The New President
( Originally Published 1906 )
LINCOLN'S great skill and wisdom in his debate with Douglas turned the eyes of the whole country upon him; and the force and logic of his Cooper Institute speech convinced every one that in him they had discovered a new national leader. He began to be mentioned as a possible candidate for President in the election which was to take place that fall to choose a successor to President Buchanan. Indeed, quite a year earlier, an editor in Illinois had written to him asking permission to announce him as a candidate in his newspaper. At that time Lincoln had refused, thanking him for the compliment, but adding modestly : "I must in candor say that I do not think myself fit for the Presidency." About Christmas time, 1859, however, a number of his stanchest Illinois friends urged him to let them use his name, and he consented, not so much in the hope of being chosen, as of perhaps receiving the nomination for Vice-President, or at least of making a show of strength that would aid him at some future time to become senator. The man most talked about as the probable Republican candidate for President was William H. Seward, who was United States senator from New York, and had also been governor of that State.
The political unrest continued. Slavery was still the most absorbing topic, and it was upon their stand for or against slavery that all the Presidential candidates were chosen. The pretensions and demands of the Southern leaders had by this time passed into threats. They declared roundly that they would take their States out of the Union if slavery were not quickly made lawful all over the country, or in case a "Black Republican" President should be elected. The Democrats, unable to agree among themselves, split into two sections, the Northerners nominating Stephen A. Douglas for President, while delegates who had come to their National Convention from what were called the Cotton States chose John C. Breckinridge. A few men who had belonged to the old Whig party, but felt themselves unable to join the Republicans or either faction of the Democrats, met elsewhere and nominated John Bell.
This breaking up of their political enemies into three distinct camps greatly cheered the Republicans, and when their National Convention came together in Chicago on May 16, 186o, its members were filled with the most eager enthusiasm. Its meetings were held in a huge temporary wooden building called the Wigwam, so large that 10,000 people could easily assemble in it to watch the proceedings. Few conventions have shown such depth of feeling. Not only the delegates on the central platform, but even the spectators seemed impressed with the fact that they were taking part in a great historical event. The first two days were taken up in seating delegates, adopting a "platform" or statement of party principles, and in other necessary routine matters. On the third day, however, it was certain that balloting would begin, and crowds hurried to the Wigwam in a fever of curiosity. The New York men, sure that Seward would be the choice of the convention, marched there in a body, with music and banners. The friends of Lincoln arrived before them, and while not making so much noise or show, were doing good work for their favorite. The long nominating speeches of later years had not then come into fashion. "I take the liberty," simply said Mr. Evarts of New York, "to name as a candidate to be nominated by this convention for the office of President of the United States,
William H. Seward," and at Mr. Seward's name a burst of applause broke forth, so long and loud that it seemed fairly to shake the great building. Mr. Judd, of Illinois, performed the same office of friendship for Mr. Lincoln, and the tremendous cheering that rose from the throats of his friends echoed and dashed itself against the sides of the Wigwam, died down, and began anew, until the noise that had been made by Seward's admirers dwindled to comparative feebleness. Again and again these contests of lungs and enthusiasm were repeated as other names were presented to the convention.
At last the voting began. Two names stood out beyond all the rest on the very first ballot—Seward's and Lincoln's. The second ballot showed that Seward had lost votes while Lincoln had gained them. The third ballot was begun in almost painful suspense, delegates and spectators keeping count upon their tally-sheets with nervous fingers. It was found that Lincoln had gained still more, and now only needed one and a half votes to receive the nomination. Suddenly the Wigwam became as still as a church. Every-body leaned forward to see who would break the spell. A man sprang upon a chair and reported a change of four votes to Lincoln. Then a teller shouted a name toward the skylight, and the boom of a cannon from the roof announced the nomination and started the cheering down the long Chicago streets; while inside delegation after delegation changed its votes to the victor in a whirlwind of hurrahs. That same afternoon the convention finished its labors by nominating Hannibal Hamlin of Maine for Vice-President, and adjourned—the delegates, speeding home-ward on the night trains, realizing by the bonfires and cheering crowds at every little station that a memorable Presidential campaign was already begun.
During this campaign there were, then, four Presidential candidates in the field. In the order of strength shown at the election they were :
1. The Republican party, whose "platform," or statement of party principles, declared that slavery was wrong; and that its further spread should be prevented. Its candidates were Abraham Lincoln of Illinois for President, and Hannibal Hamlin of Maine for Vice-President.
2. The Douglas wing of the Democratic party, which declared that it did not pretend to decide whether slavery was right or wrong, and pro-posed to allow the people of each State and Terri-tory to choose for themselves whether they would or would not have it. Its candidates were Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois for President, and Herschel V. Johnson of Georgia for Vice-President.
