Photo Credit: Simon & Schuster
As Americans anxiously count down the days to November 3, 2020, President Donald Trump has been evasive about whether, should he lose, he would accept the results of the election. Commentators have rightly deplored this, arguing that the peaceful transfer of power has always been a cornerstone of American democracy.
But has it? When Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States in November of 1860, it created an unprecedented political crisis. Southern slaveholding politicians were in charge of the government and, as they maneuvered to retain control of the laws and courts that upheld human bondage, they considered everything from refusing to count the electoral votes to a coup d’état to assassinating the president-elect as he traveled to his inauguration. Militias were activated by Union forces in Washington and the assassination plot was foiled by Lincoln’s allies: secession and civil war followed.
We had a chance to sit down and talk with historian Ted Widmer, whose new book, Lincoln on the Verge: Thirteen Days to Washington (Simon and Schuster, 2020), tells the gripping story of a short period in American history, and how democracy survived this political crisis.
Claire Potter [CP]: Ted, welcome to Public Seminar. Since we are about a month away from one of the most consequential and fraught elections since Abraham Lincoln’s victory in November 1860, I want to jump right in.
The United States was cracking apart in 1860, and Lincoln’s election lit the fuse of what would become the Civil War. But before the president-elect’s inauguration in the spring of 1861, slaveowners and their supporters sought to block Lincoln from taking office, by assassination if necessary. So, from the time he was elected to his inauguration four months later, there was a lot of maneuvering going on in Washington, D.C., that might have ended in a coup d’état by Southern politicians.
The first hurdle was that the president-elect had to get to Washington and, he hoped, solidify Union sentiment along the way. Why did Lincoln’s journey to the presidency appeal to you?
Ted Widmer [TW]: I began to follow the story of Lincoln’s train trip to the inauguration without knowing what a big topic it was going to be for me. I like trains, and I thought putting Lincoln on a train would be kind of fun. It had the added value of putting him in a different city every day. I could talk a little bit about what made Cincinnati, Ohio, or Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, interesting. On this train ride, Lincoln saw different types of Americans and formed a more inclusive vision of what the country would be. And he showed a lot of personal courage, since there was an active plot to assassinate him before the inauguration.
I also wanted to capture the excitement of a train ride through America in 1861. We now think of Springfield, Illinois, as the middle of the country, but in 1860, it was the West. Lincoln grew a lot during those weeks of travel, too. He had retired from politics after the Mexican–American War, but jumped back in because he was so disgusted by the tendency of politics in the 1850s to protect corrupt special interests. And the most corrupt of all the special interests was the slave lobby.
As I wrote, I began to see slavery as similar to a modern lobby. It was a big industry, with plenty of people ready to take money to do whatever it took to protect it for another year or so.
Lincoln was personally disgusted by this. He started giving speeches denouncing corruption in Washington. But then he began to feel the need to run again: he ran for Senate in 1858 and lost to Stephen Douglas. But he was perfecting his moral argument, and in 1860, he was finally in the right spot. He’s “Honest Abe Lincoln” and it was a time when many Americans were just sick of the shenanigans in Washington, much like they are now.
CP: Let’s talk specifically about what activated voters in 1860: the Fugitive Slave Act. Passed as part of the Compromise of 1850, it required that all enslaved people who had escaped to free states be returned and that all officials and citizens were obligated by federal law to assist and cooperate. Communities that protected free people of color and that helped them escape to Canada suddenly found themselves invaded by federal marshals working for the plantation aristocracy. In New York, a free woman was dragged to the Cooper Union and displayed in chains. When I read that, I thought about the Trump administration sending Homeland Security to Democratic cities to suppress Black Lives Matter protests.
TW: I was thinking about Portland the other day, too. The public seeing how slavery worked was very powerful. In my research, I found that Independence Hall in Philadelphia had a jail cell for African Americans who were being returned to slavery, causing Americans to ask what the U.S. flag stood for. Lincoln was part of a generation that said the flag cannot stand for slavery. And a growing number of Americans agreed with him. That was his mandate.
CP: It’s a very powerful theme of the book, particularly as those who defend Confederate memorials try to pretend that the Civil War was actually about something other than slavery—it was not. Compromises like gradual emancipation were not working, even in states that had ended slavery.
TW: Right. In the 1850s, it was clear to anyone, including Lincoln, that slavery was expanding. Southern politicians were trying to legislate it so that eventually there would be a two-tiered system in which anyone who was African American, whether they’d grown up free or not, would have no rights as a citizen. That’s what the Dred Scott decision affirmed in 1857.
CP: You mentioned your love of trains earlier: this is a story about technology as much as it is about Lincoln. The telegraph and trains linked the nation together in new ways, particularly in the North. And yet the power of that technology was that it assembled people: citizens could read about Lincoln and they could come to cities on the trains to see him. These vast crowds assembled at every stop on the journey.
