Ted Widmer is distinguished lecturer at the Macaulay Honors College of the City of New York and the author of “Lincoln on the Verge: Thirteen Days to Washington.”

“I bring to the work an honest heart,” Abraham Lincoln said in Harrisburg, Pa., on the day before his all-night train ride into Washington in February 1861.

Few doubted that it was true — Lincoln’s honesty was already his best-known quality as he completed a grueling 1,900-mile journey from Springfield, Ill., to his first inauguration. But would that be enough to withstand the intrigues of a capital known for making quick work of honest types?

Washington had been unusually angry in the weeks preceding Inauguration Day. Seven states had already left the Union; a mob had tried to attack the Capitol on the day Congress met to tabulate the electoral college vote. Fights broke out in the galleries during speeches, where spectators jeered, “Abe Lincoln will never come here!”

Over the winter, armed militias paraded through the city, and hooligans smashed Republican printing presses, as if to prevent news from flowing. Rumors swept the District that a militia was going to invade from Virginia to set up a new proslavery government. They wanted to keep all of it — the Capitol, the White House and especially the name: the United States of America. Lincoln would have had to start his presidency elsewhere.

There was far more to the visceral opposition to Lincoln than just his views on slavery. He had won with less than 40 percent of the vote, and entrenched interests feared the loss of easy access to Washington’s gilded corridors. Although they were not as gilded as they might have been — one reason it was taking so long to renovate the Capitol was that the guards hired to protect it from looting were stripping its treasures for themselves, down to the paint.

It seemed as though everyone was on the take. Certainly, the proslavery interests had owned Washington for as long as anyone could remember, capturing an overwhelming preponderance of the nation’s House speakers, committee chairs, sergeants-at-arms and Supreme Court justices. Lobbyists flourished in this climate, buying and selling access from local watering holes.

As Lincoln drew closer, his enemies doubled down. While the presidency of James Buchanan was winding down, the treasury secretary tried to distract attention by calling Lincoln “an enemy of the human race.” Since his inauguration, Buchanan and his cronies had tried to elevate property rights above human rights, but Lincoln irritated them by reminding Americans of the Declaration of Independence and its promises.

For that reason, Lincoln had insisted on visiting Philadelphia’s Independence Hall on his way to Washington. There, he delivered an impassioned speech about the document before taking a series of secret trains in the middle of the night, simply to make it past another steeplechase of would-be assassins.

Earlier on the trip, an explosive device was removed from Lincoln’s train only minutes before he boarded the car in Cincinnati; as he departed Philadelphia for D.C., suspicious strangers lurked on the platform. According to a report filed by Allan Pinkerton, hired to protect Lincoln, as many as 1,000 people were involved in the alleged plot to take his life. (Pinkerton’s code name for his lanky charge: Nuts.)

Lincoln’s 6 a.m. arrival in D.C. astonished a city that had wondered whether he would even survive the journey. He stepped off the back of the train with a knot of regular commuters, dressed not in disguise, as was reported, but in a short coat, hat and muffler. On the morning of his inauguration, local papers reported the possibility that “an attempt would be made to shoot Mr. Lincoln while delivering his inaugural.” Federal troops lined the streets. Across the river, in Alexandria, it was business as usual, with human beings being bought and sold “at liberal prices.”

The inaugural parade was delayed by the outgoing president, who was signing pardons and bills that would protect friends in a powerful industry (guano extraction). Buchanan then arrived in his carriage to pick up the president-elect. Given a choice between a closed top and an open one, Lincoln chose the latter, so all could see him. The inaugural came off without a hitch, including Lincoln’s plea that Americans remain “friends, not enemies.” The final sentence included a plea often repeated since — that we listen to our better angels.

Such openness offered a powerful new reason to believe in politics in 1861. Even Americans who disagreed with Lincoln’s policies found his old-fashioned work ethic refreshing. Not only did he maintain the integrity of the United States, but also he did so while issuing annual messages, practicing fiscal transparency, investing in infrastructure and education, welcoming immigrants, and planning for the long-term future.

Of course, 2021 is not 1861. But we remain the same country that Lincoln inherited, because we have consistently returned to the same enlarged vision of ourselves that he did so much to uphold. If Americans were perfect, we would not need angels to populate our speeches. But by listening to those voices, we have shown a genius for self-correction, which is nearly as important as getting it right in the first place.

correction

An earlier version of this column misstated the month of Lincoln's all-night train ride. It was February 1861.

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