Sunday, January 18, 2009

What a long, strange trip...

The big topic of conversation in the news media this week has been the President-Elect's trip to Washington. He took a train from Philadelphia, stopping in Wilmington, Delaware to pick-up the Vice President-Elect so he would draw parallels to the journey taken by then President-Elect Lincoln. "Re-create the train ride," the Associated Press said. "Replicate the ride," said CNN. CBS news said he was "Tracing the route."

This didn't seem quite right to me, so I wandered over to our Civil War section. (Doing research is not a challenge in a used book shop. I don't have to go to the library or do extensive online searches. I just have to take a look at the shelves.)

It turns out that about the only similarity between Obama's trip and Lincoln's trip is that the cities of Philadelphia and Washington are in roughly the same geographic locations.

Lincoln's journey began in Springfield, IL on February 10, 1861 and lasted fourteen days. His route took him to Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Columbus, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Buffalo, Albany, New York, Trenton, Philadelphia and Harrisburg. It wasn't the most direct route, but the purpose wasn't so much as to take him to Washington as it was to let people see him. This was an era where those running for the highest office in the land didn't campaign, thinking it was unseemly. The candidates would stay at home and utter periodic platitudes while their minions would be loud and boisterous and make all kinds of wild claims. (Today, of course, such claims are made by the candidates themselves, in addition to the minions.)

Anyway, Lincoln's train would stop repeatedly during each day--6, 8 and sometimes a dozen times--and Lincoln would speak at each stop. Sometimes he would merely step out onto the back platform; sometimes he would disembark and address crowds (as he did at Independence Hall) or the state legislatures (as he did in Harrisburg).

The trip was not without drama. On the day he set out, for example, a resolution was introduced to the House of Representatives meeting in Washington that called on Lincoln to acknowledge the existence of the Confederate States of America as a free and independent country and to receive its ambassadors as fully-credentialed diplomats from a foreign power. (The Confederacy had already met in Montgomery, AL; had adopted its Constitution and had elected Jefferson Davis of Mississippi as its President. Indeed, Davis would take his oath of office while Lincoln was on this trip.) And, while in Philadelphia, Lincoln symbolically raised a new flag over Independence Hall. That ceremony went well until the flag caught on something and was ripped asunder while Lincoln was tugging on the rope.

But the most disturbing element of the trip happened out of public view in Harrisburg on the evening of February 22. Lincoln decided to forgo any public appearances south of the Mason-Dixon Line. It seemed that people wanted to kill him there.

Delaware and Maryland still allowed slavery within their borders. There had been tavern talk in Delaware, loose and ill-defined, about a plan to stop the train, pull Lincoln off and hang him. It was a threat, but probably not one that would actually be acted upon.

That was not the case in Baltimore, where there existed a dedicated and well-organized plot to kill Lincoln as he made his way through the city. The conspirators had it pretty well worked out how they would surround the President-Elect and shoot him in the Baltimore station when he was changing trains. That stage had been set and all was in readiness. Allen Pinkerton, who was working on another case, learned of it and took steps to thwart the plan.

What Pinkerton did was convince Lincoln to depart from his schedule and travel incognito on the night prior to his published schedule. The tale involves a forced shutdown of communications (telegraph wires from Harrisburg went dead early in the evening and several newspaper reporters were actually held at gunpoint in a hotel room to prevent them from broadcasting the story), a special train silently screaming through the rural Pennsylvania night, a disguised Lincoln slipping through the sleeping city and into the station in Philadelphia accompanied only by Pinkerton and a single bodyguard, and a blacked-out coach driving through the streets of Baltimore in the wee, early hours of the morning. Lincoln actually arrived in Washington with the dawn, unexpected and unannounced, on the morning of February 23. He showed up at Willard's Hotel, less than a block from the White House, a little after 6 in the morning.

The newspapers had a field day, since few believed that a plot actually existed. Fantastic and wholly-inaccurate stories of the affair were published, with glee, much to the amusement of the general populous. Cartoons, such as the one reproduced here from the March 9, 1861 edition of Vanity Fair, made Lincoln a laughing-stock.

So, the elements of similarity between the current President-Elect's trip and the then President-Elect's trip seem to be limited to the cities of Philadelphia, and of Washington, and something about a train.

When all this was pointed out to a spokesman of President-Elect Obama, his reply was that today we choose to acknowledge the positive aspects of our history.

Well, it is a new day and maybe that's the way it should be.

Still, selective reading of history....? Cui bono?

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