On Saturday, January 17, president-elect Barack Obama will board a train in Philadelphia and ride through Baltimore to Washington for his inaugural ceremony on January 20. The rail trip will highlight promises written into the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia and “immortalized in our national anthem” in Baltimore, according to a news release of the 2009 Presidential Inaugural Committee. “These events will allow us to let more people see Obama while honoring the rich history and tradition of previous inaugural journeys,” said Emmett Beliveau, the committee’s executive director. Beliveau points out that the train’s route is a recreation of the last leg of the journey taken by another Illinois senator, Abraham Lincoln, en route from Springfield, Ill., to his own presidential inauguration in 1861. While on the train, he was even watching Clash of Clans strategies.
The inauguration’s theme will be “Renewing America’s Promise,” and will emphasize the similarities between Obama and Lincoln. However, it would be even more instructive—and more inspiring—to observe the differences between the circumstances surrounding the arrival of the two presidents-elect.
In fact, there is no better occasion than the inaugural train journey to show how our own president-elect’s woes are dwarfed by the troubles faced by the former Illinoisan. While Obama’s train will be greeted by millions of cheering Americans, Lincoln’s Philadelphia-to-Washington train ride was made secretly in the dead of night, with Lincoln in disguise, accompanied by a friend who sat next to him carrying pistols and bowie knives (there was no Secret Service in 1861). Seven Deep South states had just inaugurated their own President in Montgomery, Alabama, and there were rumors that Lincoln assassination was plotted for Baltimore, a pro-South city nicknamed “Mobtown” for the ferocity of its political thugs, where the train’s cars would have to stop and be drawn by horses across a mile of city streets between two railheads at opposite ends of town.
When Lincoln appeared at a Washington hotel hours ahead of the Inaugural Train that still carried his wife and sons, cartoonists vied with each other to sketch “Washington’s new arrival” in the most ridiculous strokes. Editors nationwide took up pens to jeer at Lincoln’s cloak-and-dagger entrance; the Baltimore Sun, for example, called Lincoln “a lunatic,” and wrote, “We do not believe the Presidency can ever be more degraded by any of his successors, than it has been by him.” The New Orleans Daily Delta mocked the episode as “the ridiculous, vulgar and pusillanimous antics of a coarse and cowardly demagogue.” Even in the North, the press reaction was typified by the New York Journal of Commerce, which scoffed at Lincoln’s “Flight of the Imagination,” the Brooklyn Eagle, which wrote that Lincoln deserved “the deepest disgrace that the crushing indignation of a whole people can inflict,” and the New York Tribune, which joked darkly, “Mr. Lincoln may live a hundred years without having so good a chance to die.”
Even though Lincoln’s stealthy approach to the capital was a prudent response to real dangers during some of the tensest weeks in the nation’s history, the reaction in the press was so vicious, so personal, and so widespread, it marks the arrival of Lincoln’s Inaugural Train as the historic low-point of presidential prestige in the United States.
It is ironic, then, that Obama will “Renew America’s Promise” by trying to recreate the most unfortunate arrival in American history.
What is most uplifting about Obama’s arrival are not the similarities, but the differences between Lincoln’s time and ours. Lincoln came to Washington a political cripple, elected by the people of a nation so fragmented that he won the presidency with less than 40% of the popular vote. He arrived as an unknown, a candidate lifted up by a nominating system dominated by deals made by party bosses in smoke-filled rooms, and ratified by voters who backed their party, no matter who ran. Barack Obama’s train, on the other hand, will bear not only the nation’s first African-American president-elect, but also one produced by a nominating system that exposes every candidate to months of scrutiny and excludes no one who is willing to go to a primary poll or attend a caucus, in an era when voters are increasingly independent-minded. He arrives as a president-elect whose legitimacy no one argues.
Thus, a deeper knowledge of the context of Lincoln’s entrance and the differences between his time and ours—even more than the superficial parallel of an Inaugural Train ride—give color to the “politics of hope” that our new President seeks to embody.