Journalist Henry Villard had first met Abraham Lincoln during the famous Lincoln/Douglas Debates of 1858. Two years later, Lincoln was elected president. In those days, the president was not inaugurated until March of the year after the election. This meant that the president-elect would stay at his home in Springfield, Illinois for months after he was elected. During the time between the election and Lincoln’s inauguration, seven slave states would vote to secede from the United States.
To cover the president-elect, the Associated Press sent the young German newspaperman to Springfield. When Henry Villard arrived, Lincoln had been given the Governor’s Room in the State Capitol for his work. In the mid-Nineteenth Century presidents were expected to be “men of the people,” open to the advice of the common man and woman. Accordingly, Villard wrote, Lincoln “appeared daily, except Sundays, between nine and ten o’clock, and held a reception till noon, to which all comers were admitted, without even the formality of first sending in cards.” Reflecting a half-century later, Villard said that “Altogether, probably no other president-elect was so approachable to everybody…” Lincoln’s habit of unprotected interaction with the public would contribute to his death four years later.
Villard remembered Lincoln as a careful listener at these public receptions. The journalist wrote that when he met with visitors, Lincoln “showed remarkable tact in dealing with each of them, whether they were rough-looking Sangamon County farmers still addressing him familiarly as “Abe,” sleek and pert commercial travelers, staid merchants, sharp politicians; or preachers, lawyers, or other professional men.” Lincoln “showed a very quick and shrewd perception of and adaptation to individual characteristics and peculiarities. He never evaded a proper question, or failed to give a fit answer,” according to Villard.
In February 1861, Lincoln began his long trip to Washington. The trip would take weeks. Lincoln planned on stopping at cities throughout the North along the way to build support for his presidency and opposition to Southern secession. Henry Villard had become close to Lincoln in his months of covering the Springfield interregnum and he was the only journalist allowed to accompany the president-elect as part of his official party. Villard wrote that, “The start on the memorable journey was made shortly after eight o’clock on the morning of Monday, February 11. It was a clear, crisp winter day. Only about one hundred people, mostly personal friends, were assembled at the station to shake hands for the last time with their distinguished townsman. It was not strange that he yielded to the sad feelings which must have moved him at the thought of what lay behind and what was before him, and gave them utterance in a pathetic formal farewell to the gathering crowd…”
Villard asked the president-elect to scribble down his Farewell speech. We only have it because of Villard. Here is what Lincoln said:
“My Friends,– No one not in my position can appreciate the sadness I feel at this parting. To this people I owe all that I am. Here I have lived more than a quarter of a century; here my children were born, and here one of them lies buried. I know not how soon I shall see you again. A duty devolves upon me which is, perhaps, greater than that which has devolved upon any other man since the days of Washington. He never would have succeeded except for the aid of Divine Providence, upon which he at all times relied. I feel that I cannot succeed without the same Divine aid which sustained him, and in the same Almighty Being I place my reliance for support; and I hope you, my friends, will all pray that I may receive that Divine assistance, without which I cannot succeed, but with which success is certain. Again I bid you all an affectionate farewell.”
Along the way, Lincoln’s train stopped at every major city and town. There the president elect would speak and local officials would offer their support. At some stops, local Republicans would hold “serenades, torchlight processions, and gala theatrical performances,” according to Villard. In one week alone, Lincoln gave more than fifty speeches at train stations and city halls. This campaign by train “was a very great strain upon his physical and mental strength, and he was well-nigh worn out when he reached Buffalo” wrote Villard.
This was the first time that many Americans would see Lincoln. If they expected a heroic figure, they were disappointed. Villard said that in this swing across the North, Lincoln was “unprepossessing” and Villard described him as displaying “the gawkiest figure, and the most awkward manners…” When discussing a technical issue like tariffs, Lincoln could descend into “crude, ignorant twaddle” that gave Villard “doubts as to his capacity for the high office he was to fill.”
When Lincoln reached New York City on February 20th, he was aware that the city’s mayor was sympathetic to the South. Mayor Fernando Wood hoped that if the slave states proceeded to leave the Union that the Federal government would let them go without military conflict. Lincoln met with Wood and the city council at City Hall and told them that “there is nothing that can ever bring me willingly to consent to the destruction of this Union.” He was prepared to wage war against anyone who tried to break up the United States.
Read the first part of this series: When Henry Villard met Abraham Lincoln.
Video: Professor Matt Pinsker Discusses Lincoln’s First Inauguration
Recollections of Lincoln by Henry Villard published in The Atlantic Monthly Feb. 1904 pp. 165-173; Villard, The Life and Times of an American Titan by Alexandra Villard de Borchgrave et al, published by Doubleday (2001); Memoirs of Henry Villard, Journalist and Financier, 1835-1900 by Henry Villard published by Houghton Mifflin (1904).