So how did you decide to put technology at the center of the story?
TW: I wrestled with that: Could I put a 40-page chapter about the railroad in the book without distracting from Lincoln? As I read all these histories about how the telegraph and trains really transformed the North but not the South, I realized I could justify slowing the story down briefly. You have two very different Americas coming into existence, and Lincoln represents one. He’s personally very good at the telegraph, he loves it. Lincoln’s command of the telegraph is one of the reasons Northern armies began to win. And throughout the war, the trains move troops to where they need to be.
Again, this feels like the present, where the people who currently have a lot of the political power are somewhat hostile to information.
CP: And as you show, it costs them the war. But in 1860, restricting knowledge was part of a broader attempt to control the society. The Southern political elite made it illegal to teach enslaved people to read and write, and they didn’t invest in common schools. Rates of literacy for whites were low, and slave states censored books, magazines, and newspapers that published abolitionists.
TW: The Confederacy was not much of a democracy; it was an economic aristocracy. One of the books I read made a really interesting argument that Southern elites had a secret fear that they didn’t actually voice: that Lincoln being who he was—a poor, Southern white—was going to begin to win over poor, Southern whites.
CP: That’s a fascinating counterfactual. In fact, the dramatic energy in the book arises from another “what-if”: the idea that history might have happened quite differently in 1861 had Southern conspiracists succeeded in preventing the president-elect from reaching Washington. It was a real possibility that Lincoln might have been assassinated; that the Confederate states would have seized the government; that the vice president would have prevented the electoral votes from being counted; or—and this was fascinating to me as a historian—that the political representatives of the slave states would have seized the founding documents and declared themselves to be “the United States” instead of the Confederate States of America.
TW: Right. And it is hard to overemphasize how weak the federal government seemed in that moment. In 1861, Washington was ugly: a city of half-finished buildings literally built in a swamp, an abysmal place to put a national capital that’s supposed to radiate the virtues of democracy. More importantly, it was a slave-holding city populated by pro-Southern people from Maryland and other Southerners. There was barely a U.S. military presence there. It was a nest of secession.
After Lincoln was elected on November 6, 1860, the Southern states declared their intention to form a new country, pulling out of the system without any provocation from Lincoln or the North. But it was unclear for a couple months what this Southern nation would be. South Carolina seceded so fast that it briefly considered itself a country, the Palmetto Republic. But then other states wanted to come in.
The fear that Southerners were going to carry out a coup was real, as was a secession plan that made Washington the capital and named the new country the United States of America. They had largely controlled Washington for all of its history, all they need to do was stay put. The Library of Congress was on the second floor of the Capitol and all the documents—the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights—were either there or in other government buildings controlled by Southern appointees. A slave-holding country claiming to be the United States of America would have possessed all these sacred documents that Americans really worshipped and would have been permitted to dictate their meaning.
CP: Normally, we would say: enter the great man. But you don’t embrace that framing of the story. Early in the book, you argue that Lincoln was simply a clear thinker, a person who studied his country’s past, who charted the best course he could and stayed true to his moral compass.
TW: I do think that is true. I think Lincoln studies has emphasized his political genius and that he was always very calculating. There’s some truth to that. He was a canny politician, but also a moral thinker. He saw slavery as a young man and was horrified by it. He said, “If I ever get a chance, I’m going to hit at it hard.” And he did.
CP: At one point, you say that Lincoln “never wrote about what it must have been like to be at the center of attention the way no American had ever been.” Was he the first American celebrity? The comparison to Barack Obama is inescapable. Obviously, Obama encouraged that comparison. But it seems quite real, these political outsiders who become celebrities as presidents. Can you talk about that?
TW: Obama, to an unusual degree, embraced Lincoln when he was a rising senator. I remember some beautiful essays he wrote about photographs of Lincoln. And then he got to experience that feeling of being at the center of attention. You had the feeling with Obama, too, that there was a moral agent inside of the image.
But yes, Lincoln was the first celebrity, in my opinion. He was the sixteenth president. George Washington was certainly a celebrity, and he went on some interesting national tours. But his images were not reproduced as widely as Lincoln’s in newspapers. Lincoln’s face was getting around there and huge crowds came out to see him, crowds so big that he was in a new kind of danger: from people who were on his side and just wanted to be near him.
CP: And that’s a turning point, toward modern politics as we know it. Ted, thank you so much for talking to Public Seminar, it’s been a real pleasure.
TW: Thank you.
Claire Potter is co-executive editor of Public Seminar, Professor of History at The New School for Social Research, and author of Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020). You can tweet with her @TenuredRadical.
Ted Widmer is a distinguished lecturer at Macaulay Honors College, CUNY, and has written for numerous outlets, including the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the Washington Post.
André Broussard and Linus Glenhaber assisted in the preparation of this interview.