• Codie Eash

President-elect Lincoln’s inaugural journey through Pennsylvania


In the presidential election of 1860, Republican nominee Abraham Lincoln was the candidate of choice for 268,036 eligible Pennsylvanians, earning him 56 percent of the state’s popular vote.[1]


The Commonwealth had been Democratic-leaning for some time, perhaps best evidenced by its status as the birthplace for the incumbent commander-in-chief, Democrat James Buchanan. Nevertheless, the political mood in the fall of 1860 suggested that Pennsylvania was riding a Republican wave. Andrew Curtin achieved victory in the gubernatorial election that autumn, and the presidential tally gave Lincoln nearly 90,000 more votes than his next-closest opponent. In the contested four-way national race, Lincoln earned the Keystone State’s 27 electoral college delegates.[2]


Lincoln's journey to Washington, D.C., began on February 1, 1861, when the president-elect and his family boarded a train at Springfield, Illinois, joined by an entourage of dignitaries and soldiers. The party included some prominent figures such as Ward Hill Lamon, Lincoln’s longtime confidante, de facto guard, and the one-day master of ceremonies at the dedication of Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg; Edwin Vose Sumner, who ultimately became a major general and the oldest corps commander of the Civil War; eventual Army of Virginia leader John Pope; and Elmer Ellsworth, the president-elect’s close friend and soon-to-be first officer killed in the looming rebellion, shot down while attempting to lower a Confederate flag.[3]


Now, four months after the November election, the “Rail-Splitter” and his supporters traveled eastward for his inauguration, slated for March 4, 1861. Along the way, Lincoln gauged his popularity on a tour through six Northern states. In all, the president-elect made stops (and oftentimes delivered speeches) in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, New York, Maryland, and two separate legs in Pennsylvania—first to the state’s western extent on February 14, 15, and 16, followed by a return to the eastern and central regions one week later, on February 22.


After departing Ohio, Lincoln arrived at Rochester, Pennsylvania, on February 14, where—much to the chagrin of the audience—he did not speak. Despite his unwillingness to orate formally, when someone asked aloud, “‘What will you do with the secessionists then?’” the president-elect responded that until inauguration day, “‘My friend, that is a matter which I have under grave consideration.’” Lincoln and all loyal Americans fully realized that at that moment, several Southern states pondered secession, and seven had already voted in favor of leaving the United States to form the Confederacy.[4]


Later that day, the presidential train was halted near Pittsburgh, causing Lincoln to briefly inform a gathering swarm of supporters at the Monongahela House hotel that “an accident upon the road to-day...delayed us till this late hour.” He apologized for only having enough time “to address the citizens of Pennsylvania, briefly, this evening,” adding, “I still hope that some arrangement may be made to-morrow morning which will afford me the pleasure of talking to a larger number of my friends than can assemble in this hall.” He assured his cheering throng, “I have a great regard for Allegheny county. It is ‘the banner county of the Union.’”[5]


After riling up the audience, onlookers shouted in succession, “‘We are all Union men,’” “‘No compromise,’” and “‘Three cheers for the Union,’” while one man laughingly urged Lincoln to “go on; split another rail” as his brief remarks winded down. “I thank you, sincerely, for the warm reception I have received...,” a grateful president-elect announced amid a consistent rain. He hoped the weather would clear by the following day so that, in his words, “I may have something to say to you of that ‘peculiar interest of Pennsylvania’ before mentioned.”[6]


At about 8:30 the next morning, Lincoln showed his “beautiful countenance” (as he sarcastically stated) to the audience once more. After a gracious introduction in which he thanked “the citizens of Pittsburg [sic] generally for this flattering reception,” he moved on to more serious matters. “The condition of the country, fellow-citizens, is an extraordinary one, and fills the mind of every patriot with anxiety and solicitude,” he lamented.[7]


Lincoln cited “the spirit of the Constitution” as his guiding light amid the present predicament, through which “the integrity of the Union” must be upheld so that “the liberties of the people” and “the peace of the whole country” might remain intact. “Notwithstanding the troubles across the river,” he stated as he pointed southward, “there is really no crisis, springing from anything in the government itself.” Following a discourse on “the important question of a tariff,” Lincoln implored his followers to maintain a relationship with “your representatives” in order to properly protect “the coal and iron of Pennsylvania,” and then “bid” the onlookers “adieu” by guaranteeing he would act on behalf of “all the varied interests of our common country.”[8]


