It was 150 years ago this week, March 4, 1861 to be exact, that Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated as our 16th President.
Lincoln’s ascendancy to the Presidency was one of the unlikeliest political events in our nation’s history. Lincoln had virtually no national political experience, having served only a two-year term in Congress. Moreover, he was the candidate of the then-nascent Republican Party, which had sprung from the ruins of the Whig Party.
But history and the times were on Lincoln’s side. A generational series of lackluster presidents (James Buchanan, Franklin Pierce, and Millard Fillmore, among others) had preceded Lincoln. In addition, the issue of slavery, which American politicians had managed to finesse with compromises for decades, was dividing the country ever more day by day.
But Lincoln himself captured the public imagination as no presidential candidate had since Jackson. His humble upbringing was part of his appeal, but his intellectual strength and firmness of his convictions, combined with his powerful oratorical abilities, elevated his stature above everyone else on the political stage at that time.
It’s hard to imagine it today, but Lincoln was the equivalent of a rock star wherever he went, and even more so after he was elected president. He grew a beard after his election, which signaled his modernity; his clothes were not of the generation of politicians before him; and his gawkiness and homeliness gave him the aura of someone almost-godlike in the eyes of the millions of Americans who captured a glimpse of him on his train sojourn through the northern states from Illinois to Washington, D.C., prior to his inauguration.
The New York Times website (www.nytimes.com) has been running a series entitled Disunion for the past few months to mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. It is written by historians writing as if they are in the present time of 1861. It is a fascinating and enlightening series for anyone who has an interest in our nation’s history and we highly recommend it.
The insights of the authors into the times and the man who was our 16th president not only offer a new appreciation for Abraham Lincoln, but they also provide us with perspective into many of the issues we face today, giving us to pause to consider: What would Lincoln do?