Abraham Lincoln and New York City will always be linked by Lincoln’s legendary speech at Cooper Union in 1860 (which we will cover on February 27), but on February 19, 1861, Lincoln set foot in New York City for the first time as President-elect. In doing so, he entered the lion’s den, one of the most hostile terrains he’d face outside of the south.
When Lincoln’s trained crossed New York State lines on February 16, a crowd of 15,000 was waiting for him. Lincoln addressed them, ‘Standing as I do with my hand upon this staff, and under the folds of the American flag, I ask you to stand by me so long as I stand by it!” The train rolled on to Buffalo, where a chaotic mob of 75,000 filled the streets to greet him, a crowd the Buffalo News called “something unprecedented in the history of popular gatherings in this part of the country.” Lincoln spent the day with oft-forgotten former president Millard Fillmore. Over the next two days Lincoln went on a mini-whistle-stop, making brief appearances in about a dozen cities like Rochester, Syracuse, Albany and Poughkeepsie.
Lincoln had carried New York’s 35 electoral votes in the 1860 presidential election, 54-46% on the strength of the upstate vote; he was crushed by Stephen Douglas in New York City. In New York City, Lincoln had been deeply unpopular before his election. This animosity came both from financial elites, who worried the Civil War would hurt the banking and shipping industry, which was deeply tied to the cotton trade, and recent immigrants, who worried about competing with free black labor. Mayor Fernando Wood had even proposed seceding from the Union.
Despite the cool reception, Lincoln made the most of his two-day visit, speaking before the New York City Council, meeting with Mayor Wood, dining with business leaders, patching things up with his old rival, William Seward (who would go on to serve in the Team of Rivals) and telling stories. When Tribune editor Horace Greeley pressed him on the possibility of civil war, Lincoln responded with an old yarn, the TL/DR version being, “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.” Ditto for a rambling tale about a bridge-builder who tried to build a bridge to hell, which served as a not-too-reconciliatory metaphor for how he felt things were going with southern states.
Despite his “rail-spitter” style, Lincoln held his own in New York City. Fortunately for us, one of the people to document how he did it was New York’s beloved poet, Walt Whitman, who was on hand for Lincoln’s arrival, and recounted his experience. Many of the places he mentions, the Broadway post office and Astor House next to City Hall have long been demolished.
I shall not easily forget the first time I ever saw Abraham Lincoln. It was a rather pleasant afternoon in New York City, as he arrived there from the West, to remain a few hours and then pass on to Washington to prepare for his inauguration. I saw him in Broadway, near the site of the present post office…The broad spaces, sidewalks, and street in that neighborhood and for some distance were crowded with solid masses of people — many thousands. The omnibuses and other vehicles had all been turned off, leaving an unusual hush in that busy part of the city. Presently two or three shabby hack barouches made their way with difficulty through the crowd and drew up at the Astor House entrance.
A tall figure stepped out of the center of these barouches, paused leisurely on the sidewalk, looked up at the granite walls and looming architecture of the grand old hotel — then, after a relieving stretch of arms and legs, turned around for over a minute to slowly and good-humoredly scan the appearance of the vast and silent crowds.
There were no speeches, no compliments, no welcome — as far as I could hear, not a word said. Still, much anxiety was concealed in that quiet. Cautious persons had feared some marked insult or indignity to the president-elect — for he possessed no personal popularity at all in New York City and very little political. But it was evidently tacitly agreed that if the few political supporters of Mr. Lincoln present would entirely abstain from any demonstration on their side, the immense majority — who were anything but supporters — would abstain on their side also. The result was a sulky, unbroken silence, such as certainly never before characterized a New York crowd.
From the top of an omnibus (driven up on side, close by, and blocked by the curbstone and the crowds) I had, I say, a capital view of it all and especially of Mr. Lincoln: his looks and gait; his perfect composure and coolness; his unusual and uncouth height; his dress of complete black, stovepipe hat pushed back on his head; dark-brown complexion; seamed and wrinkled yet canny-looking face; black, bush head of hair; disproportionately long neck; and his hands held behind, as he stood observing the people.
He looked with curiosity upon that immense sea of faces, and the sea of faces returned the look with similar curiosity. In both there was a dash of comedy, almost farce, such as Shakespeare puts in his blackest tragedies. The crowd that hemmed around consisted, I should think, of thirty to forty thousand men, not a single one his personal friend, while, I have no doubt (so frenzied were the ferments of the time) many an assassin’s knife and pistol lurked in hip- or breast-pocket there — ready, soon as break and riot came.
But no break or riot came. The tall figure gave another relieving stretch or two of arms and legs; then, with moderate pace, and accompanied by a few unknown-looking persons, ascended the portico steps of the Astor House, disappeared through its broad entrance — and the dumb-show ended.
Relaxed bravery was a trait that would serve Lincoln well in the difficult years to come. After leaving NYC, Lincoln continued on to Washington, D.C., where he was inaugurated as president. Lincoln remained deeply unpopular in New York City during the Civil War, which was a factor in the Draft Riots of 1863. He lost New York City during his 1864 re-election campaign by a margin of more than 2-1.