Table of Contents
Beautiful for situation and beautiful in construction is the Washington City of to-day. But it was not so in Lincoln’s day. The proper decoration of the city did not begin until Grant’s administration. In 1861 it was comparatively a small city. Its population numbered only about 65,000. The magnificent modern residences had not been built. The houses were few, low, not handsome, with hideous spaces of unimproved land lying between. The streets were not paved with asphalt. Some were paved with cobble stones, and some consisted of plain aboriginal mud. The dome of the Capitol was but half finished when Lincoln saw it for the first time, and the huge derrick which surmounted it was painfully suggestive of the gallows. The approach was not a well-kept lawn, but a meadow of grass, ragged and ill-cared for.
Washington society was then, as always, composed of people of education and social culture, but it was not such as would kindle the enthusiasm of the patriot. From the time whereof the memory of man runneth not to the contrary, it had been dominated by the slave power. The District of Columbia is situated in a slave state. The politics of South Carolina and Mississippi had always been aggressive, and the social leadership had been the same. J. G. Holland estimated that not more than one in five of the people in Washington in the winter of 1860-61 were glad to have Lincoln come. He was not far from right. Lamon called the city “a focus of political intrigue and corruption.”
For many years, specifically since 1848, the slave power had been masterful in Washington, while its despotic temper had grown continually more assertive. The intellectual and moral atmosphere became increasingly repulsive to those who believed in freedom, and such people would not therefore choose that city as a place of residence.
The departments were of course filled with employees in sympathy with slavery. Pierce had been made President in 1853. The Missouri Compromise had been repealed in 1854. Buchanan came into office in 1857. The crowning act of his administration was supporting the Kansas infamy in 1859. From these indications it is easy to estimate the political status of Washington society when Lincoln entered the city February 23, 1861. Many thousands of his friends poured in from all quarters north of Mason and Dixon’s line to attend the ceremonies of the inaugural. But these were transients, and foreign to the prevailing sentiment of the city.
Every official courtesy, however, was shown to the President-elect. The outgoing President and cabinet received him politely. He had many supporters and some personal friends in both houses of congress. These received him with enthusiasm, while his opponents were not uncivil. The members of the Supreme Court greeted him with a measure of cordiality. Both Douglas and Breckinridge, the defeated candidates at the late election, called on him. The so-called Peace Conference had brought together many men of local influence, who seized the opportunity of making his acquaintance. So the few days passed busily as the time for inauguration approached.
Of course anxiety and even excitement were not unknown. One instance is enough to relate here. Arrangements were about concluded for the cabinet appointments. The most important selection was for the Secretary of State. This position had been tendered to Seward months before and had by him been accepted. The subsequent selections had been made in view of the fact that Seward was to fill this position. On Saturday, March 2d, while only a few hours remained before the inaugural, Seward suddenly withdrew his promised acceptance. This utterly upset the balancings on which Lincoln had so carefully worked for the last four months, and was fitted to cause consternation. Lincoln’s comment was: “I can’t afford to have Seward take the first trick.” So he sent him an urgent personal note on the morning of March 4th, requesting him to withdraw this refusal. Seward acceded to this and the matter was arranged satisfactorily.
The morning of the day of the inauguration was clear, mild, beautiful. The military display gave a bright and showy appearance to the scene. General Scott had used the utmost care to have the arrangements for the defense of the President perfect. There were guards about the carriage, guards about the Capitol, a flying battery upon a commanding hill. Besides this, sharpshooters were posted on the roofs of the houses along the route of travel, with injunctions to watch narrowly the windows opposite and fire upon the first manifestation of disorder. One cannot resist the temptation to speculate upon the excitement that would have developed had a mischievous boy set off a large fire-cracker at a critical moment!
Shortly after twelve o’clock, noon, Buchanan called to escort his successor to the Capitol. The retiring President and the President- elect rode side by side through the streets. Reaching the grounds of the Capitol they found an improvised board tunnel through which they walked arm in arm to the building. This tunnel had been constructed to guard against assassination, of which there had recently been many threats. They passed through the senate chamber and through the building to the large platform which had been erected at the east front. The procession was headed by the justices of the Supreme Court clothed in cap and gown.
