• Codie Eash

How the Pennsylvania press reacted to Lincoln’s second inauguration - March 1865


With storm clouds from the previous night's rain clearing away, Abraham Lincoln took his second oath of office as President of the United States on March 4, 1865. The incumbent defeated his Democratic challenger, Major General George McClellan, the previous November by an electoral college differential of 212 to 21, and by more than 400,000 individual votes. In Pennsylvania, President Lincoln’s name appeared as the candidate of choice on 296,292 ballots—18,849 more than the Philadelphia native McClellan.[1]

Across Pennsylvania in March 1865, newsmen who reacted in a variety of partisan ways to Lincoln’s reelection several months earlier flocked to Washington, D.C., to cover the inauguration. Journalists representing papers in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia reported to their big-city readerships, while those hailing from the likes of Gettysburg and Chambersburg informed small-town clientele who had experienced the Civil War more directly than anyone in the Keystone State. Because many period papers did not publish Sunday issues, the first news reports appeared at Pennsylvanians’ homes on March 6 (two days after the inauguration, which occurred on a Saturday), while other articles appeared in subsequent editions over the following days and weeks.


Chief among correspondents’ analysis was the reserved-but-congratulatory nature of the ceremonies, capped by Lincoln’s 798-word inaugural address. The final two paragraphs have been regarded as particularly poetic, and his insistence that “American slavery” was not only significant, but, Lincoln as proclaimed, “All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war,” has been treated as an example of his radical shift from a moderate opponent of the institution’s spread to the Great Emancipator. The oratorical effort was considered by many contemporaries to be his greatest speech, causing many modern historians to believe it surpasses even the Gettysburg Address in its eminence.[2]


“Today enthusiastic and confident crowds, representing every loyal state in the United States, assembled to witness the re-inauguration of the man, who four years ago, in defiance of the threats of traitors, was installed in his high office at the point of the bayonet,” described the Pittsburgh Daily Commercial in drawing a contrast between the outbreak of war in 1861 and the looming peace of 1865. According to the paper, in Washington, “both sides of the street were completely jammed by those eager to see the President” for several hours until finally, “in his unassuming way [Lincoln] came in full view of the throng, [as] a loud and enthusiastic cheer welcomed him with many repetitions that seemed as though they would not be checked.” The Commercial did not specifically excerpt the text of the inaugural speech, but said that the commotion “subsided” as “privileged visitors to the Senate Chamber clustered on the portico, and at the windows, and in the universal hush the President addressed them.”[3]


Pittsburgh’s Daily Post was a traditionally conservative Democratic paper that lamented Lincoln’s victory the prior November. Nevertheless, the publication did not let its editorial bias show in its analysis of the inauguration, instead offering a relatively straightforward recitation of the day’s events. “The weather was clear and beautiful, but on account of the recent rains the streets were filled with mud...almost knee deep,” the Post reported on March 6. “Despite this fact, the crowd that assembled was exceedingly large, and thousands proceeded to the Capitol to witness the inauguration ceremonies.”[4]


“The public and principal private buildings on Pennsylvania Avenue were gaily decorated with flags and every window was thronged with faces to catch a glimse [sic] of the President elect...in the presence of thousands who witnessed the interesting ceremony...,” the Post continued. “Everything passed off in the most quiet and orderly manner, and although thousands participated in the ceremonies, not an accident occurred to mar the pleasures of the day.”[5]


Under the celebratory headline, “ABRAHAM LINCOLN!” the Philadelphia Inquirer presented what was likely the most complete coverage by any Pennsylvania periodical, via long articles that spanned several pages. The paper looked to history for a comparison with regard to the magnitude of the moment, citing the fact that it had been “thirty-two years since the American people witnessed the parallel of an event such as occurred here yesterday—the inauguration of a President of the United States for his second term of office. Then it was Andrew Jackson; now it is Abraham Lincoln.” Just as Jackson “had shown an inflexible purpose to maintain the Union intact against all its enemies,” said the Inquirer, Lincoln “has been honored because, during four years of peculiar trial, he has done his utmost to subdue those enemies, now that their mad theories have taken the shape of action.”[6]


