By doing so, he won a serious victory over Jefferson Davis before he even made it to Washington.  He gave Americans a reason to believe in their country again.   


H5: As a former presidential speechwriter, how would you characterize the speeches that Lincoln gave on this journey to the White House?   


TW: They are extraordinary.  They show a new Lincoln emerging, intuitive, and deeply human.  He had already proven his debating ability (in the Lincoln-Douglas debates), and his lawyerly understanding of American history (in the Cooper Union address).  But as soon as he stepped on the train, he began to speak off the cuff, beautifully, to the Americans who gathered at trackside to hear where the country was headed.  His farewell speech at Springfield was a brilliant improvisation and the most personal thing that a politician had ever said to the American people.  His speeches in Trenton and Philadelphia, near the end of the trip, restored America’s moral purpose, and gave strong indications of the great speeches to come, especially the Gettysburg Address.  In these 13 days, he was climbing to a very high altitude, at the same time that his life was constantly in danger.     


H5: How do you think the country might have received Lincoln had he not made this journey before his swearing in? Do you think his reception as president might have been different? 


TW: Well, first of all, there was a very strong chance that he would not make it to Washington.  The anti-Lincoln forces were well-organized, and it was brutally difficult for him to even get to the Southern capital that the founders had placed at a remote curve on a river, in a famously swampy place.  There was a back-up plan for him to lead the government from a more northern place, probably Philadelphia, but it would have been almost impossible to preserve the Union from there.  The United States would have lost the Capitol and all of the founding documents.  By surviving his journey, and making it to Washington, Lincoln kept the idea of the Union alive.    


H5: We are in the midst of an election year when presidential candidates (and the president himself) are touring the country and trying to appeal to a variety of voters. What lessons might current candidates learn from Lincoln’s journey and efforts to appeal to the American people?    


TW: We still need to see and touch our politicians, as difficult as that may be.  There is something about human contact that is essential for a democracy.  That cannot happen during the time of the coronavirus, of course, and it will be some time before we return to normal. But innovative politicians will find new ways to talk with constituients, virtually; perhaps even to be in the same room, in some sense. The new tech is coming very fast here. Of course, we will need to be on guard against it, too, for technology can be easily manipulated. 


Most importantly, we need to get back in touch with the moral principles that undergird democracy.  There is a decency underneath all of the rules and by-laws that is important to remember.  We need to see and hear each other, on both sides, and we could use some forgiveness, too.  Lincoln was strong on that point.  We are lucky to be here – we need to remember that, and take care of each other.  All of our greatest documents, from the Declaration to Lincoln’s speeches and the Four Freedoms, celebrate a certain togetherness that we need to remember in these divided times.  

The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln