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Abraham Lincoln was pronounced dead shortly after seven o’clock on a rain-soaked Holy Saturday morning, April 15, 1865. It was less than a week after Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. The little group of officials and family gathered around the blood-soaked bed in Will Peterson’s boardinghouse across from Ford’s Theater stood silently for several minutes. Then Mary Lincoln’s pastor, Phineas Gurley, said a short prayer, and a detachment of soldiers was summoned into the room. They placed the body in a military coffin and whisked it through the sodden crowd keeping vigil outside to the hearse that would carry it to the White House.
The autopsy and embalming were performed in the east wing’s second-floor guest room. Edwin Stanton, the volcanic secretary of war, chose the president’s funeral garb and insisted that the undertaker leave the black residue of intracranial bleeding that had formed under Lincoln’s right eye. Construction started almost immediately on a catafalque, modeled after a Masonic “Lodge of Sorrow,” in the first-floor East Room for the public viewing. As the hammering went on through Easter Sunday and the following Monday, a distraught Mary Lincoln pleaded that the blows sounded like pistol shots. The men who carried Lincoln’s body to the first floor on Monday night removed their shoes so as not to disturb Mrs. Lincoln.
There was a public viewing in the East Room on Tuesday. With special trains ferrying tens of thousands of people into the capital, the lines—for the opportunity to file through the darkened room and gaze down for barely a second at the dead president—stretched out for hours. A series of private viewings on Tuesday evening included a delegation of Illinois citizens who had come to demand that Lincoln be buried in his home state; Stanton was planning an interment in Washington. The following morning, six hundred guests packed into the East Room for the funeral service. Even men like Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Stanton openly wept. Some twenty-five million people attended similar services held more or less simultaneously throughout the United States and Canada.
The massive funeral procession on Wednesday afternoon, before some seventy-five thousand spectators, included detachments of black fighting units and crippled veterans, and, most dramatically, the traditional commander-in-chief’s horse following the hearse, with empty saddle and boots facing backward in the stirrups. It was the same image that so stirred television audiences at John F. Kennedy’s funeral procession a century later.
The procession terminated at the Capitol, where another ornately rendered catafalque awaited the president’s coffin. After lying in state for two days, the body was transferred to a special Baltimore & Ohio railroad car for the first leg of the trip back to Springfield, for Stanton had finally acceded to the Illinoisans’ demands. Adding a final grace note of sadness, Lincoln’s coffin was accompanied by that of his young son, Willie, whom he had adored, and who had died, probably of pneumonia, in 1862. Willie’s little metal coffin was removed from its crypt in Washington and encased in a finer walnut container to rest with his father’s in Springfield.
On the Brink
A stop-action frame of the United States at Lincoln’s death would have caught the mourning nation frozen for the moment in mid-leap, aimed headlong into modernity. The route chosen for Lincoln’s last trip home—up the East Coast to New York, then westward along the Great Lakes to the Midwest and Springfield—itself traced a kind of fault line through the stresses of a society moving rapidly away from its preindustrial roots, roughly tracking the shape of a new American commercial geography.
Most notably, because it was by railroad, the trip took just days, instead of the weeks or months it would have consumed not many years before. The locomotives appear small and quaint today, with their big inverted-bell smokestacks and wood-burning fireboxes. But when they jumped across the Alleghenies in the 1850s, the nation shrank radically; for the first time, the urban East Coast was joined in a single national system with the farmlands and resources of the “Northwest”—the name still used for the states and territories between the original northern colonies and the eastern banks of the Mississippi.
A dozen cities along the route hosted formal funeral ceremonies, all of them vying in the rococo excesses of the catafalques, the funeral orations, and the strutting ranks of portly men in costumes and plumes. The first stop after Washington was Baltimore. Both essentially were the same cities as before the war—the capital, disgracefully enough, a malarial mudhole, although now with an array of almost-finished Greek revival buildings, while Baltimore, a thriving mercantile port, was bloated and bilious from its fat-rich diet of wartime trading.
When the trip first turned inland, however, from Baltimore to Harrisburg, it was traversing a brand-new kind of battle salient. Railroads were coming to understand the profits to be made from the country’s quickening internal trade, and there was an oil boom in the woods of western Pennsylvania. Bucolic little towns like Titusville had turned into hellholes where streams ran black and the air was misted with oil. The wells’ garish night flares flickered over swirling mobs of wildcatters, draymen, prostitutes, and small-time con men, all desperately clawing after their one main chance to get very rich very fast. The Pennsylvania fields were the largest yet discovered, by a huge margin, and within just a few years would supply the illuminating oil for almost the entire civilized world. With stakes like those, the nascent railroad wars would be fierce, often violent, and in a world with no system of law for controlling large corporations, deeply corrupting.
The next stops on the journey, Philadelphia and New York, were both struggling with over-rapid transitions into diversified manufacturing and financial centers. Philadelphia’s machine-made textile industry got a huge boost from wartime blanket contracts. Its famed Franklin Institute, the oldest technical institute in the country, was organized in the 1820s with more than a thousand membership subscriptions to promote scientific manufacturing. The boom in New York—printing, light manufacturing, securities and banking—was bursting the boundaries of Manhattan island, and plans were afoot for a colossal bridge to expand the city’s footprint across the East River into Brooklyn.
Funeral incidents in both cities pointed up the travails of rapid growth. On Sunday in Philadelphia, three hundred thousand people assembled in miles-long lines to view Lincoln’s body, their exhaustion and exasperation sharpened by the city’s Sabbath-day refusal to operate public transportation. When a band of pickpockets swept through the lines and cut the crowd-control ropes, there was a wild melee in which a number of people were injured. In New York, the tensions were ethnic. The city, with a larger Irish population than Dublin, was a hotbed of “Copperhead” antiwar Democracy. Irish suspicions that Republican businessmen used the military draft to break labor organizations and to import cheaper black workers—which was almost certainly true—had exploded into the savage 1863 Draft Riots, the most lethal public disturbance in American history. The local Tammany Democratic machine touched off a minor crisis a few days before the funeral procession by decreeing that it would be closed to blacks. After a forceful intervention by Stanton, a small contingent of blacks marched at the tail of the massive parade up Broadway, and were actually cheered by the crowd.
From New York City the funeral train proceeded up the Hudson River to Albany before turning west to cross New York State. Poignantly, unbroken lines of mourners stood vigil over much of the route even during the night, when they marked their presence with bonfires. The only complaint was the speed of the train—in the nineteenth century, twenty miles an hour felt disrespectfully fast.
Western New York State was farm country, populated in great part by German, Swiss, and Scots-Irish immigrants. These were not the yeoman farmers romanticized by Thomas Jefferson: by war’s end, some three-quarters of New York’s farmers within wagon distance of a railroad depot were efficiency-minded middle-class businessmen running commercial establishments producing wheat, timber, and dairy products for sale. The transformation of New York’s farms dated from the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, and accelerated with the spread of regional railroads in the 1850s. Within a generation, they had decimated New England agriculture, forcing a decisive shift to a manufacturing economy in that part of the country.
New York farmers spent remarkable amounts of money on consumer items—“a lot of trumpery,” one farmer humphed in his diary. They stood vigil for the funeral train in factory-made shoes, and their best clothes were purchased ready-made, for superior styling and fit. Middle-class farm wives still worked very hard, but there was visible convergence between their lives and their urban sisters’. They bought cloth instead of spinning and weaving it, and ran off new curtains on sewing machines. Household necessities such as soap and candles came from stores, and many farm homes had new oil lamps, so children could study in the evening. Back-breaking kitchen fireplaces had long since been replaced with “civilized” cast-iron stoves, and travelers agreed that the quantity and variety of New York farmers’ food was extraordinary—eons away from the whiskey, salt-pork, and gruel that passed for a reasonable diet earlier in the century.
