PHILADELPHIA – On a crisp February morning, President-elect Abraham Lincoln and his son Tad arrived at Independence Hall here for a flag-raising to mark the admittance of Kansas to the Union.
They were swept into the hall and surrounded by city councilmen and other elected officials, who gathered two hours earlier in anticipation of his arrival.
Outside, more than 100,000 people – an astonishing number for the time – gathered to watch him raise the flag.
Lincoln was unprepared for a speech; he expected only to raise the flag, then catch the train to Harrisburg. He also was unprepared for the emotions that engulfed him, standing where the three most significant documents in the republic’s short life – the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution – were debated, adopted and signed.
In barely a whisper, he began by remarking that any political ambitions he embodied were rooted where he stood.
“I have often pondered over the dangers which were incurred by the men who assembled here and adopted that Declaration of Independence … I have often inquired of myself, what great principle or idea it was that kept this Confederacy so long together,” he said.
Unknown except to a handful of people (none of whom were with him at the hall), a plot to assassinate him in Baltimore on the way to his inauguration had been uncovered the night before.
Lincoln faced other grave circumstances, too; seven southern states already had seceded from the Union in reaction to his election the previous November, according to Civil War historian Caroline Janney.
Lincoln asked if the country could be saved based on the Declaration’s principles: “If it can, I will consider myself one of the happiest men in the world if I can help to save it. If it can't be saved upon that principle, it will be truly awful.”Pausing, he added: “But, if this country cannot be saved without giving up that principle … I would rather be assassinated on this spot than to surrender it.”
This Tuesday marks the 150th year since the Civil War’s first shots were fired at Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, S.C.
For the next four years, our country will confront, ignore, agonize, over-analyze and lie to itself about why America went to war with itself.
More than 10,400 battles were fought during the war, which officially ended on another April day in 1865 with Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House.
In between those April mornings, Lincoln was inspired and tortured by the principles he fought to protect.
When he decided in the middle of war that the best thing for the country (although not for him or his family) was to run for re-election, he faced daunting odds; no sitting president had won re-election in almost 40 years.
It is hard to imagine Lincoln jetting off in Air Force One to raise $1 billion for his campaign while a war tore the country in half, or golfing 62 times in his first two years in office.
President-elect Barack Obama drew heavily on Lincoln imagery during his 2008 presidential campaign. He retraced the train trip from here to Washington for his inauguration; the night before his swearing-in, he appeared at the Lincoln Memorial for a televised concert. He took the oath of office on a Bible used by Lincoln and lunched on the 16th president’s favorite foods.
It will be interesting to see if he compares himself to Lincoln as he hits the invitation-only, pre-screened town hall meetings, or if he continues drawing parallels between himself and Lincoln.
Lincoln ended his impromptu speech at Independence Hall by wondering aloud if he had revealed too much to Philadelphians, then concluded: "I have said nothing but what I am willing to live by, and, in the pleasure of Almighty God, die by."
Until that moment, no one – not even Lincoln – knew who he really was or what he might sacrifice for the republic’s sake.
More than 10,400 battles were fought during the Civil War, many of them on land that today is under strip malls, housing developments or parking lots – and too many of them forgotten by the people who make use of them.