The presidential car traversed back through Ohio before returning to northwest Pennsylvania at Erie on February 16, where Lincoln, “hoarse and fatigued,...excused himself from speaking at any length...,” recounted the local Weekly Gazette. “Counselling all to firmness, forbearance, and patriotic adherence to the Constitution and the Union, he retired amidst applause.” From there, the train maneuvered for four days through New York, then turned southward to New Jersey on February 21, the same day it finally returned to Pennsylvania.[9]


Although he made “no lengthy speech,” Lincoln delivered his opening remarks from the balcony of the Continental Hotel in Philadelphia, humbly informing his audience, “The reception you have given me to-night is not to me, the man, the individual, but to the man who temporarily represents, or should represent, the majesty of the nation.” He acknowledged “that there is great anxiety amongst the citizens of the United States at this time,” but also enticed Philadelphians “to listen to those breathings within the consecrated walls where the Constitution of the United States, and, I will add, the Declaration of Independence was originally framed” in that very city.[10]


“I have never asked anything that does not breathe from those walls,” said Lincoln, in reference to Independence Hall. “All my political warfare has been in favor of the teachings coming forth from that sacred hall. May my right hand forget its cunning and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if ever I prove false to those teachings” (the latter statement being a biblical allusion to Psalm 137:6 and Ezekiel 3:26).[11]


That evening, Lincoln received an invitation to speak at Wilmington, Delaware, as soon as possible, but he declined because, “The programme established provides for my presence in Harrisburg in twenty-four hours from this time.” Before he left for the Pennsylvania capital, however, Lincoln delivered two more speeches in Philadelphia the next day, on February 22. Both occurred in Independence Hall.[12]


“I am filled with deep emotion at finding myself standing here in the place where were collected together the wisdom, the patriotism, the devotion to principle, from which sprang the institutions under which we live...,” Lincoln professed. “I can say...that all the political sentiments I entertain have been drawn, so far as I have been able to draw them, from the sentiments which originated, and were given to the world from this hall in which we stand. I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence.”[13]


The president-elect admitted that he had “often pondered over the dangers which were incurred by the men who assembled here and adopted the Declaration of Independence,” and “often inquired of myself, what great principle or idea it was that kept this Confederacy so long together.” (He was speaking of the confederation of U.S. states, not to be confused with the newly created Confederate States of America.) “It was not the mere matter of the separation of colonies from the mother land; but something in that Declaration giving liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time,” Lincoln determined.[14]


“It was that which gave promise that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance,” Lincoln continued. “This is the sentiment embodied in the Declaration of Independence,” and if “this country can be saved upon that basis,” he added, “I will consider myself one of the happiest men in the world....But,” he concluded in evocative and premonitory terms, “if this country cannot be saved without giving up that principle—I was about to say I would rather be assassinated on this spot than to surrender it.”[15]


Lincoln followed his haunting pronouncement by “raising above Independence Hall the flag of our country, with an additional star on it,” he announced in reference to the new 34th star representing Kansas. “I wish to call your attention to the fact, that, under the blessing of God, each additional star added to that flag has given additional prosperity and happiness to this country, until it has advanced to its present condition,” he stated; “and its welfare in the future, as well as in the past, is in your hands.”[16]


From Philadelphia, the train stopped at Leaman Place, where he “said he was too unwell to say much” other than that it was “his pleasure on entering the great county of Lancaster,” reported the local Evening Express. “Loud calls being made for Mrs. Lincoln, Mr. L. brought her out, and said he had concluded to give them ‘the long and the short of it!’” According to the paper, “This remark—with the disparity between the length of himself and wife—produced a loud burst of laughter, followed by enthusiastic cheers as the train moved off.”[17]


The next stop was the city of Lancaster, where again Lincoln offered a succinct statement. “There is plenty of matter to speak about in these times, but it is well known that the more a man speaks the less he is understood—the more he says one thing, his adversaries contend he meant something else,” Lincoln noticed. “I shall soon have occasion to speak officially, and then I will endeavor to put my thoughts just as plain as I can express myself, true to the Constitution and Union of all the States, and to the perpetual liberty of all the people.”[18]


Lincoln’s final Keystone State city was the capital in Harrisburg, where he delivered two more orations on February 22. First, he addressed an audience which included Gov. Andrew Curtin from the balcony of the Jones House hotel.


