Of America’s 45 presidents, only three took office facing existential questions.
Could George Washington lay a lasting foundation for the fragile new nation?
Could Franklin Roosevelt restore confidence shredded by the Great Depression?
Could Abraham Lincoln preserve the union in the face of imminent civil war?
But only Lincoln faced dual issues of survival—the nation’s and his own—before taking the oath.
Historian Ted Widmer tells the stirring story in “Lincoln on the Verge” as he recounts the president-elect’s trip from Illinois to the nation’s capital.
By Feb. 11, 1861, when Lincoln boarded the train in Springfield for his March 4 inauguration, seven Southern states had already seceded—a development requiring intricate logistical planning to avoid the South for the 1,900-mile course.
Through Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey, in cities, towns, villages and whistle-stops, he greeted the throngs and delivered prepared and extemporaneous speeches, often leaving him exhausted and hoarse.
Away from the crowds, he conferred with aides, hobnobbed with prominent people and engaged in solitary, thoughtful reflection. He gained confidence in his abilities and marshaled his strength for the burdens that lay ahead.
He also exposed himself to danger, especially given the proliferation of death threats since his election. To reach Washington, he traveled through two slave states, Delaware and Maryland. In Baltimore, an assassination plot was foiled, and he reached the capital on Feb. 23.
Reelected in 1864, he lived to see victory in the Civil War. But he never again saw Springfield, returning in 1865, again by rail, but this time in a casket.
Despite the national tragedy that ended his life and his presidency, his safe arrival for his inauguration had enabled him to lead America through its trial by fire and blood.
“Lincoln’s success at reaching his destination saved his country, and ours,” Widmer writes. “It made his presidency possible, and all of our subsequent history.”
With clarity of purpose, command of subject, coherence of narrative and creativity of prose, Widmer paints an extensively researched, richly detailed landscape that depicts the geographic and human aspects of Lincoln’s journey into Washington, into history and into the heart of a grateful nation.