Commentary

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Especially now, with democracy under assault, Honest Abe, guardian of the union, deserves his own Big Day

(President Abraham Lincoln)

By Joe Powers

February used to be the best month for Pennsylvania school children. It meant not just one, but two automatic days off school – Abraham Lincoln’s birthday on Feb. 12 and George Washington’s birthday on Feb. 22 were both holidays.

Lincoln’s birthday, however, was never a national holiday, despite repeated efforts to make it one. Instead, Feb. 12th was adopted by 24 states, including Pennsylvania, as a state holiday.

Until 1971, that is. In the late 1960’s there was a national effort to consolidate national holidays into three day weekends as a way to pump up retail sales.

As a result, Congress passed the “Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968” and the third Monday in February was officially set aside as “Washington’s Birthday.”

An effort to give Honest Abe his share of the glory was beaten back by Virginia congressmen. (The term “President’s Day”, incidentally, was not in the Act. That term was created by retailers.) The federal Act went into effect in 1971. Pennsylvania quickly complied, Lincoln’s Birthday Holiday was abolished here, and the day to honor and study our greatest president was gone, sacrificed on the altar of automobile and mattress sales.

Too bad, because if there ever was a time when a day should be set aside to learn more about our 16th president, it is now.

Abraham Lincoln was our most unlikely of Presidents. He had only one year of formal education, served only one term in Congress, had been out of politics for fourteen years when he ran for president, and never held an executive position.

He was awkward and ungainly and the words “handsome” and “Abraham Lincoln” never appeared in the same sentence together. (When Lincoln was accused of being “two faced” in a debate, he responded “if I had two faces, why would I be using this one?”)

Lincoln’s election to the presidency was a political miracle. The nation was imploding and the incumbent, Pennsylvania’s own, James Buchanan, was invisible.

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He gave only four speeches in his entire presidency. But who would succeed him? In the end, there would be four candidates, including one nominated by the newly formed Republican Party. B

ut nobody thought that candidate would be Abraham Lincoln. In 1859, a magazine listed 21 potential Republican nominees but Lincoln wasn’t one of them. Yet, somehow, this underdog from the West won the nomination in Chicago. The 1860 race was one of the weirdest in our history.

Yes Lincoln won, but with only 39% of the popular vote. And he was a true sectional candidate. Lincoln wasn’t even on the ballot in five southern states.

He was on the ballot in Virginia – but got only one percent of the vote. And while he won every northern state but New Jersey, some of those races were close; he won his own state of Illinois by just 12,000 of 350,000 votes cast. Many in the South refused to acknowledge his win.

Surely there must have been fraud involved. And, anyway, this was their country. For 60 of the first 71 years, the president was a slave holder. No Northern President had ever won re-election. Most of the Supreme Court justices, congressional leaders and Capitol staff were from the South.

Lincoln’s election to the presidency was a political miracle. The nation was imploding and the incumbent, Pennsylvania’s own, James Buchanan, was invisible.

And so, they vowed to stop Lincoln from ever being sworn in.

Radical groups, some with strange names like the Knights of the Golden Circle, were formed and they threatened to murder the president-elect.

Lincoln, meanwhile, over the fierce objections of his aides, decided to take a circuitous train trip to Washington. His aides’ worries were justified – he narrowly survived two assassination attempts and one accidental cannon ball attack on his train. Meanwhile, an aging Mexican War hero named Winfield Scott raised a ragtag Army to protect the Capitol. Everything was in that building then – Congress, the court, treaties, and the official seals.

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And so gangs were being formed to overrun the Capital before Lincoln finished his peripatetic train trip. Scott positioned guards and cannons to block any such attacks.

Everyone knew the key date would be Feb. 13, the day of the Electoral College vote count. Implausible as it sounds, gangs gathered that day to attack the Capital and to try to stop the count. Only a large police detail and Scott’s makeshift Army stopped the attempted assault from the outside.

Inside, the unlikely hero was the vice-president, John Breckinridge. His boss, Buchanan, had refused to engage in any transition and even said that “the South would be justified in revolutionary resistance”. It would not have surprised if Breckinridge had followed suit.

He himself had been a Presidential candidate and would soon join the Confederacy. On that day, however, Breckinridge upheld his constitutional oath, protected the Electoral College ballots, and certified Lincoln’s win – despite the many physical threats he had received. There was one last hurdle: Lincoln had to get to Washington alive.

The story of Lincoln’s train trip to Washington is told in a terrific book called “Lincoln on the Verge” by Ted Widmer.

Its most gripping pages describe the last secret leg of the trip when Lincoln put on new clothes in his Harrisburg hotel, was spirited to a separate train heading first to Philadelphia instead of directly to Baltimore, changed trains three times, and arrived in Washington at 5:00 A.M.

James Pinkerton, the detective charged with protecting Lincoln, cut all the telegraph wires out of Harrisburg and locked reporters in their rooms so word of Lincoln’s secret trip did not leak.

When they got to Maryland, where groups of assassins were known to be waiting, Pinkerton offered Lincoln his choice of pistol and knife because he might have to defend himself. Lincoln declined. It is unfortunate that so little of this history is known to most Americans.

The many obvious similarities between the events of 1861 and 2021 could have provided a warning before last year’s insurrection occurred.

It was John Adams who wrote that “There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”

Lincoln and the Union survived in the 1860’s and we could learn from their experiences. Here’s a modest proposal to start; let’s reclaim the Lincoln Birthday holiday that was taken away us from by shortsighted congressmen.

And maybe on that one day at least, we can all learn more about our own history and especially about the nearly miraculous presidency of Abraham Lincoln.

Joe Powers is a political science professor at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. His work appears occasionally on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. He writes from Dauphin County.

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