160 Years Ago This Week…

By Wendy Swanson via Lincolnian

Washington D.C.

March 3, 2021


From the Lincoln Group Archives

The above image shows the 1861 inaugural procession passing the Capitol grounds. This is a portion of a larger sketch that appeared in Harper's Weekly, the March 16, 1861 edition.


On March 4, 1861, to be exact, Abraham Lincoln took the oath of office and became the Sixteenth President of United States. During this anniversary week, we would be remiss if we did not pause to remember Lincoln and the words he shared with the nation on that occasion. Move ahead 150 years and one day after that event. On March 5, 2011, the Lincoln Group joined other organizations to hold, as part of the commemoration of the Sesquicentennial of the the Civil War, a reenactment of Lincoln’s first inauguration.


The event took place at the Capitol Visitors Center with historian Harold Holzer setting the scene. He noted that he was playing the role of Senator Edward Dickinson Baker who introduced Lincoln on March 4, 1861. In this case, Holzer was actually announcing the reading of the Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address by noted actor Sam Waterson. However, before doing so, Holzer described the national climate on that day, emphasizing that the “scene was not a pretty one.”


As the new president addressed the nation, “two governments, two chief executives and two visions of freedom were on a collision course.” Efforts to prevent disunion had failed. One description of Lincoln that day observed him to be “nervous and pale.” A journalist likened him to “a Quaker visiting a Basilica.” His speech – twelve pages in length – was “pre-printed in Illinois but heavily edited to incorporate suggestions” from acquaintances and confidants. In preparation of his presentation, Lincoln placed the papers containing his speech on a “miserable, rickety little table,” using his cane as a paperweight, and retired his stovepipe hat to Stephen Douglass for safekeeping. He now would speak “on policy matters upon which he had been silent for a year.”


Holzer provided the audience with a listener’s guide to the Lincoln’s speech. He asked that those present “put themselves in the moment” as if they were present at the address in 1861 when the country did not know “whether the speech would bring peace or a sword.” Holzer described Lincoln’s words as "alternately conciliatory and adamant, tough and tender, detailed and poetic.” The address was “earnestly advocating peace” but agreed with the recognition of “a clank of metal in it.” In Holzer’s opinion, the speech is “a masterpiece long and undeservedly overshadowed by his second inaugural but fully worthy of recognition as one of his greatest orations … overflowing with overtures and warnings. Plain talk, legalese, and poetry alternate in one extraordinary package.”


One clearly hears the politics of the day when listening to Lincoln’s words. Holzer advised the audience to listen for certain issues including “Lincoln’s almost tortured concessions.” There in the address is “his agreement to enforce the hated Fugitive Slave Act and his acquiescence on forwarding a newly passed 13th Amendment forbidding action against slavery.” He even offered not to appoint any Republicans, described as “obnoxious strangers,” to Southern patronage jobs at post offices and arsenals. Yet, the speech also includes Lincoln’s “calm recitation of both the spirit and the letter of the national law – of his unquestionable right to be sworn in, and his absolute obligation to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution.” Lincoln insisted that “slavery is wrong and disunion impossible.”


Following Holzer’s introduction, Sam Waterson read the speech, now part of our national memory, in its entirety. The reenactment of the swearing in of the new president came next - with Michael Krebs of Illinois in the role of Lincoln and Frank Parsons as Supreme Court Justice Roger B. Taney. As was emphasized during the program, the festivities had a reverse order from that which we see today – the parade followed by the address and then the swearing in. Yes, Lincoln actually gave his famed First Inaugural Address as President-Elect Lincoln. Following the program, the Lincolns greeted attendees; then all departed for a luncheon at the Willard Hotel. Quite the day of remembrance.


This event was sponsored by Lincoln Group of DC, the Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation (successor to the Lincoln Bicentennial Commission), The Lincoln Forum, the Willard Intercontinental Hotel, and the Lincolnarchives Digital Project. The C-SPAN Video Library offers a viewing of the event, featuring Holzer’s remarks and Waterson’s reading. (The link is http://c-span.org/about/videolibrary/ - search for President Lincoln Inauguration Re-Enactment, March 5, 2011)