3. The Buchanan wing of the Democratic party, which declared that slavery was right, and whose policy was to extend it, and to make new slave States. Its candidates were John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky for President, and Joseph Lane of Oregon for Vice-President.
4. The Constitutional Union party, which ignored slavery in its platform, declaring ' that it recognized no political principles other than "the Constitution of the country, the Union of the States, and the enforcement of the laws." Its candidates were John Bell of Tennessee for President, and Edward Everett of Massachusetts for Vice-President.
In enthusiasm the Republicans quickly took the lead. "Wide Awake" clubs of young men, wearing caps and capes of glazed oilcloth to protect their clothing from the dripping oil of their torches, gathered in torchlight processions miles in length. Fence rails, supposed to have been made by Lincoln in his youth, were set up in party headquarters and trimmed with flowers and lighted tapers. Lincoln was called the "Railsplitter Candidate," and this telling name, added to the equally telling "Honest Old Abe," by which he had long been known in Illinois, furnished country and city campaign orators with a powerful appeal to the sympathy and trust of the working-people of the United States. Men and women read in newspaper and pamphlet biographies the story of his humble beginnings : how he had risen by simple, earnest work and native genius, first to fame and leadership in his own State, and then to fame and leadership in the nation; and these titles quickly grew to be much more than mere party nicknames—to stand for a faith and trust destined to play no small part in the history of the next few years.
After the nominations were made Douglas went on a tour of speech-making through the South. Lincoln, on the contrary, stayed quietly at home in Springfield. His personal habits and surroundings varied little during the whole of this campaign summer. Naturally he gave up active law practice, leaving his office in charge of his partner, William H. Herndon. He spent the time during the usual business hours of each day in the governor's room of the State-house at Springfield, attended only by his private secretary, Mr. Nicolay. Friends and strangers alike were able to visit him freely and without ceremony, and few went away without being impressed by the sincere frankness of his manner and conversation.
All sorts of people came to see him : those from far-away States, East and West, as well as those from nearer home. Politicians came to ask him for future favors, and many whose only motives were friendliness or curiosity called to express their good wishes and take the Republican candidate by the hand.
He wrote no public letters, and he made no speeches beyond a few words of thanks and greeting to passing street parades. Even the strictly private letters in which he gave his advice on points in the campaign were not more than a dozen in number; but all through the long summer, while welcoming his throngs of visitors, listening to the tales of old settlers, making friends of strangers, and binding old friends closer by his ready sympathy, Mr. Lincoln watched political developments very closely, not merely to note the progress of his own chances, but with an anxious view to the future in case he should be elected. Beyond the ever-changing circle of friendly faces near him he saw the growing unrest and anger of the South, and doubtless felt the uncertainty of many good people in the North, who questioned the power of this untried West-ern man to guide the country through the coming perils.
Never over-confident of his own powers, his mind must at times have been full of misgivings; but it was only on the night of the election, November 6, 1860, when, sitting alone with the operators in the little telegraph-office at Springfield, he read the messages of Republican victory that fell from the wires until convinced of his election, that the overwhelming, almost crushing weight of his coming duties and responsibilities fell upon him. In that hour, grappling resolutely and alone with the problem before him, he completed what was really the first act of his Presidency—the choice of his cabinet, of the men who were to aid him.
People who doubted the will or the wisdom of their Rail-splitter Candidate need have had no fear. A weak man would have chosen this little band of counselors—the Secretary of State, the Secretary of the Treasury, and the half-dozen others who were to stand closest to him and to be at the head of the great departments of the government—from among his personal friends. A man uncertain of his own power would have taken care that no other man of strong nature with a great following of his own should be there to dispute his authority. Lincoln did the very opposite. He had a sincere belief in public opinion, and a deep respect for the popular will. In this case he felt that no men represented that popular will so truly as those whose names had been considered by the Republican National Convention in its choice of a candidate for President. So, instead of gathering about him his friends, he selected his most powerful rivals in the Republican party. William H. Seward, of New York, was to be his Secretary of State; Salmon P. Chase, of Ohio, his Secretary of the Treasury; Simon Cameron, of Pennsylvania, his Secretary of War; Edward Bates, of Missouri, his Attorney-General. The names of all of these men had been before the Convention. Each one had hoped to be President in his stead. For the other three members of his Cabinet he had to look elsewhere. Gideon Welles, of Connecticut, for Secretary of the Navy; Montgomery Blair, of Maryland, for Postmaster-General; and Caleb B. Smith, of Indiana, for Secretary of the Interior, were finally chosen. When people complained, as they sometimes did, that by this arrangement the cabinet consisted of four men who had been Democrats in the old days, and only three who had been Whigs, Lincoln smiled his wise, humorous smile and answered that he himself had been a Whig, and would always be there to make matters even. It is not likely that this exact list was in his mind on the night of the November election; but the principal names in it most certainly were. To some of these gentlemen he offered their appointments by letter. Others he asked to visit him in Springfield to talk the matter over. Much delay and some misunderstanding occurred before the list was finally completed : but when he sent it to the Senate, on the day after his inauguration, it was practically the one he had in his mind from the beginning.
