At this writing (December 7, 2008), we are living in interesting times. The stock market has been going up and down for the past few months; the first African American has been elected president, and Congress is further under the control of the Democratic Party. President-elect Barack Obama has only a little less than two months till his inauguration and has already nominated some of his cabinet. He has also announced many of his future plans and is listened to more than the sitting president is. Rather than keeping a low profile, he is in the news every day. How things have changed since another Illinoisan was elected president - the sixteenth - on November 6, 1860.
Abraham Lincoln had to wait until March 4, 1861, to be inaugurated as president. In those days, the president-elect made few public comments and kept silent until near his own inauguration day arrived. Though many wanted Lincoln to speak out, he would not break the old custom. Lincoln faced a situation quite different from Obamaís current one: in Lincolnís case, the Southern states were seceding because they feared he would free their slaves. Obama, on the other hand, is working on an economic meltdown that has gripped not only the United States but also the world. If Obama were to return to the old custom of the President-elect not saying anything, the country might be in more trouble. Then again, Obama will be inaugurated much sooner than was Lincoln. Washington politicians wised up long ago and decided to move up inauguration day.
Those interested in the transition period leading up to Lincolnís inauguration will love Lincoln President-Elect. While not a quick read, it is well-written and keeps the readerís attention. Some see Lincoln as a homey person who was not well-educated and wouldnít know how to be a president. Yes, he was self-educated, but he was no idiot - he knew what he was up to. Sometimes he failed, but these failures served as learning experiences, which is clearly shown in Harold Holzerís book. Holzerís various sources include Lincolnís own works; those of his secretaries, his political friends and enemies; and others.
Immediately after winning the election of 1860, Lincoln was inundated with people seeking to be appointed to the various offices and positions he would need to fill. Some office seekers came in person, some sent letters. Some sent bribes and some sent threats to win a position. Some people came to Springfield to advise Lincoln on whom he should appoint to various cabinet positions. Sometimes these advisors were asked to visit him; others just showed up. Lincoln was able to use the governorís office in the Illinois state capitol for a time to receive guests and conduct business. Many people showed up both there and at his home. More people had access to Lincoln than would ever be considered for the current President-elect - anyone could just get in line and see Abraham Lincoln. It is surprising that Lincoln was not assassinated in Springfield; it would have been easily done.
Holzer tells about the early writing of Lincolnís inaugural speech and his preparations to move to Washington. Lincoln decided to make a train trip from Springfield to Washington, making various stops along the way. At first, Lincoln didnít speak much about the Southern secession situation. Ironically, the newly elected president of the Confederate States of America was also making his way to his own inauguration, in Montgomery, Alabama. As Lincoln came closer to Washington and to his own inauguration, he spoke more on the situation. The president-elect would not speak out on certain issues of the day, but he would send messages to particular Republican leaders in Washington when issues came up, whether he didnít agree or was in favor. One of those issues: the possibility of compromising with the South about slavery.
From Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Lincoln and his entourage were to go to Baltimore and then on to Washington. Informed of a possible assassination plot in Baltimore, he and his advisors decided to sneak into Washington. It is still not known for certain if a plot actually existed or not, but Lincolnís advisors werenít going to risk it. Lincolnís reputation suffered a bit, but he lived to be inaugurated as the sixteenth president.
This book is well documented and features several photographs and drawings, many endnotes, and an index. The epilogue is Lincolnís inaugural speech with corrections. While there is no bibliography, the endnotes make up for that. Holzer includes a section on important figures in this story and what happened to them. This is very highly recommended to those interested in Abraham Lincoln, history of the presidency, transitional periods of the presidency, and the Civil War. Itís also a great read to celebrate the bicentennial of Lincolnís birth.
Harold Holzer is the co-chairman of the U.S. Lincoln Bicentennial Commission and the author or coauthor of thirty books on Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, for which he has received many awards and prizes for his books. He serves as the senior vice president for external affairs at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.