Across from Ford’s Theater stands the Petersen House, where President Abraham Lincoln died on the morning of April 15, 1865, only six weeks after his second inauguration. Just inside the door stands a towering stack of laminated books, a 34-foot-high symbol of the more than 15,000 titles written over the past century and a half about the 16th president.
Why so many? The cynical answer is that people will buy them. A more nuanced answer is that we need many interpretations of Lincoln because there were many sides to the man. Two new books explore two of those sides from unique angles. In Lincoln on the Verge: Thirteen Days to Washington by Ted Widmer and Every Drop of Blood: The Momentous Second Inauguration of Abraham Lincoln by Edward Achorn, we see the man marked by a remarkable consistency of purpose mixed with a deft flexibility in tactics.
Each book examines a tile in the mosaic of Lincoln’s life in an attempt to yield larger truths. Both succeed in most respects, giving us close-ups of Lincoln at the beginning and end of his presidency.
The Brutal Familiarity of Democracy
In Lincoln on the Verge, Widmer, a lecturer at City University of New York and a contributor to The New York Times’ “Disunion” blog, depicts Lincoln’s trip from Springfield to Washington as a version of The Odyssey, leading each chapter with a quote from Homer designed to set the stage.
Shelby Foote and others have described the Civil War as America’s Illiad. But, as Widmer himself briefly suggests, a better allusion for Lincoln’s winter 1861 journey might be The Pilgrim’s Progress, “the story of an epic voyage through a sinful nation” (and one of Lincoln’s favorite books).
Widmer strains the Homeric metaphor, likening the Trojan Horse to the railroad as a new technology benefiting one side over the other and likening Odysseus to Lincoln, hidden away inside the iron horse to enter the hostile city of Washington, where Southerners had held sway for much of the history of the republic.
To accentuate the point, Widmer starts the story not in Springfield in 1861, but in 1859 in the tiny hamlet of Troy, Kansas, about 30 miles west of St. Joseph, Missouri, the farthest west that Lincoln—who had once been offered the governorship of the Oregon Territory—would ever travel.
Widmer also likens Lincoln’s journey to a royal progress, noting that “when kings of England and France traveled through the countryside, they were believed to possess magical healing powers,” and countryfolk would come looking to be healed by “the royal touch.” And while “not many clung to these old superstitions in a country as modern as the United States … some kind of laying on of hands was needed.”
This ground has been well-trod, from the poetic prose of Shelby Foote to the incisive analysis of Harold Holzer and countless others. Holzer’s Lincoln, President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter 1860-1861, offers a more fully realized exploration of the political dilemma that the incoming president faced. Daniel Stashower’s The Hour of Peril: The Secret Plot to Murder Lincoln Before the Civil War is a livelier, more riveting version of the plot to assassinate Lincoln.
What separates Widmer and makes Lincoln on the Verge worthy of a reader’s attention is his careful attention to detail, which allows the reader to share the journey with Lincoln in real time, traveling alongside the new president as he discovered the country he was tasked with saving while the country also got to know more about him.
As Lincoln and his entourage planned the route, they had multiple constituencies to keep in mind. One was the South. Lincoln wanted to show the dissatisfied sisters that he was no threat. But he also wanted to visit as many governors as possible and establish relationships with those who would be supplying troops in the event of war. (For an excellent study of Lincoln’s relationship with state chief executives, see Gathering to Save a Nation: Lincoln & the Union’s War Governors, by Stephen D. Engle from University of North Carolina Press, 2016.)
Most important were the average citizens of the North. Lincoln found them massed in cities, gathered in small towns, clustered at crossroads, and spread out along the railroad tracks, waving and wishing him well. He found them on the train with him. Widmer’s narrative connects them all, drawing you in as it draws you across the country.
The Chicago Tribune reported that “at every station and crossing and cabin, the people gathered, some of whom came many miles over heavy roads, to see the train and strive to catch a glimpse of one who bears the hopes of many.” It was a scene that would be repeated, albeit in a minor key, four years hence, on Lincoln’s return to Springfield.
Nearly everywhere, Lincoln stopped to speak or meet the locals. Herman Melville observed that Lincoln shook hands “like a man sawing wood at so much per cord.” Widmer writes that “to look a stranger in the eye and give a firm shake was another act of union, restoring confidence, one clasp at a time.” This helped Lincoln to discover the country, and “it is impossible to imagine Jefferson Davis embracing the public in quite the same way”—though, as Widmer notes, “every hour deepened the established fact of the Confederacy.”
