The worst transition in U.S. history

June 15, 2020

Abraham Lincoln faced the worst circumstances in U.S. history during his presidential transition, with seven Southern states having seceded from the Union before he took the oath of office on March 4, 1861. Historian Ted Widmer tells host David Marchick about Lincoln’s two-week train ride from Illinois to Washington, D.C. in February 1861, how this journey helped him find his voice, build public support, and set the tone for his presidency. He also described how Lincoln navigated around a plot to assassinate him in Baltimore. 

Read the highlights:

Marchick asked Widmer to describe the circumstances Lincoln faced after his November 1860 election as he prepared to assume the presidency. 

Widmer: “Well, it’s a terrible transition…And Lincoln’s transition showed just how fragile our country can be at times. He’s elected on November 6th, 1860, and he has a very small share of the vote. He has only 39.8%…the second smallest plurality ever in our history. And then the South just goes ballistic. They start threatening to secede, and then they begin to actually secede. South Carolina is the first state to secede in December and then six other states secede. So, he’s way out there in Illinois and he can’t really control anything that’s happening back in Washington.” 


Marchick: “There were several interesting things about Lincoln’s train trip (to Washington). He really didn’t give speeches during the campaign, but on this trip, he gave over 100 speeches. How did those speeches and his message affect what he would do as president? Essentially, this was his transition and he found his voice for his presidency. 

Widmer: “Over the course of the 13 days of speeches, he just keeps getting better. He gives a lot of them, a lot of impromptu speeches…And as he gets closer to Philadelphia, he begins to talk very beautifully about his memories of reading books as a young boy about what America stands for. And it’s about the brave men who fought in the American Revolution, but even more it’s about the idealism of this country and freedom. And all of it built up into a very emotional and very persuasive argument that America is better than slavery. That America really stands for a moral principle at home and around the world. And by the end of the trip, it’s only been 13 days, but he’s really pretty close to the Gettysburg address.” 


Marchick: Can you just describe the crowds? 

Widmer: “[There were] absolutely huge crowds in every place he went. In the large cities like New York, a quarter-million people…And in many cities, 50,000 to 100,000 people come out in small towns – often two or three times the actual population of the towns would be there. Everyone was coming in from the surrounding countryside to see him. People would stand by the track in farmland just for the chance to look at his face or wave to him when he went by. Some of that was fear, fear about where the country was heading and fear of a war that was imminent.” 


Marchick asked Widmer how Lincoln used a bit of subterfuge on his journey to Washington after learning about an assassination plot 

Widmer: “He went on a secret, tiny train from Harrisburg to Philadelphia. And he got off that train in the middle of the night…and boarded the last train from Philadelphia to Washington that was going to go through Baltimore…what was called the seat of danger by the reports from the spies saying this is where you have to be really careful…And he got off at dawn in Washington… He just looked like a well-to-do Illinois farmer, sort of coming into Washington for the first time…The simple act of his arriving made his presidency possible…If he doesn’t make it, his presidency doesn’t happen and the North probably loses the Civil War, in my opinion.”