If the last four years feels like a crash course in American civics, constitutional law, and history, the Covid-19 pandemic—and our forced retirement from whatever we considered normal— has allowed us time to jump down the rabbit hole of research to look for facts, context, and an equation to understand how we arrived to a democracy in peril.
Had you attended the online event “Thursdays with the Starr Center” last week you would have discovered another perilous moment in American history—Abraham Lincoln’s thirteen-day train trip from Springfield, Illinois to his inauguration in Washington DC—a subject brought to the fore by historian Ted Widmer in his book Lincoln on the Verge: Thirteen Days to Washington.
For Widmer, the Starr invitation to lecture was a chance to return to Chestertown: he was the first Director of the Center (2001-2006) and shaped its mission to become a preeminent learning center for American history. The author of many other books, Widmer is currently the historian at the Macaulay Honors College of the City University of New York.
The evening was introduced by fellow historian and Starr Center Director Adam Goodheart, the successor to Widmer’s directorship. Goodheart’s book 1861; The Civil War Awakening stands as a stellar important contribution to the history of the Civil War. Over the years, Widmer and Goodheart have worked together on projects, including a 2010-2012 Civil War series in the New York Times.
Widmer’s talk about Lincoln’s “Inaugural Express” train odyssey from Springfield, Illinois to Washington gave extraordinary insight to the gravity of the era, a year when six states had already seceded from the Union, the South was a burning fuse of insurrection, and the nation was adrift and desperate for a moral compass to guide them through the impending immolation of the young democracy.
While pro-southern militias awaited the President-elect in Washington, at least two assassination plots along the journey were discovered. Fear of plots to impair the electoral certificate count was rampant, and some believed Lincoln would not make it to The Capitol alive.
Where most historians address Lincoln’s Civil War years, Widmer finds the thirteen days before his presidency a window into the formation of the President he would become. Even during the train trip, few knew anything about the young legislator from the Midwest. Still, Lincoln used each stop along the way to build his reputation as a master of oratory and reveal himself as a “man of the people.”
Careful to hew toward a politically non-partisan approach to discussing the book, Widmer nonetheless conveyed such a vivid account of America teetering on the brink of civil chaos that one would be hard put not to find parallels with our current political dilemmas.
I recommend viewing the complete Starr Center talk on their Facebook page and buying the book. It’s elegant prose in the hands of a master historian who reminds us how tenuous the structure of Democracy can be.
This video is approximately eight minutes in length. For “Thursdays with the Starr Center” upcoming events, go here.