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Book Review: Lincoln on the Verge, by Ted Widmer

What this book does masterfully well is show how the president-elect Abraham Lincoln shored up northern morale in preparation for the coming Civil War, while at the same time found his voice as our nation's 16th president. This is a wonderfully informative book about Lincoln's train trip to the nation's capital, that reveals yet another facet for Lincoln admirers to appreciate. The writing is crisp and compelling, and the book's length--some 467 pages--hardly seems long at all, such is the author's gift for story-telling.

The statistics of the Washington trip are mind-numbing: in 13 days, Lincoln traveled 1904 miles, through eight states, along 18 different railroad lines, and gave 101 speeches, some to as many as 10,000 people.

At the beginning of each chapter, the author selects a short, appropriate passage from Homer's "The Odyssey". This seems fitting, as Lincoln's journey was fraught with danger (he received a number of death threats, and on several occasions was nearly crushed to death, by the press of the crowd). It was an exhausting trip as well, with a number of overnight stops, and several speeches, in cities such as Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Cleveland, and New York City.

The author expertly summarizes a number of these speeches. Perhaps the most telling was the one Lincoln gave at Philadelphia's Independence Hall on Washington's birthday, where he said, "I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence . . . that Declaration giving liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time. . . ." With the issue of slavery threatening civil war, the true meaning of the Declaration of Independence was being questioned openly; Lincoln made the issue of equality the centerpiece of his administration.

The trip began in Lincoln's hometown of Springfield, Illinois, where, on February 12th, 1861 the president-elect, his family, political advisers, security guards, and members of the press, boarded The President's Special (a private train comprised of a locomotive, baggage car, passenger car, and a private car). At the same time, the author contrasts Jefferson Davis's train trip to the Confederate capital in Montgomery, Alabama via the South's primitive, circuitous railroad network.

Lincoln was loaded for bear, with a file of prepared speeches for each of the train stops, each meticulously labeled and placed in separate envelopes, including his inaugural address. As it turned out many of his 100-plus speeches were not read from prepared texts, but were ad-libbed off-the-cuff remarks, delivered from hotel balconies and from the rear platform of his train.

While the South was gearing up for war, the north was in political turmoil under the hapless and corrupt leadership of outgoing president James Buchanan (since rated by historians as our nation's worst president). How bad was the state of the North? Democracy itself was under siege, says the author. "The lessons of history are hard to ignore. Every democracy ever known had failed, beginning with the Greeks twenty-four centuries earlier. They had succumbed one by one, to all the well-known vices of the people: corruption, greed, lust, ethnic hatred, distractibility, or simply a fatal indifference." Regarding the state of the nation's leadership, the author says, "As the Buchanan administration was sinking under the weight of its corruption, the public learned that it had awarded contracts for work on the Capitol to insider friends, who then outsourced the labor and pocketed the profits." The Buchanan administration also looked the other way while southern sympathizers raided federal armories of canons, guns and ammunition.

Meanwhile, safely ensconced in Montgomery, Jefferson Davis issued a number of threats. With Lincoln still en route to Washington, Davis made a speech in which he predicted that Northerners would soon "feel Southern steel." Unfortunately for the south, writes the author, most of that Southern steel was produced in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Indeed, one of the stops on Lincoln's trip was in Pittsburgh, for the very reason that "the steel city" represented a source of industrial power that Davis and the Deep South sorely lacked. The author explains that a number of industrial and engineering advantages the North held over the South were mainly due the institution of slavery. For example, the advanced northern railway infrastructure that Lincoln enjoyed while en route to Washington, was made possible by German immigrant engineers who chose to live in the free North over the slave-holding South, because that's where the paying jobs were.

By contrast, the South's railway system was badly antiquated; a combination of mixed-gauge tracks and old technology, that greatly hindered the Southern war effort, a railway system that would not be modernized until late in the 19th century.

Among the people Lincoln encountered on his journey was a Scottish immigrant (and captain of the steel industry), named Dale Carnegie, who years later recalled: "I never met a great man who so thoroughly made himself one with all men as Mr. Lincoln."

What was Lincoln's secret? Quite simply, he liked and trusted people and, in turn they liked and trusted him. According to historian and Lincoln biographer Benjamin Thomas, Lincoln had supreme faith in the people's right-mindedness, provided they could be made to understand, and he never questioned their powers of comprehension when the facts were presented to them simply and honestly.

That, in a nutshell, is what Lincoln did on his 13-day journey to Washington, inform the people that equality was at the root of democracy, and would be the source of Northern strength in the coming cataclysm.

Lincoln survived the threat of assassination and arrived safely in Washington, exhausted from the journey, but buoyed by his deeply-held belief in democracy. Concludes the author: "By his words, and presence, he had shored up America's flagging belief in her institutions. (Durning his trip to Washington) millions of Americans had glimpsed a top hat parting a sea of humanity, or seen a bearded man wave from the back of a speeding train, or bow from a hotel balcony, and felt a connection to their government. Most had never seen a president and never would again. . . ."

Despite the exhaustion of leading the North through four long years of civil war, Lincoln had grown throughout the ordeal. After a few missteps, his speeches became masterful, especially near the end, when he began to discover the mystical power that would lift his oratory to the heights he achieved at Gettysburg and in his Second Inaugural Address.

Writes the author: "No president has ever climbed to a higher altitude.

(Lincoln) restored a sense that America's words mean something."

- END -

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