“Washington City is not, under ordinary circumstances, famous for the cleanliness of its thoroughfares,” noted the Inquirer, but, it added, “Neither the mud, the clouds nor the rain seemed to have any terrors for the immense multitudes who had come to see the great event of the day.” The eastern Pennsylvania reporter was “disgusted with the place chosen for the Capital of your country” because “the muddy streets and pavements will scarcely escape you...as you attempt to wade through them.” Nevertheless, he observed of attendees, “Early in the morning they turned out, armed with umbrellas, in force sufficient to have struck terror into the heart of Lee’s army (had the umbrellas been muskets), and to have given an additional impetus to the flight of Jeff. Davis’ Congress had they been marching towards Richmond instead of towards the Capitol.”[7]


The Inquirer added a local flair to its coverage by expressing pride that at least 224 Philadelphia firemen participated in the inaugural parade, along with several dozen service horses and a few pieces of equipment such as “a handsome hose carriage, beautifully decorated with flags and flowers.” The Perseverance Hose Company was permitted access to the White House after the inauguration, where its members presented Lincoln “with a certificate of Honorary Life Membership, which was handsomely written and framed...,” according to the Inquirer. “Mr. Lincoln went through the inevitable hand-shaking process, and then thanked the members of the company for their visit.”[8]


Lastly, the Philadelphia correspondent extolled the “brief and sententious” inaugural oration. “The address is characteristic of Mr. LINCOLN,” the Inquirer declared. “It exhibits afresh the kindness of his heart, and the large charity which has ever marked his actions toward those who are his personal enemies as well as the enemies of his country. Yet he is firm and will not deviate from the straight line of duty.” By quoting the lecture’s final clause, the Inquirer concluded, “The American people will appreciate the plain, manly speech of the President, and will join with him in his efforts ‘to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan, and to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and a lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.’”[9]


While scores of papers from across Pennsylvania reported directly on the inauguration, aside from the Commonwealth’s largest cities, the most impactful coverage came from towns for whom the war had been personal. Lincoln delivered what has since become perhaps his most famous speech at Gettysburg in November 1863, following the costliest battle of the conflict having been fought there that July. Then, in July 1864, Confederate cavalry assaulted the home front 30 miles westward by burning Chambersburg, Northern travesty for which retribution became a Union soldiers’ rallying cry during the remainder of the war.


The Adams Sentinel in Gettysburg opined that Lincoln’s March 4, 1865, re-inauguration “was of the most splendid character.” The weekly Republican newspaper printed the entirety of the inaugural address on March 7, and explained that in the speech’s wake, “there was great cheering among the multitude” as “100 guns were fired from various ports of the city, making a roar of artillery such as never before heard in Washington.” The inaugural “reception at the White House...was a splendid one,” said the Sentinel, adding, “the inaugural ball...it was thought, would be the most brilliant ever held.”[10]


The similarly aligned Franklin Repository in Chambersburg announced comparable sentiments on March 8. The inauguration exhibited “the most imposing ceremonies” and Lincoln “has entered upon a Presidential term that must be fraught with the mightiest consequences for our institutions...,” the progressive periodical expressed. Despite the threat “of skulking assassins, and a population that heavily sympathized with those who sought revolution,” it continued, “now he is inaugurated in a National Capital made free by his own administration....We have abiding faith that Abraham Lincoln will henceforth, as hitherto, keep his heart steadily fixed upon the safety of the Nation, regardless of the passions which may play around him, and that before his second term is closed, he will preside over a restored and honored Union.”[11]