The platform was densely packed, but in the number there were four men of especial interest. When Lincoln had first been nominated for the senate, at Springfield, June 16, 1858, he made the speech which came to be known as “the house-divided-against-itself speech.” One remarkable paragraph is here quoted:
“We cannot absolutely know that all these exact adaptations are the result of preconcert. But when we see a lot of framed timbers, different portions of which we know have been gotten out at different times and places and by different workmen–Stephen, Franklin, Roger, and James, for instance–and when we see these timbers joined together, and see they exactly make the frame of a house or a mill, all the tenons and mortices exactly fitting, and all the lengths and proportions of the different pieces exactly adapted to their respective places, and not a piece too many or too few–not omitting even scaffolding–or, if a single piece be lacking, we see the place in the frame exactly fitted and prepared yet to bring the piece in–in such a case, we find it impossible not to believe that Stephen and Franklin and Roger and James all understood one another from the beginning, and all worked upon a common plan or draft drawn up before the first blow was struck.”
The manifest reference here is to the co-workers for the extension of slavery: namely, Stephen A. Douglas, Franklin Pierce, Roger B. Taney, and James Buchanan. One of this number, Franklin, had fallen into welcome oblivion; James had escorted Lincoln to the platform; Stephen stood immediately behind him, alert to show him any courtesy; and Roger, as Chief Justice, was about to administer the oath of office. It was a rare case of poetic justice.
Lincoln was introduced to the vast audience by his former neighbor, E. D. Baker, at this time senator from Oregon. In one hand Lincoln had his silk hat, and as he looked about for a place to put it, his old antagonist, Douglas, took it. To a lady he whispered: “If I can’t be President, I can at least hold the President’s hat.”
The inaugural address had been submitted confidentially to a few trusted friends for criticism. The only criticisms of importance were those of Seward. By these Lincoln was guided but not governed. A perusal of the documents will show that, while Seward’s suggestions were unquestionably good, Lincoln’s finished product was far better. This is specifically true of the closing paragraph, which has been widely admired for its great beauty. From the remarkable address we quote only two passages. In the first he meets the charge that he would involve the country in war. It is as follows:
“I shall take care, as the Constitution itself expressly enjoins upon me, that the laws of the Union shall be faithfully executed in all the states. Doing this, which I deem to be only a simple duty on my part, I shall perfectly perform it, so far as is practicable, unless my rightful masters, the American people, shall withhold the requisition, or in some authoritative manner direct the contrary. I trust this will not be regarded as a menace, but only as the declared purpose of the Union that it will constitutionally defend and maintain itself.
“In doing this, there need be no bloodshed or violence, and there shall be none unless it is forced upon the national authority. The power confided to me will be used to hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the government, and collect the duties and imposts. But beyond what may be necessary for these objects there will be no invasion, no using of force against or among the people anywhere.”
Concerning the clause above italicised there was a general questioning,–Does he mean what he says? In due time they learned that he meant what he said, and all of it.
The address concluded as follows:
“In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in Heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to ’preserve, protect, and defend’ it.
“I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break, our bonds of affection. The mystic cords of memory, stretching from every battle- field and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
The address was listened to closely throughout. Immediately upon its conclusion the speaker was sworn into office by Chief Justice Taney whose name is connected with the famous Dred Scott decision. James Buchanan was now a private citizen and the pioneer rail-splitter was at the head of the United States.
In all the thousands of people there assembled, there was no one who listened more intently than Stephen A. Douglas. At the conclusion he warmly grasped the President hand’s, congratulated him upon the inaugural, and pledged him that he would stand by him and support him in upholding the Constitution and enforcing the laws. The nobler part of the nature of the “little giant” came to the surface. The clearness, the gentleness, the magnanimity, the manliness expressed in this inaugural address of his old rival, won him over at last, and he pledged him here his fealty. For a few months, while the storm was brewing, Douglas was inactive, so that his influence counted on the side of the hostile party, the party to which he had always belonged. But when war actually broke out, he hastened to stand by the President, and right nobly did he redeem his promise which he had given. Had he lived, there are few men whose influence would have been more weighty in the cause of the Union. An untimely death cut him off at the beginning of this patriotic activity. His last public act was to address to the legislature of Illinois a masterly plea for the support of the war for the Union. He died in Chicago on the 3d of June, 1861.