Abraham and Mary Lincoln and their children had been traveling for eight days when the arose on the morning of February 19, 1861 for the next leg of the Inauguration Journey to Washington City. Springfield was far behind them now, and it must have seemed as if they had left a lifetime ago. Until now, crowds everywhere along the way had welcomed Lincoln with overwhelming enthusiasm, to the point that, at times, his safety had been compromised. From large cities to the smallest crossroads, people greeted Lincoln warmly and were overjoyed to see him. All of that would change at the next destination of the Inauguration Journey: New York City.
But first, there were other stops to be made on the way to the city that even then was the financial, media, and cultural capital of the country. At the towns of Troy, Hudson, Poughkeepsie, Fishkill, and Peekskill, Lincoln’s remarks were virtually identical to what they had been at the many other stops in the state of New York, and Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois before that. Lincoln begged off giving formal addresses due to lack of time, so would simply thank the people for coming to see him and to remind them to stand strong for the Union. In Poughkeepsie, Lincoln told the crowd that with their help, the country would remain the most free, most intelligent, and happiest people on Earth. Then two locomotives passed by him as he spoke: one called “Union” and the other “Constitution”, both decorated with American flags. Must have been quite a sight.
The Lincoln Inaugural Train pulled into New York City that afternoon on schedule, arriving at 3:00 p.m. Security was extraordinarily tight. The New York Times reported that of the 1,500 police officers on the city’s force, approximately 1,300 were present to protect Lincoln’s safety. The city’s officials wanted to prevent the near riots which had occurred earlier in the week in Buffalo and again at Albany.
Lincoln arrived that afternoon in a city which still didn’t quite know what to make of him. Only 35% of the people casting ballots in the 1860 presidential election in New York City voted for him. Then as now, the city was a strong supporter of the Democratic Party. The businessmen of the city weren’t happy that they might be losing strong economic ties to the South. The Southern states also owed a huge amount of debt to the New York banks of the day, and the bankers were concerned they might never be repaid those debts.
Others in the city weren’t overly fond of Lincoln thanks to his then lukewarm support for abolition of slavery. While he opposed the *expansion* of the “institution,” his primary focus was on trying to save the Union. That didn’t go over too well with staunch abolitionists such as Horace Greeley, the founder and editor of the New York Tribune, then the most influential paper in the nation. Although Greeley was instrumental in bringing Lincoln to the city in the previous year for his appearance and speech at the Cooper Union, he still wasn’t completely sold on Lincoln’s effectiveness as a political leader.
Once Lincoln and his family left the train, a parade took him along a 3 mile route through downtown. Papers of the day reported that at least 250,000 came to see him, apparently more out of curiosity than out of jubilation. Unlike the welcomes in the other stops along the way, this crowd was mostly silent, as if trying to size up this uneducated and “uncouth” (as they saw him) man from the frontier. The contrast between the mobs in the other cities was simultaneously welcome and unsettling. The image at the beginning of this post is from a print which shows Lincoln’s arrival 150 years ago today in New York City.
Also unlike in the other cities along the route, there was no official welcoming committee from the City fathers or politicians at the train station. Lincoln and his family were more or less on their own as they wound through the city. He would meet the mayor, Mr. Fernando Wood, the following day.
Lincoln and his family were staying in New York at the fashionable Astor House, a leading hotel. As the Lincolns got out of their carriage, it is estimated that at least 30,000 people were crowded around the street just to see him. He stood quietly for a while and simply gawked at them, while they stared back. No rush to shake his hand, no shouts of joy, just the same eerie silence.
Once he entered the hotel and settled in for a time, Lincoln did appear from a balcony to speak ever so briefly to the assembled crowd. He asked forgiveness for not making a speech and admitted he had none prepared. The crowd seemed to accept his appearance and was apparently warming to him by then. According to the New York Times, the poet Walt Whitman was present and reported that Lincoln had broken the ice by a simple yawn or stretch or two as he was entering the hotel, as if those human actions had amused the crowd.
Later that night, Lincoln was given a reception at the Astor House by some local Republican groups. When called upon to give a speech during the reception, Lincoln yet again begged off, saying he had none prepared. Still, he admitted that he realized that the nation had been puzzled by his long winter of silence. He told them that even as President-Elect, he felt it not his position to over political comment either via speech or in public writings about the crisis facing the nation. He promised he would address the issues once he became President, but until then, he would have nothing of substance to say.
For a much better detailed account of Lincoln’s arrival and visit to New York City from February 19 through 21, 1861, you can do no better than reading the website “Abraham Lincoln And New York” which is a project of the Lincoln Institute, founded by the Lehrman Institute in New York.
Lincoln’s relationship with New York City is both fascinating and complex, as I’ve hopefully touched on in this post. Reading the above website will help the reader understand this relationship that would continue throughout his presidency.