Not all reactions from Pennsylvania’s press was positive, however. Elsewhere in Chambersburg, the editorially conservative Valley Spirit lamented that the seemingly lauded inaugural address “has been looked for by the public with less interest than is usually exhibited, even in ordinary times, in regard to a public expression from the pen or lips of a President of the United States.” Lincoln lacked “any confidence” from the American people, who refused “to excuse his violations of the Constitution,” according to the paper. His oration was “mere trash” and “unworthy of comment...,” the Spirit excoriated. “He had nothing to say, and he has said it.”[12]


Back at Gettysburg, another weekly Democratic publication agreed with its western neighbor. “The past Presidential term has been a season of untold anguish and suffering, of ruin and desolation...of human woe and National calamity,” the Compiler grumbled on March 13. “Mr. Lincoln has no word of encouragement in his Inaugural Address. Not a single ray of light emanates from the Chief Magistrate,” but rather, “War—stern, unrelenting war—for four years longer, is what the American people have to expect.”[13]


“The desolations of this terrible and bloody strife must continue for the benefit of the African race,” bemoaned the oftentimes-prejudicial Compiler, which kept no secrets about its negative opinions toward racial equality and the expansion of civil liberties. Then the paper turned to sarcasm in its denial of Lincoln’s policies. It concluded, “Taxation, conscription, death and destruction are to be our portion for another Presidential term, and still are solemnly asked to shout aloud and proclaim the greatness of Abraham Lincoln!”[14]


Notwithstanding his local rival’s excoriation of the inaugural exercises, on March 14, the editor of the Adams Sentinel contextualized the enormity of the occasion perhaps more fully than almost anyone who remained loyal to the republic. “The writer...recollects with what anxiety he and thousands of others witnessed the inauguration four years ago,” a small column on the front page described of 1861. “Treason was rampant on all sides, and traitors jeered and ridiculed the whole ceremony as a farce, and the last that would take place at Washington.”[15]


“But four years of war and blood have taught traitors to know that the Union cannot be destroyed,” the Sentinel determined. “What a theme for reflection a review of the past four years opens up. But we do not mean to enter on any review of the past,” the paper clarified. “This every reader can do for himself, and he cannot fail to feel that he has lived in the most important age of the world’s history.”[16]


[1] W. Dean Burnham, Presidential Ballots 1836-1892 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1955), 249.

[2] “Second Inaugural Address,” in Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, edited by Roy P. Basler (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953), vol. 8, 332-333. For the fullest and most expert analysis of the address, see Ronald C. White Jr., Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002).

[3]“INAUGURATION OF PRESIDENT LINCOLN,” Pittsburgh Daily Commercial (Pittsburgh, PA), March 6, 1865, 1.

[4]“THE INAUGURATION,” Daily Post (Pittsburgh, PA), March 6, 1865, 1.

[5]“THE INAUGURATION,” Daily Post, March 6, 1865, 1.

[6] “ABRAHAM LINCOLN!” Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), March 6, 1865, 1.

[7]“ABRAHAM LINCOLN!” Philadelphia Inquirer, March 6, 1865, 1.

[8]“ABRAHAM LINCOLN!” Philadelphia Inquirer, March 6, 1865, 1; “INAUGURATION OF PRESIDENT LINCOLN,” Philadelphia Inquirer, March 6, 1865, 8.

[9]“THE INAUGURAL,” Philadelphia Inquirer, March 6, 1865, 4.

[10]“THE INAUGURATION,” Adams Sentinel (Gettysburg, PA), March 7, 1865, 2.

[11] Franklin Repository (Chambersburg, PA), March 8, 1865, 2.

[12]“INAUGURAL ADDRESS,” Valley Spirit (Chambersburg, PA), March 8, 1865, 2.

[13]“FOUR YEARS MORE,” Compiler (Gettysburg, PA), March 13, 1865, 2.

[14]“FOUR YEARS MORE,” Compiler, March 13, 1865, 2.

[15] Adams Sentinel, March 14, 1865, 1.

[16] Adams Sentinel, March 14, 1865, 1.

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