Michael J. Birkner

Michael J. Birkner

In stressful times — and who would deny January 2021 is such a time — we search for historical parallels. A virulent pandemic that struck the United States hard in 1918-19 resonates in our collective consciousness, partly because of our current anxieties, but primarily because we made it through. We will make it through COVID-19.

With Joe Biden’s inauguration as the nation’s 46th president today — days after the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol — new attention has focused on what transpired in Washington, D.C., 160 years ago, as James Buchanan passed the presidential torch to a very different kind of president.

This month’s disastrous breakdown of Capitol security witnessed by millions on television as it unfolded in real time, as has often been noted, was the first major assault on democracy’s citadel since the British burnt Washington during the War of 1812. But 1861’s inauguration of Abraham Lincoln had its moments, as well.

We remember Lincoln best for his effective leadership in the four-year struggle to put down the Confederate rebellion, his role in the abolition of slavery, and his “malice towards none,” as he put it in his second inaugural address. Less well known, perhaps, is the atmosphere of uneasiness over plots to assassinate the president-elect in 1861 and the potential for a forever disrupted union.

If not for smart action by Chicago detective Allan Pinkerton, who discovered a plot to kill Lincoln as he passed through Baltimore and steered him safely to Washington, and decisive action taken by military authorities to deal with menacing mobs, that inauguration might not have taken place as planned — or at all.

Lincoln’s election victory in November 1860 triggered the secession movement, but not on bogus claims of election “fraud” or “steal” by his foes. There was no significant fraud at the ballot box and no assertion that the election was stolen.

The rejection of Lincoln, unlike the rejection of Joe Biden, by a furious minority, was predicated on a simple reality: Southern slaveowners could not accept the election of a candidate who insisted that slavery was a wrong and could never expand its reach under a Republican administration.

For southern extremists, determined to protect slavery and to extend it where feasible, that stance alone justified secession. For some of them, the Republican victory was a welcome catalyst for their chief goal, breaking up the Union.

South Carolina, on Dec. 20, 1860, was the first state to secede, followed soon thereafter by six Deep South states during the interregnum between Lincoln’s election and his oath-taking on March 4, 1861. This despite outgoing President James Buchanan’s assertions that secession was illegal. Aware that Buchanan had no intention of doing anything to provoke a war, the secessionists simply ignored or mocked him.

It did not help that Buchanan tried and failed in January 1861 to reinforce a federal fort in Charleston’s harbor. By the end of his term, all the weary Buchanan could do was hope to preserve the peace and let Lincoln deal with secession’s fallout — and. most immediately, the provisioning of vulnerable Fort Sumter.

Between Feb. 11, when he made his farewell speech in Springfield, Illinois, and Feb. 23, when he arrived in the nation’s capital, Lincoln whistlestopped through dozens of Northern towns and cities, including a stop in Trenton, New Jersey, where Lincoln wryly alluded to the fact that the state’s popular vote had gone to Sen. Stephen A. Douglas. He expressed gratitude for local hospitality all the same.

The substance of Lincoln’s remarks en route to the capital ran the gamut from reaffirming his opposition to extending the reach of slavery to assuring Southerners that they had nothing to fear from him, while highlighting the bonds that he believed must keep the U.S. one nation.

“There will be no blood shed unless it be forced upon the government,” he told listeners in Harrisburg and Philadelphia. Lincoln’s pleas for moderation and listening to one another parallel the public statements Biden has made since his election in November 2020.

Anticipating Lincoln’s arrival, and fearing a potential mob assault on the inaugural proceedings, Washington, D.C., was on alert — another parallel to the pre-inauguration vibe this year.

The main difference between then and now was the early forceful response of the Army’s commanding general. In 1861, that was Winfield Scott a hero of two previous wars. During the run-up to Lincoln’s inauguration, Scott ringed the capital with federal troops and made clear they would be forcefully deployed at any sign of insurrection. Scott thereby prevented any pre-inauguration terrorist assault on Washington.

On March 4, 1861, Scott arranged for soldiers to line the streets along Lincoln’s route to the Capitol — multiple cannons well in evidence and sharpshooters stationed on key rooftops. Was this show of force comforting or disquieting? Probably both.

But, much to Scott’s credit, the inauguration went off without a hitch. As Lincoln rose to take the oath of office and deliver an address in which he implored Southerners to be “friends,” not enemies, the sun shone — perhaps a positive omen for his presidency.

But not, as it turned out, the end of hostilities. On April 12, 1861, cannon fire blasted the U.S. Army contingent at Fort Sumter. And the war came.

We may put our hope and faith in the prospect of something better in 2021. Perhaps Biden, like Lincoln in 1861, will remind of us “the mystic chords of memory” that bind us as a people.

Michael J. Birkner is a professor of history at Gettysburg College. From 2014 to 2016, he served as president of the Pennsylvania Historical Association.

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