A President is elected by popular vote early in November, but he is not inaugurated until the following fourth of March. Until the day of his inauguration, when he takes the oath of office and begins to discharge his duties, he is not only not President—he has no more power in the affairs of the Government than the humblest private citizen. It is easy to imagine the anxieties and misgivings that beset Mr. Lincoln during the four long months that lay between his election and his inauguration. True to their threats never to endure the rule of a "Black Republican" President, the Cotton States one after the other with-drew their senators and representatives from Congress, passed what they called "Ordinances of Secession," and declared themselves to be no longer a part of the United States. One after another, too, army and navy officers stationed in the Southern States gave up to the Southern leaders in this movement the forts, navy-yards, arsenals, mints, ships, and other government property under their charge. President Buchanan, in whose hands alone rested the power to punish these traitors and avenge their insults to the government he had sworn to protect and defend, showed no disposition to do so; and Lincoln, looking on with a heavy heart, was unable to interfere in any way. No matter how anxiously he might watch the developments at Washington or in the Cotton States, no matter what appeals might be made to him, no action of any kind was possible on his part.
The only bit of cheer that came to him and other Union men during this anxious season of waiting, was in the conduct of Major Robert Anderson at Charleston Harbor, who, instead of following the example of other officers who were proving unfaithful, boldly defied the Southern "secessionists," and moving his little handful of soldiers into the harbor fort best fitted for defense, prepared to hold out against them until help could reach him from Washington.
In February the leaders of the Southern people met at Montgomery, Alabama, adopted a Constitution, and set up a government which they called the Confederate States of America, electing Jefferson Davis, of Mississippi, President, and Alexander H. Stephens, of Georgia, Vice-President. Stephens was the "little, slim pale-faced consumptive man" whose speech in Congress had won Lincoln's admiration years before. Davis had been the child who began his schooling so near to Lincoln in Kentucky. He had had a far different career. Good fortune had carried him to West Point, into the Mexican War, into the cabinet of President Franklin Pierce, and twice into the Senate. He had had money, high office, the best education his country could give him-everything, it seemed, that had been denied to Lincoln. Now the two men were the chosen heads of two great opposing factions, one bent on destroying the government that had treated him so kindly; the other, for whom it had done so little, willing to lay down his life in its defense.
It must not be supposed that Lincoln remained idle during these four months of waiting. Besides completing his cabinet, and receiving his many visitors, he devoted himself to writing his inaugural address, withdrawing himself for some hours each day to a quiet room over the store of his brother-in-law, where he could think and write undisturbed. The newspaper correspondents who had gathered at Springfield, though alert for every item of news, and especially anxious for a sight of his inaugural address, seeing him every day as usual, got not the slightest hint of what he was doing.
Mr. Lincoln started on his journey to Washington on February 11, 1861, two days after Jefferson Davis had been elected President of the Confederate States of America. He went on a special train, accompanied by Mrs. Lincoln and their three children, his two private secretaries, and about a dozen personal friends. Mr. Seward had suggested that because of the unsettled condition of public affairs it would be better for the President-elect to come a week earlier; but Mr. Lincoln allowed himself only time comfortably to fill the engagements he had made to visit the State capitals and principal cities that lay on his way, to which he had been invited by State and town officials, regardless of party. The morning on which he left Springfield was dismal and stormy, but fully a thousand of his friends and neighbors assembled to bid him farewell. The weather seemed to add to the gloom and depression of their spirits, and the leave-taking was one of subdued anxiety, almost of solemnity. Mr. Lincoln took his stand in the waiting-room while his friends filed past him, often merely pressing his hand in silent emotion. The arrival of the rushing train broke in upon this ceremony, and the crowd closed about the car into which the President-elect and his party made their way. Just as they were starting, when the conductor had his hand upon the bell-rope, Mr. Lincoln stepped out upon the front platform and made the following brief and pathetic address. It was the last time his voice was to be heard in the city which had so long been his home :
"My Friends : No one not in my situation can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting. To this place and the kindness of these people I owe everything. Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man. Here my children have been born, and one is buried. I now leave, not knowing when or whether ever I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington. Without the assistance of that Divine Being who ever attended him, I cannot succeed. With that assistance I cannot fail. Trusting in Him who can go with me, and remain with you, and be everywhere for good, let us confidently hope that all will yet be well. To His care commending you, as I hope in your prayers you will commend me, I bid you an affectionate farewell."