“Allusion has been made to the peaceful principles upon which this great Commonwealth was originally settled...,” the president-elect told the Pennsylvanians gathered below him as the threat of civil war loomed. “I hope no one of the Friends who originally settled here, or who have lived here since that time, or who live here now, has been or is a more devoted lover of peace, harmony and concord than my humble self. While I have been proud to see to-day the finest military array...allow me to express the hope that in the shedding of blood their services may never be needed, especially in the shedding of fraternal blood.”[19]


At the end of that day, Lincoln culminated his whistle-stop tour through Pennsylvania by appearing before the General Assembly in the Capitol building. “I thank your great Commonwealth for the overwhelming support it recently gave me—not me personally—but the cause which I think a just one, in the late election,” he told the legislators on what happened to be George Washington’s birthday. “Allusion has been made to the fact...that I for the first time appear at the Capitol of the great Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, upon the birthday of the Father of this Country.”[20]


Lincoln mentioned that on this “beloved anniversary,” he had just “gone through one exceedingly interesting scene this morning in the ceremonies at Philadelphia,” where “I was for the first time allowed the privilege of standing in Independence Hall.” He recounted with pride the “words uttered at the hotel” in Harrisburg, and even harkened back “to some remarks made by myself at Pittsburgh, in regard to what is supposed to be the especial interest of this great Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” adding “that the few remarks which I uttered on that occasion were rather carefully worded.”[21]


“And now, gentlemen of the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, allow me again to return to you my most sincere thanks,” he concluded. One reporter observed that with those utterances, “Mr. Lincoln took his seat amid rapturous and prolonged cheering.” Clearly, the week-long trek around Pennsylvania meant a great deal to Lincoln—and the feeling was reciprocal.[22]


On February 23, Lincoln’s train chugged through Baltimore and past legitimate threats of assassination, after which the president-elect unceremoniously entered Washington in disguise. On March 4, he was inaugurated, followed five weeks later by the start of armed rebellion against the nation he now led. The Civil War was begun.


The conflict would bring Lincoln back to Pennsylvania twice in the coming years—first to dedicate a cemetery at Gettysburg to U.S. soldiers who died in the conflict’s bloodiest battle, an occasion which he utilized to speak about the meaning of union, liberty, and equality. The second and final instance Lincoln returned to the Keystone State was as a casualty of war himself—a corpse upon a funeral train as his earthly remains made the long venture back to his beloved Illinois.


[1] W. Dean Burnham, Presidential Ballots 1836-1892 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1955), 248.

[2] Burnham, Presidential Ballots, 248; “Western Pennsylvania and the Election of 1860,” in Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine (Pittsburgh: Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania, January 1922), vol. 6, no. 1, 25.

[3] Henry C. Whitney, Lincoln the Citizen (New York: The Current Literature Publishing Co., 1907), 294.

[4] Remarks at Rochester, Pennsylvania,” Feb. 14, 1861, in Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, edited by Roy P. Basler (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953), vol. 4, 208. Referred to hereafter as CW.

[5]Remarks at the Monongahela House, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania,” Feb. 14, 1861, in CW, vol. 4, 208.

[6] “Remarks at the Monongahela House,” in CW, vol. 4, 209.

[7]Remarks from the Balcony of the Monongahela House, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania,” Feb. 14, 1861, in CW, vol. 4, 209; “Speech at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania,” Feb. 15, 1861, in CW, vol. 4, 210.

[8]Speech at Pittsburgh,” in CW, vol. 4, 211-213.

[9]Remarks at Erie, Pennsylvania,” in CW, vol. 4, 219.

[10] Lincoln, “Reply to Mayor Alexander Henry at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania,” Feb. 21, 1861, in CW, vol. 4, 238, 239.

[11] “Reply to Mayor Alexander Henry,” in CW, vol. 4, 239.

[12] Lincoln, “Reply to a Delegation from Wilmington, Delaware,” Feb. 21, 1861, in CW, vol. 4, 239.

[13] Lincoln, “Speech in Independence Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania,” Feb. 22, 1861, in CW, vol. 4, 240.

[14] “Speech in Independence Hall,” in CW, vol. 4, 240.

[15] “Speech in Independence Hall,” in CW, vol. 4, 240.

[16] Lincoln, “Speech at the Flag-raising before Independence Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania,” Feb. 22, 1861, in CW, vol. 4, 241.

[17]Remarks at Leaman Place, Pennsylvania,” in CW, vol. 4, 242.

[18] Lincoln, “Remarks at Lancaster, Pennsylvania,” Feb. 22, 1861, in CW, vol. 4, 242.

[19] Lincoln, “Reply to Governor Andrew J. Curtin at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania,” Feb. 22, 1861, in CW, vol. 4, 243.

[20] Lincoln, “Address to the Pennsylvania General Assembly at Harrisburg,” Feb. 22, 1861, in CW, vol. 4, 244.

[21] “Address to the Pennsylvania General Assembly,” in CW, vol. 4, 244, 245.

[22] “Address to the Pennsylvania General Assembly,” in CW, vol. 4, 244.


(Featured image: By Alexander Gardner - Getty Center, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31644871)

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