The first stops after the New York countryside were Buffalo and Cleveland, both bustling Lake Erie port cities that were natural collection points for the oil, coal, and iron industries of western Pennsylvania. From there, the cortege turned back inland to Columbus, Indianapolis, and Indiana’s Michigan City—flat, black-earth country, the world’s first laboratory for large-scale mechanized farming. The farmers of the “Northwest” were about to give New Yorkers a dose of their own medicine, seizing control of the grain trade and forcing their eastern brethren to specialize ever more intensively in dairies and fruit orchards.
Chicago, the last stop before Lincoln’s final resting place in Springfield, self-consciously tried to put on a show as big as New York’s, for it viewed itself as the city of the American future. Until the war, midwestern grain and meat products flowed eastward on the Great Lakes and the Erie Canal, or, from south of Chicago, by flatboat down the Mississippi to New Orleans for the coastal sail to New York. By war’s end, railroad links east from Chicago had taken over most of the old New Orleans-based trade and were making inroads into the Great Lakes traffic. A grain boom was driving entrepreneurial activity to a fever pitch, while Cyrus McCormick’s reaper factory anchored a promising manufacturing base. George Pullman, struggling to get his sleeping car company off the ground, scored a publicity coup by donating the car that carried Lincoln from Chicago home to Springfield. (Or so legend has it. Recent scholarship suggests that he donated all the cars except the Lincoln car.)
Springfield was close to the limits of westward rail penetration. There were no train links to the western banks of the Mississippi, and only three tiny, widely separated railroad lines in the whole vast western territories. Western commerce, such as it was, was based on mining—still mostly men with shovels and mules—but entrepreneurs had already spotted the opportunity for ranches to feed the growing demand for meat from the urban east. The splendid western romance of the cowboy and the cattle drive was rooted in just the couple of decades before the railroads completely penetrated the ranch lands after the Civil War. In the South, railroads were not as intensely developed as in the North, but it hardly mattered. For a long time, the area’s only important export would be low-technology cotton grown mostly by sharecroppers. The white farmers in the hill country, having depleted their once-rich land, gradually sank back into the old subsistence farming tradition.
Sharp-eyed contemporaries were already rhapsodizing over America’s coming economic behemoth, but it was very much in an embryonic state. Railroad routes were still cobbled together piecemeal by local entrepreneurs or enterprising towns. It took no less than ten different carriers to connect the Lincoln funeral route—lines with long-forgotten names like the Northern Central, the Camden and Amboy, the Columbus and Indianapolis, the Lafayette and Michigan City. Since few railroads had the resources to build bridges, engines and cars were still routinely ferried across rivers; the hodgepodge of track sizes interfered with long-distance shipping; and any carrier looking for quality rails and rolling stock did its shopping in England. This was a slouching and stumbling boom, which made the feverish grasping for wealth all the more comical to satirists as various as Mark Twain and Anthony Trollope.
The Artisanal Eden of Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln would have heartily approved of all of it, even the grasping. As he put it during his first presidential run, “[It is] best for all to leave each man free to acquire property as fast as he can. Some will get wealthy. I don’t believe in a law to prevent a man from getting rich [but] . . . we do wish to allow the humblest man an equal chance to get rich with everyone else.”
The Republican party that nominated Lincoln for president in 1860 was an awkward amalgam of old-line Whigs, nativist Know-Nothings, radical abolitionists, and antislavery “Barnburner” Democrats, upset at their party’s control by southerners. The Whigs probably accounted for the majority of members, and dominated the leadership. The core Whig commitment was to the prodevelopment project of Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and, further back, of Alexander Hamilton. The conservative wing of the Whig party was somewhat more tolerant of slavery than their moderate brethren, in the name of preserving the Union, and also had a snobbish, antiimmigrant streak, largely in reaction to the impoverished Irish crowding into eastern cities.
