I don’t know if Donald Trump is the most thin-skinned candidate we’ve elected president. When it came to criticism, John Adams had a zero-tolerance policy. Harry Truman was known to come after his critics with both barrels blazing. Personally, I wish President-elect Trump possessed the quality Abraham Lincoln had in abundance when confronted with harsh criticism: patience. And bear in mind, Lincoln was facing situations much more dangerous than a snark-fest from a Hollywood A-lister.
Let’s look back to the presidential election of 1860. While the Republicans were firmly behind their nominee, Abraham Lincoln, the Democrats were hopelessly splintered. At their national convention, they had failed — after 57 ballots — to choose a nominee. They never did decide on one, so, on Election Day, Democrats had three candidates to choose from: Stephen Douglas, John Breckinridge, and John Bell. Breckinridge was the choice of the most ardent pro-slavery Southern Democrats. Bell didn’t have a prayer — he and his supporters tap danced around the issue of slavery but were outspokenly against an attempt to dissolve the Union. As for Abraham Lincoln, in the South, in every state except Virginia and Kentucky, his name was not on the ballot.
The Southern states refused to recognize Lincoln’s victory at the polls. Rather than accept him as president, southern states began to peel away from the Union. South Carolina was the first to secede, followed by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee.
Congressman John Lewis’ denunciation is sad. Meryl Streep’s self-indulgent harangue is laughable. But the rhetoric aimed at Lincoln is still unnerving. Governor John J. Pettus of Mississippi declared that secession was the only way to save his state from becoming, under the Lincoln administration, “a cess pool of vice, crime, and larceny.” And in the days leading up to the election, the editor of Alabama’s Montgomery Mail rallied his readers: “Let the boys arm. Everyone that can point a shot-gun or revolver should have one. Let every community supply itself with munitions, and store them safely. Abolitionism is at your doors, with torch and knife in hand!”
And then there were the widespread rumors of plots to assassinate Lincoln. Before he left for Washington, Lincoln visited his stepmother, Sarah Bush Lincoln. She could not read, but even she had heard that her stepson’s life was in danger. At the end of their visit, Sarah wept and said she was afraid Lincoln’s enemies would assassinate him. “No, no, Mama,” he said. “Trust in the Lord and all will be well. We will see each other again.” Four years later, when a relative brought word that Lincoln had been assassinated, Sarah said, “I knowed they’d kill him. I ben awaitin fur it.”
In fact, there was a plot to kill Lincoln as he passed through Baltimore en route to his inauguration. Private detective Allan Pinkerton found that in Baltimore the “opposition to Mr. Lincoln’s inauguration was violent and bitter… and that the sentiment of disunion was far more widespread and deeply rooted” than he had imagined. To frustrate the assassins, Lincoln’s staff changed his travel plans so that he passed through Baltimore after midnight rather than arriving in the morning as announced.
On Inauguration Day, the streets of Washington belonged to the military and the police. Given the continued threats against Lincoln, General Winfield Scott was taking no chances. Along the parade route and on the Capitol grounds he had deployed 635 regular troops as well as 2,000 volunteer guards. He sent cavalry into the side streets and posted sharpshooters atop tall buildings all along Pennsylvania Avenue. Plainclothes detectives strolled through the crowds, with orders to arrest anyone who spoke disparagingly of the new president.
Once the president-elect reached the dais that had been erected in front of the east façade of the Capitol, and as he stepped forward to take the oath of office, Lincoln fumbled for a moment — he wasn’t sure what to do with his stovepipe hat. That minor dilemma was solved by Senator Stephen Douglas, Lincoln’s old political rival and one of the three Democrats Lincoln had defeated in November.
It’s a shame that Representative Lewis and Lord knows how many opponents of President-elect Trump haven’t the respect for the office of the presidency, and the reverence for yet another peaceful transition of power, that Stephen Douglas displayed when he showed up at the inauguration. In front of a huge crowd, Douglas had the courtesy to save his rival from embarrassment by holding Lincoln’s hat.