Like Biden, Abraham Lincoln also faced the potential of violence on Inauguration Day

Here is historian Ted Widmer at The Washington Post:

Washington had been unusually angry in the weeks preceding Inauguration Day. Seven states had already left the Union; a mob had tried to attack the Capitol on the day Congress met to tabulate the electoral college vote. Fights broke out in the galleries during speeches, where spectators jeered, “Abe Lincoln will never come here!”

Over the winter, armed militias paraded through the city, and hooligans smashed Republican printing presses, as if to prevent news from flowing. Rumors swept the District that a militia was going to invade from Virginia to set up a new proslavery government. They wanted to keep all of it — the Capitol, the White House and especially the name: the United States of America. Lincoln would have had to start his presidency elsewhere.

There was far more to the visceral opposition to Lincoln than just his views on slavery. He had won with less than 40 percent of the vote, and entrenched interests feared the loss of easy access to Washington’s gilded corridors. Although they were not as gilded as they might have been — one reason it was taking so long to renovate the Capitol was that the guards hired to protect it from looting were stripping its treasures for themselves, down to the paint.

It seemed as though everyone was on the take. Certainly, the proslavery interests had owned Washington for as long as anyone could remember, capturing an overwhelming preponderance of the nation’s House speakers, committee chairs, sergeants-at-arms and Supreme Court justices. Lobbyists flourished in this climate, buying and selling access from local watering holes.

Read the entire piece here.

The 1860 election led to Civil War, but it was decided fairly

Here is historian Ted Widmer at The New York Times:

On Nov. 6, Lincoln was duly elected. But his percentage of the popular vote was very small (39.8 percent) — below even Herbert Hoover’s in 1932, when Hoover lost in a landslide to Franklin Roosevelt. That led to a new kind of challenge, to build legitimacy, as Washington seethed over the result and pro-slavery thugs promised to prevent Lincoln’s arrival. Some threatened to turn the Capitol into “a heap of ashes.” In Southern cities, gun-toting militias quickly formed, some parading under the Gadsden Flag and its motto, “Don’t Tread on Me.”

Many feared that the District of Columbia would be overrun by private armies, as a former Virginia governor, Henry Wise, threatened. It was whispered that James Buchanan might be kidnapped, so that his vice president, John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky, could be installed — a clean way to reverse the election result. Breckinridge had run as the South’s candidate, coming in second, with 72 electoral votes to Lincoln’s 180. (Two other candidates, Stephen Douglas and John Bell, had divided the vote further.)

Another plot feared by Lincoln supporters was a disruption of the electoral vote count, in Congress, on Feb. 13, 1861. Remarkably, the electoral certificates were delivered to Breckinridge, as the president of the Senate. He might easily have “lost” them, but to his eternal credit, this future Confederate presided over an honest count. Another brave Southerner, Winfield Scott, organized the military defense of the capital, just so Lincoln could have a chance.

It still took some doing to launch the Lincoln administration, and the president-elect had to survive a serious assassination conspiracy on his way to Washington. Even on the day of his inauguration, there were government sharpshooters positioned on top of buildings near the Capitol, with rumors sweeping the crowd that a last attempt would be made to nip his presidency in the bud. But he stood up to his full height as he took the oath of office, and a fever seemed to pass.

Lincoln will remain our greatest president, for his own reasons — the bold actions and the calming words. But he also sits atop our pantheon because this champion of democracy came along at the exact moment when it was most endangered and reminded Americans that a higher standard was possible. That survival, in a moment even more fraught than our own, helped democracy spread far and wide in the 20th century, as Lincoln hoped it would.

It all began with the simplest of democratic ideas: a legitimate election and a fair count.

Read the entire piece here.

Who Was Worse: Donald Trump or James Buchanan?


Ted Widmer, a historian at the City University of New York, explains why James Buchanan is considered by many to be the worst president in American history.  Here is a taste of his piece at The Washington Post:

As the secession crisis deepened throughout the winter of 1860-61, Buchanan was utterly incapable of meeting it. Sarcastically, a leading Republican, William Seward, remarked that Buchanan’s policy was that no Southern state had a right to secede … unless it wanted to. When a newspaper reported that he had gone insane, stocks actually rose. Buchanan was looking worse, too; his strange hair even more angular than ever, his complexion sallow and strange honking sounds coming from blocked nasal passages.

That was the situation Lincoln inherited, and it remains a small miracle that the United States survived what Henry Adams called “the Great Secession Winter.” That phrase feels resonant again, in the wake of Dr. Rick Bright’s prediction that “2020 could be the darkest winter in modern history” and the increased possibility of President Trump joining the bottom of the presidential ranking list.

Read the entire piece here.

What Can the 2020s Learn from the 1920s?

Anti-Prohibition Parade, NYC, 1920s

A lot, according to CUNY historian Ted Widmer.

Here is a taste of his piece at The New York Times:

It has been a long time since the winter of 1920, but the old fault lines are still visible, not only in the United States but around the world. In Turkey, neo-Ottoman ambitions are emerging as the country seeks to enlarge its influence in Libya and everywhere else the sultans once held sway. In Russia, a new czar is all too happy to undermine the West’s quaint belief in Wilsonian self-determination.

Should the United States try to solve these and all of the other vexing problems out there? It has become fashionable to denounce Wilson’s idealism in the century since his crack-up. Obviously, he tried too much, too fast and destroyed himself in the process. But to inhabit a world with no ideals of any kind seems like an invitation to a different kind of crack-up and a return to the earlier history that we were delighted to escape from in 1919.

In the long century since, Americans faced a dizzying array of problems, new and old. When they worked together, they generally solved them. When they retreated into ideological extremes, they generally did not. In “The Crack-Up,” Fitzgerald diagnosed the problem, then offered a formula. If enough readers could “see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise,” then there was always a chance for a new decade to live up to its glittering potential.

Read the entire piece here.