Lincoln was not a provincial—he had traveled widely in the North, on his own political behalf and as a surrogate for others. But the times were so different, and the need of the people to be reassured so heightened, that it was practically true in this case that the past was another country. He discovered some of that difference—but also discovered the danger that lurked there. “Democracy required that he present himself, unapologetically, before the people,” Widmer writes. “But that meant that anyone could come near him, at exactly the times that the newspapers had announced his arrival” in what Englishwoman Frances Trollope, an earlier traveler in America, had called “the brutal familiarity” of democracy. Danger would be a twin theme with union throughout the journey.
Lincoln’s progress was about more than geography. Widmer doesn’t go there, but each city on the journey can be seen as a sort of Station of the Cross, with the people he met in those cities and the towns in between, and those who joined him on the train, composing the congregation.
His speeches had highs and lows. He made tactical mistakes and oratorical blunders. But his underlying message was remarkably consistent, both because it was the same message he had been delivering for more than a decade and because he believed it deeply. Future president Rutherford B. Hayes met with Lincoln during the Ohio leg of the trip and wrote at the time, “he believes in a policy of kindness, of delay to give time for passions to cool, but not in a compromise to extend the power and the deadly influence of the slave system.”
Lincoln understood that he could do nothing without the people who were looking to him, and that they would be a support for and a check on him. In Lawrenceburg, Indiana, just across the Ohio River from Kentucky, he told the crowd, “if you, the people, are but true to yourselves and to the Constitution, there is but little harm I can do, thank God.” Journalist Henry Villard wrote that after only two days, the country felt more coherent. That might just have been Villard projecting his own growing sense that Lincoln was up to the job, but it was an indicator. Lincoln was, Widmer contends, “using these intense encounters to remind Americans of all they still had in common.”
The cities—from Indianapolis to Cincinnati to Columbus, from Pittsburgh to Cleveland to Buffalo, from Albany to Philadelphia to Harrisburg—are each a case study telling the reader and Lincoln something about the state of America in February 1861. From the serial parts, you gain a sense of the whole, in much the same way that the state-by-state rundown in Pauline Maier’s Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787–1788, paints a vivid social, cultural, and political picture of late 1780s America.
Similarly, we encounter those who encountered Lincoln and would go on to greater things—John D. Rockefeller, William Dean Howells, and Andrew Carnegie, among many others. In Syracuse, New York, he met Daniel Waldo, who had fought in the Revolution and voted for George Washington. There could hardly have been a better symbol of what Lincoln was trying to accomplish on his journey.
Detracting from Widmer’s vivid narrative are careless references sprinkled throughout. He uses a Twitter-like overstatement in asserting that Lincoln “destroyed” his opponents at the Republican Convention in Chicago. William Seward led on the first ballot, and it took two more for Lincoln to win the nomination. Four of the men Lincoln “destroyed” would end up in his cabinet. In writing that Lincoln had not been elected to anything since 1846, Widmer ignores Lincoln’s election to the state Senate in 1855. He writes that the House “interfered” in the election of 1824; it acted within its constitutional responsibilities. Widmer refers to residents of Indiana as “Indianans,” a term few (if any) Hoosiers would employ.
While Widmer’s Homeric device provides a structure, it sometimes gets in the way of the protagonist—who is, after all, substantial enough on his own to justify a 34-foot high tower of books, with countless more surely on the way. Widmer is on firmer ground when he employs Alexis de Tocqueville, never more effectively than when he ponders the greatness of the Frenchman’s classic text. “What gave Democracy in America such richness was the feeling that a real journey lay underneath,” Widmer writes. “[de Tocqueville] had grown as he walked through the forests and floated down rivers, studying the invisible physics that held Americans together.”
So did Lincoln.
A Deeper Lesson
In Every Drop of Blood, Edward Achorn, former editorial page editor of the Providence Journal, presents a different version of the Odyssey—a kind of Joycean journey around Washington on the night preceding and day of Lincoln’s second inaugural, March 3–4, 1865.
Like Leopold Bloom, we encounter a diverse cast of characters: Salmon Chase, who was convinced he and not Lincoln should be delivering the inaugural; John Wilkes Booth and his mysterious girlfriend, the daughter of a New Hampshire senator; Walt Whitman; Frederick Douglass; a drunken and unpleasant Andrew Johnson; Dr. Samuel Mudd; Alexander Gardner; Clara Barton; and a host others, famous and obscure.
As was the case on Lincoln’s arrival in 1861, the streets of Washington still were not altogether safe four years later. Plots abounded. Spies filtered into and out of the city. Soldiers in uniform were on patrol. Many of them were black, still an unusual and often contentious sight for many of the city’s residents. By March 3, the city’s hotels were overflowing, with hundreds of guests at the Willard, the National, and others filling up hallways with cots and bedding.
