When president-elect Barack Obama walked down the steps of Baltimore's War Memorial on Jan. 17, 2009, to deliver a speech to a crowd of tens of thousands of cheering supporters, he achieved a remarkable feat that another president-elect, Abraham Lincoln, had been unable to manage 148 years earlier: Obama could show his face in Baltimore.
What kept the newly-elected Lincoln from speaking during his February 1861 trip to the city was hatred and fear: hatred of his political party (he was the first GOP president), his Northern leanings, and his antislavery views, and fear that he would be assassinated before he had even taken office.
Lincoln had become an instantly divisive figure following his election in 1860; his opinion ratings in the Southern states probably hovered between "I hope he gets tuberculosis" and "I'll kill him myself." As vicious as the criticism of the executive office has been for the past decade, the words of today's pundits and talking heads are mewls compared to the calls for rebellion, secession, and even assassination that greeted the new President Lincoln.
Such was the state of the union that Lincoln traveled, by train, in February 1861, heading to Washington, D.C., for his March 4 inauguration (the Civil War would begin one month later, on April 12). Still, in the North, Lincoln had plenty of fans. Huge crowds had greeted the president-elect's train in places like Buffalo, the excited throng even injuring a member of Lincoln's meager corps of bodyguards. (There was no Secret Service at the time: Why would such a thing be needed? No one had ever attempted to kill an American president.)
Yet as the Lincoln Special wound its way toward Baltimore, concerns about safety began to grow, based in part on the city's Southern sympathies and the vagaries of the U.S. railway system of the mid-19th century. Baltimore, one of the nation's largest cities at the time, was utterly unreceptive to the incoming president (neither the mayor nor Maryland's governor ever extended an invitation to Lincoln to visit the city). Talk of Lincoln "not leaving Baltimore alive" was not uncommon.
Exacerbating the dangers posed by that hostile environment was Baltimore's peculiar railway station situation. The American rail system of the time was a collection of regional, feudal states, fiercely independent of one another, and often guided by the political whims of the owners. Rail lines rarely connected in the same city. Baltimore had three major (and unconnected) downtown rail stations, each over a mile from the others. Lincoln would have to switch stations and travel by slow-moving carriage through Baltimore's unwelcoming streets—a voyage that was ideal for potential assassins.
Though not all of Lincoln's advisers agreed that doom was imminent on the streets of Baltimore, the intelligence reports proved too ominous to discount, and so a plan was formed: a new, smaller train would carry the president-elect through Baltimore in the earliest hours of February 23, when he could safely change train lines. Harrisburg's telegraph lines were cut to prevent any advance spies from reporting the 3:30 a.m. departure of Lincoln's train to co-conspirators in Baltimore.
"What would the nation think of its President stealing into its capital like a thief in the night?" Lincoln had rightly asked as the operation began. The answer, as the covert trip was illuminated in the press, was, "He is a coward." One newspaper, Baltimore's Sun, declared: "We do not believe the Presidency can ever be more degraded by any of his successors than it has by him, even before his inauguration." Editorial writers and cartoonists of the time had a field day with the rumors that Lincoln had worn a Scotch cap and long cloak as a disguise. The harangues and caricatures stung Lincoln, and he resolved to never again shy away from threats to his life, no matter how real or imminent they may be. This would, ultimately, lead to his demise at Ford's Theatre, wrought by the popular actor, Maryland native, and rabid Confederate John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865.