Contributed by John J. Grabowski, Ph.D., Historian/Senior Vice President for Research and Publications, using resources from WRHS’s collections & archives.
The Western Reserve Historical Society’s collection of political memorabilia is of national significance. Much of it is comprised of campaign material which is often on display during an election period. But it is deeper than the buttons and badges representing candidates and political parties that most people see. As we reflect on the inauguration of a new President it is important to note that that event, a peaceful transition of power –one of the most powerful and symbolic events in our nation, is also represented in the collections. As we move toward this year’s inauguration, it is well worth looking at two other inaugurations – perhaps the most important pair in the nation’s history, for which the Historical Society holds several major and rare items.
Abraham Lincoln’s election to the Presidency in 1860 would, in many ways, eventually reshape the nation, not only because of an ensuing Civil War, but also because it would ultimately bring about the end of slavery. The election of 1860 was a fraught affair. Four candidates representing four parties ran for the office. The controversy over slavery split the Democratic Party and resulted in southern and northern candidates. A third party, the Constitutional Union Party, which opposed secession, tried to bridge that gap. The Republican Party, of Lincoln was the candidate, opposed the extension of slavery, but included a number of people who strongly advocated its immediate abolition. No matter its stance the Republican Party was portrayed by its southern opponents as a “black” or “abolitionist” party. Lincoln would not win a single slave state and no ballots for him were distributed in ten southern states.
Nevertheless he won with 180 electoral votes, but only 40 percent of the popular vote. He received the news in his hometown of Springfield, Illinois, and began to make plans for his inauguration which would take place on March 4, 1861. He was to travel to Washington by train and almost immediately he received invitations to stop at cities along the route. George B. Senter, the Republican mayor of Cleveland sent a letter to Springfield.
The reply to that letter is one of the icons of the Society’s collection. Written by one of Lincoln’s secretaries but signed by Lincoln it confirmed Lincoln’s acceptance of the invitation. The President-elect came to Cleveland on February 15 where he spoke to a large crowd from a balcony at the Weddell House where he spent the night. For many years his room was preserved as a museum at the hotel. When the hotel was demolished, a desk purportedly from Lincoln’s room, became part of the Society’s collections.
One of Lincoln’s last stops on the route to Washington was in Philadelphia. There he participated in a flag raising in front of Independence Hall on February 22. The flag had 34 stars, one being new and representing the admission to Kansas to the Union. His remarks were somewhat hopeful, “… I think we may promise ourselves that not only the new star placed upon that flag shall be permitted to remain there to our permanent prosperity for years to come, but additional ones shall from time to time be placed there….” By this time seven southern states had seceded and Jefferson Davis installed as provisional president of the Confederacy. A rare original photographic print of Lincoln speaking from the platform in front of Independence hall is another piece of Lincoln’s inaugural story held in our collections.
It was during his stay in Philadelphia that Lincoln received reports of a plot to assassinate him when he changed trains in Baltimore to travel to his destination Washington. The reports seemed credible, particularly given Maryland’s status as a slave state and because of the number of threats that Lincoln had received since his election. Detective Alan Pinkerton who had discovered the plot convinced Lincoln to change his travel plans. He did, and in partial disguise, he arrived in Washington safely, but was soon lampooned by the press for sneaking into the capital. It was not a good start in a long difficult journey.
On March 4th he gave his first inaugural address at a heavily guarded Capitol. In that address he tried to convince the South to remain in or return to the Union, but hinted at consequences if it didn’t. Near its end Lincoln said: “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The Government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to “preserve, protect, and defend it.” It was, according to one observer an “iron fist in a velvet glove.” James Buchanan, his predecessor as President and who had done nothing to stop the secession of southern states attended the inauguration.
The attack on Ft. Sumter the following month began four years of war, the bloodiest conflict that the nation has ever fought. Near the end of that conflict, Lincoln had his second inauguration. The event in March 1865 was captured by the camera of Alexander Gardner. For many years it was believed that there was no clear image of Lincoln giving his second inaugural address, a short one in which he asked the nation to stay firm and focused at a time when the war was nearly ended. His image was blurred or not fully visible in the prints that were known to exist.
In the early 1970s, Lincoln photographic scholar Lloyd Ostendorf, a noted expert on Lincoln and particularly on photographs of Lincoln, visited the Western Reserve Historical Society to review its collection, which was then being sorted and processed. He came across several images of the second inauguration and found one he had never seen before – it showed a clear, crisp image of Lincoln seated near the lectern at Capitol. The discovery made national news, even appearing in Life magazine. It is, indeed, a treasure of our institution.
Yet, the items we hold relating to Lincoln and his inauguration are not merely treasures – they are evidence of a time when the nation was at a crossroads – free or slave, unified or divided. That crossroads led to a journey that ended up costing hundreds of thousands of lives, including that of Abraham Lincoln who would be assassinated a mere six weeks after his second inauguration, and after the rebellion in the South had been defeated. In December of 1865 the Thirteenth Amendment which ended the unspeakable practice of slavery was passed and two further amendments would begin to reshape the rights of all Americans. It was a difficult time, one considered by historians as a second American Revolution. But it was one that helped and continues to help shape our nation. As we watch the inauguration this year, we should remember that the past never fully repeats itself, but it bears many lessons for the present.