The United States are divided between white supremacists and others who feel that African Americans should have the same rights as anyone else. Entire regions of the country express their distinctiveness with rallies, protests, and often, physical conflict sometimes leading to death. The President of the United States is widely regarded as a do-nothing idiot, but his very lack of legitimate activity seems designed to tacitly support the know-nothing right wing white supremacists. But there is a new leader coming, one who will fight against white supremacy and hard right conspiracies even as he works to pull the country together. Those watching closely are concerned, however, that the new leader may not even make it alive to his own inauguration, given the violent nature of the times and the severe, vitriolic hate expressed by those opposed to him.
Welcome to 1861.
“On the eve of his 52nd birthday, February 11, 1861, the President-Elect of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, walked onto a train, the first step of his journey to the White House, and his rendezvous with destiny.
But as the train began to carry Lincoln toward Washington, it was far from certain what he would find there. Bankrupt and rudderless, the government was on the verge of collapse. To make matters worse, reliable intelligence confirmed a conspiracy to assassinate him as he passed through Baltimore. It is no exaggeration to say that the fate of the Republic hung in the balance.
How did Lincoln survive this grueling odyssey, to become the president we know from the history books? Lincoln on the Verge tells the story of a leader discovering his own strength, improvising brilliantly, and seeing his country up close during these pivotal thirteen days.
From the moment the Presidential Special left the station, a new Lincoln was on display, speaking constantly, from a moving train, to save the Republic. The journey would draw on all of Lincoln’s mental and physical reserves. But the President-Elect discovered an inner strength, which deepened with the exhausting ordeal of meeting millions of Americans.” (Publisher’s summary.)
I herby recommend* Lincoln on the Verge: Thirteen Days to Washington by Ted Widmer.
This is a very good book, compelling, startling, and if you don’t already know the story, highly informative. I won’t push it because it is already widely acclaimed. Even the guy who wrote Hamilton says it is a must read. I know you are going to get it and read it. Instead, I will point out two arguments made in the book that are not necessarily the main arguments, but that I found to be very important.
First, trains. The story is of course almost entirely played out on a train or near a train, in a train or on the way to or from a train. This gave the author license, appropriately and we are glad he took it up, to discuss the role of trains in the formation of North and South differences in the US. I won’t make the argument here, I’m just telling you that you will find it in the book (mainly in the beginning chapters) and you will find it fascinating.
Second, Lincoln’s prowess as a speech writer and speaker. Surely you’ve heard the story that Abe Lincoln write the famous Gettysburg Address as an afterthought on the back of a napkin on the way to the battlefield (on a train). That of course, never happened. Lincoln worked hard on that address, over a longer period of time. It is a finely crafted speech based on a thousands of years old oration by the first citizen of Athens, but of course much updated. Lincoln crafted that, and other speeches, with an earned, and learned, appreciation of rhetoric as well as history.
But it is also true that Lincoln was probably not the best presidential orator before he was president. Prior to 1860, Lincoln argued cases against fellow lawyers in front of tough judges. He entertained his colleagues on the circuit court with memorable stories and parables, back in the days when the “circuit” meant lawyers, and sometimes judges, travelling, eating, and sleeping together while going from one town to the next to handle cases. He ran for office a few times (won once) and engaged Douglas in the famous Lincoln Douglas debates. He studied the classics, and he studied history, not formally but by walking in total hundreds of miles to to borrow books. Then he ran for election again and won, having made very few speeches during that campaign. So, on the day Lincoln was elected President, he was a skilled communicator, but not necessarily a skilled presidential speaker, at a time when a skilled presidential speaker seemed rightly to be a key factor in ultimately keeping the United States alive.
And he understood this, and every day for the entire train trip, he worked on that. He gave over 100 speeches in 13 days. A handful of these, including the one he gave at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, are counted among the great speeches. Another handful, he really screwed up, such as one of the first, given in Ohio, in which he pulled an Omar, saying something like “nothing is really happening.” (Ilhan Omar meant, “one thing happened and then an inappropriate reaction to some other thing occurred in an exploitive manner, which was bad” and Lincoln meant “so far no full-on battles have been fought yet.”) For both Ilhan and Abe, the press and the detractors went to town.
But overall, what Lincoln did was to fine tune his skill. For two weeks he gave many great speeches — and lived several near death experiences involving crushing crowds, being shot at with friendly cannon fire twice, nearly bombed once or twice, and nearly assassinated by a thousand assassins once — while the whole country followed every move reported near real time by telegraph. Abe Lincoln purposefully (and incidentally) set up a nation wide culture of expectation and commitment. He created, over this two week period plus a few days in DC and his inaugural, a North ready to fight and a South forced to define its own role as starting a war to defend slavery.
That final real life master class in presidential speech giving turned an excellent orator into one of the best ever.
Hey, did you bump on my wording in the first sentence, above? (“The United States are divided between white supremacists and others who feel that African Americans should have the same rights as anyone else.”) That’s how they would have said it before Lincoln’s presidency, and before the Civil War. “The United States are …” The United States became a singular entity because of Lincoln and the war. Now, it is “The United States is…”
If you went back in a time machine to become an antebellum grammar Nazi, you would have to learn this.