The worst transition in history

The worst transition in history

Faced with an uncooperative James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln designed an innovative train trip during his transition period

In 1860, Abraham Lincoln is elected. Within days, southern states start seceding. David Marchick, chief operating officer of the United States International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) from 2021–22 under Joseph Biden, discusses what happened next with Edward (Ted) Widmer, historian and former special assistant and speechwriter to Bill Clinton.

Lincoln campaign banner, 1860
image of Abraham Lincoln printed on 1860 presidential election campaign banner

David Marchick: What else is going on in the country at this moment?

Ted Widmer: Well, it’s a terrible transition. We are so vulnerable at any transition, but we are especially vulnerable during a bad transition. The Founders didn’t really tell us how to do a transition very well. Lincoln’s transition showed just how fragile our country can be at times.

He’s elected on November 6, 1860, and he has a very small share of the vote: only 39.8 percent. It’s the second-smallest plurality ever in our history. The South just goes ballistic. They start threatening to secede, and then they begin to actually secede. South Carolina is the first state to secede in December, and then six other states secede.

Lincoln’s transition showed just how fragile our country can be at times

engraving of South Carolina State convention signing the Ordinance of Secession, Dec. 20, 1860
The South Carolina state convention signed an ordinance of secession a month after Lincoln's election

Lincoln is way out there in Illinois. He can’t really control anything that’s happening back in Washington. He certainly can’t control anything in the southern states that have seceded. It’s not clear what he is even the president of. It’s a long wait from November 6 to March 4, which is when inaugurals were in the nineteenth century.

He’s also got to put together a cabinet, and his coalition is not that coherent. There are people inside his coalition who don’t like each other. Certain states, like Pennsylvania, are very divided. There are different factions in Pennsylvania, both of which want to be in Lincoln’s cabinet. He’s got to coordinate with people like William Seward, whom he’s just defeated for the nomination, but now is a new ally. It’s just all very dicey.

He also hasn’t given a speech all year, basically. And then he’s got to embark on this train trip, a train trip of almost two thousand miles. But as it turned out, the train trip was his deliverance from a lot of his problems. He found that being on the road on this train, he was able to speak a lot to the people, alleviate their concerns, and also give messages to southerners, saying: “Don’t worry. I want to be a good president for you too.” Even though those first seven states went out and wouldn’t come back in, he kept the border states in the country long enough to get to Washington. That was actually a huge achievement.

But as it turned out, the train trip was his deliverance from a lot of his problems

David Marchick: What was the Buchanan administration doing at this point? Was there any coordination with [President James] Buchanan?

Ted Widmer: Very little. Buchanan is kind of a disaster right at this time. He has not been a very good president anyway. He’s a northerner, he’s from Pennsylvania, but he’s completely allied with the Deep South. I mean, there are factions within the South, too, and he’s always with the parts of the South that are the most pro-slavery. As the secession crisis approaches with Lincoln’s election, and then the months after, Buchanan falls apart. engraving of James BuchananHe has pretty bad cabinet officers, and the most pro-southern ones start resigning. It turns out they’ve been guilty of a lot of corruption, also of embezzling funds or of secretly leaking U.S. government plans to the southern states that are about to secede or have seceded. They’re really a pretty rotten bunch. And then Buchanan can’t even make up his mind. He says vaguely pro-northern things when northerners are in the room, and he says very pro-southern things when southerners are in the room, and he basically loses the confidence of everyone. So, in addition to all of his other problems, Lincoln has to deal with the fact that the actual president is falling apart.

image of Lincoln's inaugural train
Lincoln delivered his 'whistle stop' speeches from Springfield to Washington in February, 1861

David Marchick: You make the point in your book that this train trip and his [Lincoln’s] sneaking into Washington is one of the most important events in all of American history. Not just in Lincoln’s presidency, not just compared to the Civil War, but in all of American history. Why do you say that?

Ted Widmer: The simple answer is: if he doesn’t make it, his presidency doesn’t happen, and the North probably loses the Civil War, in my opinion. But also, these 13 days were so important for him developing a moral argument for America’s greatness.

That we’re not just a large country and a powerful country; we are a great country for our moral standards. That we have dared to declare human rights for all people, not only in our country, but all people on earth. That is what is claimed in the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln is remembering the Declaration and defending it with greater and greater eloquence on every day of this trip, and that culminates in his visit to Independence Hall, where the Declaration was signed, on the last full day of the trip.

He gives an incredible speech there, talking about how he has never had a political sentiment that did not derive in some way from the Declaration of Independence. The obvious implication is African Americans are included, and in the fullness of time, women are included, and immigrants are included. Everyone is included, and that is the core of Lincoln’s message.

We’re not just a large country and a powerful country; we are a great country for our moral standards

Without him getting off the train, I don’t think the North wins the Civil War. What does the 20th century look like if America doesn’t stand for human rights and democracy and the potential of women and the potential of all people from all racial and religious backgrounds to work out government together? What does the end of World War I look like? We tried for a League of Nations. We didn’t succeed, but that effort was important.

What does the 20th century look like if America doesn’t stand for human rights and democracy?

Lincoln's inauguration day, 1860
Crowds at Abraham Lincoln's second inauguration day, March 4, 1865 

What does World War II look like, when the defense of democracy was one of the major resources in the arsenal of democracy that Franklin Roosevelt defined? The UN, even with all of its flaws, borrows a lot of American idealism, and that idealism is still important. Maybe even more important in a world that has grown rather cynical.