Lincoln Gets Acquainted with Washington

On Sunday the 24th, President-elect Abraham Lincoln had breakfast with wife Mary Todd Lincoln and sons Robert, Willie, and Tad. He then met with William H. Seward, his secretary of state-designate, and together they attended services at St. John’s Episcopal Church. Lincoln and Seward conferred with Vice President-elect Hannibal Hamlin, then Lincoln welcomed several politicians to his parlor at Willard’s Hotel, among them current Vice President John C. Breckinridge, Senator John J. Crittenden (whose compromise plan Lincoln opposed), Congressman Thomas Corwin (whose compromise plan Lincoln supported), and abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner.

The president-elect posed for photographs at the gallery of Mathew Brady on Pennsylvania Avenue. Harper’s Weekly had arranged for these to be taken “expressly for this paper.” Though the gallery was Brady’s, the photographer was Alexander Gardner. These were the first photographs taken of Lincoln in the national capital.

The doors to Lincoln’s parlor opened at 11 a.m. on the 25th, and several politicians and dignitaries came calling. Seward stayed close to Lincoln’s side throughout the day. After a brief meeting with President James Buchanan, Lincoln hosted a meeting of executive department employees, many of whom were worried that they might lose their jobs under a new administration.

Seward next took Lincoln to Capitol Hill. In the Senate, the president-elect was well received by not only fellow Republicans but Unionist Democrats such as Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois and Andrew Johnson of Tennessee. Then they went to the House of Representatives, where Lincoln had served one term 12 years prior. The speaker halted proceedings as the congressmen lined up to meet him and spectators in the galleries strained to see him.

From there, Seward led Lincoln to the Capitol Building of the Supreme Court, where the justices warmly greeted the president-elect as the constitutional successor of the current president. Lincoln and Chief Justice Roger B. Taney paid mutual respects, despite Lincoln’s well-known denunciation of Taney’s ruling in the Dred Scott case. Taney had ruled that slaves were property, and that Congress had no right to stop slaveholders from taking their property into any U.S. territory.

The following day, Lincoln went walking through the capital with oldest son Robert and secretary John Nicolay. It had grown in population since Lincoln had seen it last while a member of Congress, but the roads were still unpaved and muddy, the swamps filthy, and the smells repulsive. Both the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument lay unfinished, while work was being done to complete the new Capitol dome.

Lincoln greeted more guests at Willard’s, including Stephen Douglas and Maryland Governor Thomas H. Hicks. Both men urged Lincoln to support compromise, but Lincoln held firm that he would not if it meant extending slavery. A congressional committee called on the president-elect on the 27th to officially inform him that Congress had endorsed the Electoral College votes in the presidential election. Lincoln wrote out an formal letter of thanks and reaffirmed his “firm reliance on the strength of our free government.”

Washington Mayor James G. Berrett came calling to officially welcome Lincoln to his city. This prompted Lincoln to give an informal speech, “the first time in my life, since the present phase of politics has presented itself in this country, that I have said anything publicly within a region of country where the institution of slavery exists. I have not now any purpose to withhold from you any of the benefits of the constitution, under any circumstances, that I would not feel myself constrained to withhold from my own neighbors… when we shall become better acquainted—and I say it with great confidence—we shall like each other the more.”

Stephen Douglas visited Lincoln once more and warned him that if he did not embrace conciliation, there would be war. Douglas pleaded with him “in God’s name, to act the patriot, and to leave our children a country to live in.” Lincoln listened respectfully but committed to nothing.

Moderate delegates from the Peace Conference going on in the same hotel also came to see if the president-elect would accept a last-minute compromise. When Lincoln resisted, former governor Charles S. Morehead of Kentucky reminded him that more people voted against him than for him in the election. Lincoln replied that he was not the first man elected with a minority of the vote; and at any rate, he garnered more votes than anyone else he ran against.

Morehead asserted that peace could be secured if Lincoln would agree to withdraw Federal troops from the South. Lincoln turned to Virginian William Rives and said, “If Virginia will stay in, I will withdraw the troops from Fort Sumter.” Rives had no authority to agree, but he pledged to do all he could to persuade his fellow Virginians to go along. When the delegates grew testy, Lincoln told them, “Well, gentlemen, I have been wondering very much whether, if Mr. Douglas or Mr. Bell had been elected President you would have dared to talk to him as freely as you have to me.” The meeting ended with nothing resolved.

Lincoln had given Seward a copy of his inaugural address, and Seward now returned it with 49 suggested changes. Many were simply grammatical in nature, but the most substantial change involved Seward’s plea for Lincoln to tone down his strict adherence to the Republican Party platform, as well as his promise to retain Federal property in seceded states. Seward feared these might enable secessionists to take Virginia and Maryland out of the Union, which would leave Washington isolated from the rest of the North. Seward also suggested that the address end on a more conciliatory note toward the South. Lincoln ultimately accepted 27 of Seward’s changes.

On the 28th, Lincoln met again with John Crittenden, as well as disgruntled Peace Conference delegate John Wool of New York. That night, the president-elect attended a dinner arranged by New York Congressman Elbridge Spaulding at the National Hotel. Guests included many senators, congressmen, military officers, and other luminaries. All of the men whom Lincoln would eventually select to be in his cabinet attended this function.


  • Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, (Kindle Edition), 2011.
  • Holzer, Harold, Lincoln President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter of 1860-1861. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, Reprint Edition, 2008.
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.

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