The conductor gave the signal, the train rolled slowly out of the station, and the journey to Washington was begun. It was a remarkable progress. At almost every station, even the smallest, crowds had gathered to catch a glimpse of the face of the President-elect, or at least to see the flying train. At the larger stopping-places these crowds swelled to thousands, and in the great cities to almost unmanageable throngs. Everywhere there were calls for Mr. Lincoln, and if he showed himself, for a speech. When-ever there was time, he would go to the rear plat-form of the car and bow as the train moved away, or utter a few words of thanks and greeting. At the capitals of Indiana, Ohio, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, and in the cities of Cincinnati, Cleveland, Buffalo, New York, and Philadelphia, halts of one or two days were made, the time being filled with formal visits and addresses to each house of the legislature, street processions, large evening receptions, and other ceremonies.
Party foes as well as party friends made up these expectant crowds. Every eye was eager, every ear strained, to get some hint of the thoughts and purposes of the man who was to be the guide and head of the nation in the crisis that every one now knew to be upon the country, but the course and end of which the wisest could not foresee. In spite of all the cheers and the enthusiasm, there was also an under-current of anxiety for his personal safety, for the South had openly boasted that Lincoln would never live to be inaugurated President. He himself paid no heed to such warnings; but the railroad officials, and others who were responsible for his journey, had . detectives on watch at different points to report any suspicious happenings. Nothing occurred to change the program already agreed upon until the party reached Philadelphia ; but there Mr. Lincoln was met by Frederick W. Seward, the son of his future Secretary of State, with an important message from his father. A plot had been discovered to do violence to, and perhaps kill, the President-elect as he passed through the city of Baltimore. Mr. Seward and General Scott, the venerable hero of the Mexican War, who was now at the head of the army, begged him to run no risk, but to alter his plans so that a portion of his party might pass through Baltimore by a night train without previous notice. The seriousness of the warning was doubled by the fact that Mr. Lincoln had just been told of a similar, if not exactly the same, danger, by a Chicago detective employed in Baltimore by one of the great railroad companies. Two such warnings, coming from entirely different sources, could not be disregarded; for however much Mr. Lincoln might dislike to change his plans for so shadowy a danger, his duty to the people who had elected him forbade his running any unnecessary risk. Accordingly, after fulfilling all his engagements in Philadelphia and Harrisburg on February 22, he and a single companion took a night train, passed quietly through Baltimore, and arrived in Washington about daylight on the morning of February 23. This action called forth much talk, ranging from the highest praise to ridicule and blame. A reckless newspaper re-porter telegraphed all over the country the absurd story that he had traveled disguised in a Scotch cap and a long military cloak. There was, of course, not a word of truth in the absurd tale. The rest of the party followed Mr. Lincoln at the time originally planned. They saw great crowds in the streets of Baltimore, but there was now no occasion for violence.
In the week that passed between his arrival and the day of his inauguration Mr. Lincoln exchanged the customary visits of ceremony with President Buchanan, his cabinet, the Supreme Court, the two houses of Congress, and other dignitaries.
Careful preparations for the inauguration had been made under the personal direction of General Scott, who held the small military force in the city ready instantly to suppress any attempt to disturb the peace and quiet of the day.
On the morning of the fourth of March President Buchanan and Citizen Lincoln, the outgoing and incoming heads of the government, rode side by side in a carriage from the Executive Mansion, or White House, as it is more commonly called, to the Capitol, escorted by an imposing procession ; and at noon a great throng of people heard Mr. Lincoln read his inaugural address as he stood on the east portico of the Capitol, surrounded by all the high officials of the government. Senator Douglas, his unsuccessful rival, standing not an arm's length away from him, courteously held his hat during the ceremony. A cheer greeted him as he finished his address. Then the Chief Justice arose, the clerk opened his Bible, and Mr. Lincoln, laying his hand upon the book, pronounced the oath :
"I, Abraham Lincoln, do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States."
Amid the thundering of cannon and the applause of all the spectators, President Lincoln and Citizen Buchanan again entered their carriage and drove back from the Capitol to the Executive Mansion, on the threshold of which Mr. Buchanan, warmly shaking the hand of his successor, expressed his wishes for the personal happiness of the new President, and for the national peace and prosperity.