Even without the guests, the city itself was bursting at the seams. The population had doubled since the start of the war, but little had been done to accommodate these newcomers, either. The City Canal, which ran just south of the White House, continued to serve as a sewer, lending a foul stench to the heart of the capital.
Despite these problems, Achorn writes, “after years of fear and mourning, Americans were ready to lose themselves in a celebration.” The night before the inaugural ceremony, the crowded Capitol was awash in light, and Congress rushed to finish its work. Lincoln was fielding reports from the front. The next day, he was dressed in a new Brooks Brothers suit and a pair of custom-made calfskin boots, size 14. He signed bills into law, including one boosting pensions for the five surviving veterans of the Revolutionary War (these did not include Daniel Waldo, who had died in July 1864). Outside, the “wind howled viciously” and the “rain poured in torrents.” But just as Lincoln rose to speak, the sun burst through the clouds, and many in attendance took it for an omen.
Achorn’s narrative is loose, conversational, has moments of true wit (as when he refers to Lincoln friend G.B. Lincoln—no relation—as “that rarest of men, a Massachusetts-born abolitionist with a sense of humor”), and only rarely loses sight of its main purpose, the author’s interpretation of Lincoln’s greatest speech.
At 703 words, it is the second shortest inaugural speech ever delivered – only George Washington’s second was shorter. But in those 703 words are some of the profoundest words ever spoken about the United States, her people, and our history.
Earlier generations of historians and citizens focused on “with malice toward none” as Lincoln’s central concept. “Upon Lincoln’s death, much of the nation embraced those words … as the essence of their lost president,” Achorn writes. For 100 years, the speech’s idea of forgiveness dominated the popular conception. So, it is somehow fitting that we have as a new focus the sinfulness of America, at a time when America’s sins are much the rage in academia and elsewhere. After four years of blood, Lincoln implored forgiveness. Much of our elite, amidst our prosperity, can only find fault, blame, and insists that America is tainted by evil.
The ideas work in tandem—Lincoln’s absence of malice was informed by the knowledge that both sides were complicit in the evil of slavery. Achorn devotes space to Lincoln’s oft-debated views on religion, including a review of his religious upbringing. But the adult Lincoln’s belief in a vengeful God was somewhat out of step with the softer view of the mid-19th century, as if he had skipped the Second Great Awakening and moved straight on to neo-orthodoxy, judging that at this moment in its history, a vengeful Old Testament God was needed to save America’s soul.
Lincoln had begun his journey to Washington from Springfield by invoking religious imagery. “With the assistance of the Divine Being who ever attended him,” he told the neighbors who had come to see him off, “I cannot succeed. With that assistance, I cannot fail.” As he spoke on March 4, 1865, that Divine Being was standing in judgment of the nation, decreeing that “every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.”
Like many of Lincoln’s greatest speeches, the second inaugural inspired partisan responses. It was, naturally, panned in the South, but even many Northern newspapers were critical. The Democratic Chicago Times was not swayed by home-state loyalty, writing “we did not conceive it possible that even Mr. Lincoln could produce a paper so slip-shod, so loose-joined, so puerile, not alone in literary construction, but in its ideas, its sentiments, its grasp.” Even Lincoln thought it would take some time for the speech to be fully understood, commenting that he expected it to “wear as well—perhaps better than—any thing I have produced; but I believe it is not immediately popular.” Still, some grasped it right away. Britain’s Spectator wrote that the speech, “for political weight, moral dignity, and unaffected solemnity, has had no equal in our time.” That was also the judgment of history.
A few minor quibbles: Buchanan’s attorney general was Jeremiah Black, not James Black; when discussing the election of 1864 and challenges to Lincoln, Achorn neglects to mention the Radical Republican candidacy of John C. Fremont; some of the digressions are too long and leave the reader eager to return to the Bloomsday-like action; and the narrative is overly reliant on Whitman as a witness. But these trifles do not detract from Achorn’s success in contributing to our understanding of Lincoln’s masterpiece, and thus to our understanding of the American experience.
Like Widmer, Achorn succeeds in giving us a portrait of Lincoln that is not new but is presented from a new angle. In both books, Lincoln is surrounded by admirers and detractors, he is making a case, he is a politician in his element—which is, after all, what Lincoln was in his time. Lincoln’s journeys, from Springfield to Washington and from the man he was in 1861 to the man he was in 1865, carried him from confronting a task “greater than that which rested upon Washington” through accomplishing that task and finally to hoping “to bind up the nation’s wounds.” As a reminder of who we were, are, and ought to be, it is a journey worth recounting, from every angle, from beginning to end.