In November 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States. By the time he turned 52, on February 12, 1861, the Union was crumbling. The day of his inauguration, March 4, had yet to arrive.
His election had been a great achievement, but the consciousness of bringing on a terrible national crisis tempered whatever joy came with it. As soon as word got out that Lincoln and his Republican party had scored a commanding victory, Southerners began making good on their longstanding threats to leave. Convinced that Republican ascendancy would itself bring about the end of slavery, even within their own state boundaries, Southern states began seceding, declaring their independence from the United States, saying farewell, and withdrawing. South Carolina was first, announcing its departure on Christmas Eve.
The national breakdown, the unreal sense of chaos and catastrophe, intensified during Lincoln’s protracted rail journey to the capital from his home in Springfield. Having set out on February 11th with his wife and children and a small political entourage, Lincoln made his way east, stopping often, his route a royal progress through innumerable towns.
In each place people turned out for a peek. The new president appeared before them, accepting congratulations, sometimes addressing large, enthusiastic crowds. A tall man in a newly grown beard trying to divine whether the nation was evaporating. And what of these northern citizens? Did they want the South to depart in peace?
Five more southern states had seceded in as many weeks. The outgoing president, James Buchanan, lacked the radical determination to avert what was happening. What would be left of the nation when Lincoln was sworn in?
Already the secessionists were looking ahead to military provisioning and strategy. Looking to form a government rivaling the one they were leaving, they had convened a constitutional convention, slated for Washington’s Birthday, February 22, in Montgomery.
The day was a poignant one for Lincoln, who, having reached the east coast, was making his way south through the major cities. That morning found him in Philadelphia, raising a new flag over Independence Hall. A new star had been added to represent Kansas, the latest state to join the Union.
By then, Lincoln’s desire to journey to the capital in an ‘open and public manner’ was undergoing some radical re-scripting. Railway officials and detectives had credible evidence of a plot to take his life in Baltimore the next day.
Lincoln had insisted on honoring his scheduled commitments in Philadelphia anyway. He stood on the platform bareheaded, a head taller than the surrounding dignitaries, addressing a crowd positioned behind a military guard. He reflected on the growth of the nation from 13 colonies and the personal risk its Revolutionary-era leaders had assumed by signing the Declaration. The same principles of freedom and equality that it had enshrined, Lincoln promised, were the ones that would always guide him.
Grown men perched high in the trees to see him, while his young son Tad peered out from the rail. From the upper windows of the building, more people looked down.
Image: Frederick de Bourg, “President-elect Abraham Lincoln raising a flag
at Independence Hall, Philadelphia, in honor of
the new star added for the admission of Kansas to the Union
on Washington’s Birthday, February 22, 1861.”
From this source.