The prodevelopment tradition came easily to Lincoln. His political idol was Henry Clay, the great apostle of canals and American self-sufficiency. Lincoln had been a businessman himself, although not a very successful one. He was a tinkerer, had worked as a surveyor, and held a patent on a device for lifting flatboats over river shoals. Lincoln especially enjoyed patent cases, and once said that the most important discoveries advancing civilization were “writing, . . . printing, the discovery of America, and the introduction of Patent Laws.” It was typical of him that in a case involving reaper patents, he came armed with models of the machines, and gathered the jurors around on their knees to point out the critical details.
Lincoln’s fascination with invention permeated his political statements. After his narrow loss to Stephen Douglas in the 1858 Illinois senatorial election, Lincoln went on the lecture circuit to test his presidential prospects. Instead of focusing on slavery, his signature speech was on “Discoveries and Inventions,” which he saw as a uniquely American talent: “[W]e, here in America, think we discover, and invent, and improve, faster than any [European nation]. They may think this arrogance; but they cannot deny that Russia has called on us to show her how to build steam-boats and railroads.”
For generations, historians argued whether the Civil War was primarily about slavery or was rather a showdown between competing economic systems. More recent historiography has shown how deeply Republican antislavery was intertwined with the Whig prodevelopment project. Republicans took economic independence as a prerequisite for political freedom—essentially updating the Jeffersonian vision of independent yeomen for a commercial society. For a brief golden age, Republicans could point to the middle-class polity emerging in the North as their showpiece. With the exception of a handful of large textile mills, northern manufacture was still primarily artisanal, and in the pre–Civil War era, no one anticipated the phenomenon of global mega-businesses. The Republican claim that probusiness legislation, like higher tariffs on manufactured goods, was in the interest of working people was almost certainly true, and was defended in detail by the best economist of the day, Henry Carey. As Daniel Webster once put it, “Why, who are the laboring people of the North? They are the whole North.”
But for decades, every development initiative was beaten back by the slave interest, since speeding the settlement of the West, or even investing in rail and canal systems, would inevitably increase the power and population of the free states. To Republicans, and to Abraham Lincoln, southern obstructionism was a piece of a conspiracy to crush freedom everywhere, not just for slaves. If southerners were allowed to extend slavery into the territories, the blights of hierarchy and aristocratic indolence would surely follow, driving out free labor. The word aristocrat itself was becoming almost a curse throughout the North, and travelers’ reports of the South’s pestilence-ridden, barefooted backwardness were staples of the northern press. It was implicitly understood, as one historian put it, that “two profoundly different and antagonistic civilizations . . . were competing for control of the political system.”
Lincoln devoted much of his 1859 speaking tour to laying out the Republican social vision: If the government supported individual independence and education, and jump-started a commercial infrastructure, a free, self-improving population would make the most of the opportunity. In a speech at a Wisconsin agricultural fair—after an opening excursus on improving yields through technology (including a bizarre design for a steam plow)—Lincoln attacked the aristocratic “mudsill theory,” which he held up in opposition to the Republican ideal of a highly fluid society:
The prudent, penniless beginner in the world, labors for wages a while, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land, for himself; then labors on his own account another while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him. . . . There is demonstration for saying this. Many independent men, in this assembly, doubtless a few years ago were hired laborers. And their case is almost, if not quite, the general rule. . . .
By the “mud-sill” theory it is assumed that labor and education are incompatible; and any practical combination of them impossible. . . . [It is] deemed a misfortune that laborers should have heads at all. These same heads are regarded as explosive materials only to be kept safely in damp places.
Nineteenth-century political audiences were extremely well-informed—it was the age’s mass entertainment—and Lincoln’s listeners perfectly understood whom he was talking about. Slavery’s apologists often spoke of the need for a social “mudsill”—“a class to do the mean duties, to perform the drudgeries of life,” as a South Carolinian put it. Slavery was only the most visible feature of the deeply antiegalitarian ruling system of the South. Aristocratic power was disgracefully reinforced by the U.S. Constitution’s three-fifths rule for weighting slaves in apportionments, and in a series of state political conventions throughout the slave states in the 1850s, the lowland elites steadily disenfranchised small-holder whites.
