Since a number of regular bloggers and visitors here at TAC are Abraham Lincoln and Civil War history buffs, I thought it would be appropriate to share with you my impressions of a unique event held last night in Lincoln’s hometown (and mine) of Springfield, Illinois. Saturday, Nov. 6, was the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s election to his first term as President in 1860.
To commemorate the event, the Old Capitol and Lincoln Home historic sites staged a reenactment of Lincoln’s election night celebration. This also marks the beginning of what is likely to be a boom period for history buffs nationwide — the sesquicentennial of the Civil War and of Lincoln’s presidency. But more on that in a moment.
Lincoln’s election marked the end of a bitter four-way contest for the presidency among Lincoln, the nominee of the recently organized, anti-slavery Republican Party; U.S. Senator Stephen Douglas, also of Illinois, the Democratic nominee; then-Vice President John Breckinridge, nominee of Southern Democrats who split from Douglas and the rest of the party over the issue of expanding slavery to the western territories; and John Bell of the Constitutional Union Party, a loose coalition of former Whigs, Know-Nothings, and moderate Democrats who hoped to avert secession and war by evading the slavery issue altogether.
Lincoln had not been the first choice of the Republicans; many had preferred William Seward of New York or Salmon P. Chase of Ohio, who had more experience in public office (both had been governors and U.S. Senators from their respective states) and had taken stronger public stands against slavery. Also, several Southern states had made it clear before the election that they intended to secede if Lincoln won. Nevertheless, Lincoln won 40 percent of the popular vote on Election Day, and Douglas finished second with 29 percent.
It’s worth noting that the electorate even in Springfield was sharply divided that day. Lincoln prevailed in the city of Springfield by just 70 votes over Douglas, but lost surrounding Sangamon County by about 40 votes. As the official Democratic candidate Douglas would have enjoyed strong support among the Irish and other predominantly Catholic immigrants that were flooding into Illinois at the time. Douglas also campaigned in person throughout the nation — something that no presidential candidate before him had done, while Lincoln allowed Republican operatives to do most of his campaigning for him.
On Election Day itself, Lincoln had not originally planned to vote, believing it wouldn’t be appropriate to vote for himself. However, his law partner William Herndon persuaded him that he should at least vote for the other offices on the ballot, so he walked across the street from his office to what was then the Sangamon County Courthouse to cast his ballot.
Later in the evening, after the polls closed, he gathered with other supporters in the State House of Representatives chambers to await the results, transmitted via telegraph. He later went directly to the telegraph office in hopes of getting the results more quickly (lacking, of course, the modern advantages of exit polls and network news anchors projecting the results).
Around 11 p.m. Lincoln received word that the critical state of Pennsylvania had gone to the Republicans. He and his group then adjourned to a saloon near the Statehouse to await results from New York, the state that would put him over the top in electoral votes. Around 1 a.m. he learned that New York was safely in the Republican column, and the celebration began. Accompanied by a throng of supporters, he arrived at his home on Eighth Street and announced to his waiting wife, “Mary, we are elected!” Illinois historian Paul Angle describes the scene that ensued:
Old men and young men, bankers and clerks slapped each other on the back, danced, sang and yelled until their voices sank to hoarse whispers. Outside one long shout announced the news. From stores, from houses, even from housetops, men called out that New York was safe, while groups ran through the streets shouting their joy at having joined the Republicans. Never had Springfield seen anything like it.
Since I live just a few blocks from the Lincoln Home, the weather was nice (albeit chilly) and the event was free, I decided to participate in the election night reenactment. (Unfortunately, my cell phone didn’t have enough charge left to take pictures.)
The event began with local Lincoln presenter Fritz Klein and others in historic dress leading a torchlight parade from the Old Capitol to the Lincoln home. National Park Service personnel then conducted candlelight tours (using electric candles for safety reasons) of the home at 10-minute intervals. Each tour began in the home’s front parlor with a beaming Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln greeting each visitor. Costumed interpreters were stationed in each remaining room of the house, explaining not only the room’s use but also the impact Lincoln’s election would have had on the occupants.
For example, the interpreter outside what had been the bedroom shared by the Lincolns’ youngest sons, Willie and Tad, noted that the boys had frequently “campaigned” for their father and were excited at the prospect of living in the White House. However, they would now have to leave behind their friends as well as the family dog, Fido. The interpreter also pointed out the small bedroom used by the Lincolns’ live-in maid. With the family on their way to Washington, the maid would have realized her days of working for the Lincolns were numbered. On the other hand, having the President of the United States as a reference probably didn’t hurt her prospects for future employment!
Another interpreter noted that Lincoln greeted his wife by saying “We are elected” because in many ways, he could not have achieved that milestone without her. Mary Todd Lincoln had been born into a prominent Kentucky political family, had a lifelong interest in politics and unfailingly promoted her husband’s political ambitions. Her husband’s election as president would have seemed like a dream come true for her. Of course, she did not know then that the next four years would turn into a nightmare of war, personal attacks against her, and grief over the loss of both her son Willie and her husband.
The pride that the Lincolns and the citizens of Springfield felt at his election was tempered by their realization of the enormous burden he faced. By the time the Lincolns departed for Washington in February 1861, seven Southern states had seceded and a provisional Confederate government had been organized. We see those times through a somewhat romanticized lens since we know the outcome.
However, the people who actually marched through the streets of Springfield with Lincoln that night in 1860 had no assurance that their nation would survive. For all they knew, Lincoln would be the last president of the United States and they would be living within shouting distance of a hostile slave nation a few years hence.
Three months later, on the day Lincoln left Springfield for the last time, he acknowledged that he faced a task “greater than that which rested upon Washington” at the nation’s founding.
“Without the assistance of that Divine Being who ever attended him, I cannot succeed,” he added. “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.” That’s still good advice, especially for those times we are tempted to become mired in despair over the state of our current political discourse.
Update: The New York Times last week launched a series of opinion pieces titled “Disunion”, analyzing events of the same week 150 years before as if they were being covered in real time. The feature began with an analysis of the 1860 presidential race and Lincoln’s chances of victory in New York.
In 1860 St. Louis reporter Samuel Weed spent Election Day with Lincoln. His account, however, was not written until 1882 and not published until 1932. The story can be read at this link.