There was a real edge to Lincoln’s attacks on Douglas during their 1858 debates; it derived from his conviction that Douglas, wittingly or not, was a tool of aristocratic interests against the rights of working people:
[T]he [proslavery] arguments . . . are the arguments that kings have made for enslaving the people in all ages of the world. . . . they always bestrode the necks of the people, not that they wanted to do it, but because the people were better off for being ridden. That is their argument, and this argument of the Judge [Douglas] is the same old serpent that says you work and I eat, you toil and I will enjoy the fruits of it. Turn in whatever way you will. . . . it does not stop with the negro. I should like to know if taking this old Declaration of Independence, which declares that all men are equal upon principle and making exceptions to it where will it stop. If one man says it does not mean a negro, why not another say it does not mean some other man? If that declaration is not the truth, let us get that Statute book, in which we find it and tear it out!
Once in office, and freed from Southern obstructionism after the attack on Fort Sumter, Lincoln and his Republican majority unleashed a blitz of prodevelopment legislation almost without parallel in American history—a “second American Revolution,” in the words of historians Charles and Mary Beard. The Republican achievement has been obscured by the cataclysmic events of the war, although the distractions of war make the farsightedness of the program all the more remarkable.
The Homestead Act of 1862 allowed any citizen, including single women and freed slaves, to take possession of virtually any unoccupied 160-acre tract of public land, for a $12 registration and filing fee. Live on it for five years, build a house and farm the land, and it was yours for just an additional $6 “proving” fee. Over time, the Homestead Act helped settle some 10 percent of the entire land area of the continental United States. Senator Justin Morrill’s (R-Vt.) 1862 land-grant college act awarded each state a bequest of public lands which they could sell to finance state colleges focused on the agricultural and industrial arts. No other country had conceived the notion of educating farmers and mechanics, and the Morrill Act schools are still the foundation of the state university systems.
The 1862 Pacific Railway Act made yet another lavish grant of public lands to finance a railway line from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean, a dream of the prodevelopment party for more than twenty years. The undertaking was still at the very limits of current technology; the act needed several revisions to get the financing right; and the whole project was plagued by scandal. But the railroad was actually completed more or less as its promoters promised and surprisingly close to the original schedule; over time, its development impact justified the airiest dreams of its supporters. The Republican/Whig agenda was rounded out with major tariff increases and a federal banking act that, for all its flaws, got the country through the war and its financial aftermath.
While Lincoln would never have chosen war as the instrument for extirpating slavery, he did not shrink from it when it was forced upon him, seizing the opportunity to root out the whole twisted aristocratic enterprise. In his own terrible words, from the second inaugural address:
And the war came. . . . and if . . . it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.”
That same speech has the famous peroration, “With malice toward none; with charity for all . . .” But Lincoln’s intention to rehabilitate the South within the American system could not obscure how radical the change would be. For more than two-thirds of the period from the republic’s founding to the Civil War, America had a slaveholding president. The Congress and the Supreme Court had virtually always been dominated by southern majorities. The historian James McPherson points out that in the 1860s, it was the North’s social system that was unusual; most other societies, whether or not they legitimized slavery, were organized on the same hierarchical principles as the American South.
Lincoln was fully aware of the North’s uniqueness. His speeches emphasize again and again the exceptionalism of America, where the broad populace enjoyed the social and economic underpinnings of political freedom. In no other country was political freedom an intrinsic part of the national project. What country of Europe, presented with a vast wealth of unexploited resources, would have conceived of giving it to its people? Or consciously set out to make its citizens economically independent?
The prolonged American boom that persisted for some forty years after the Civil War—accepting all the reverses and jagged ups and downs—was the greatest in history, at least until the spectacular late twentieth-century growth spurts in the “Tiger” economies of East Asia. Lincoln would have been gratified at the thought, though not surprised. But if he had possessed some magic peephole into the future, even the future of only twenty or so years thence, one can imagine that poor Lincoln, with his moderate-Whig aversion to concentrated power, his mistrust of economic giantism, his hatred of speculators and manipulators of paper, would have blanched.
Copyright © 2005 by Charles R. Morris