Standing His Ground: Abraham Lincoln in Philadelphia

President-elect Abraham Lincoln raising flag in front of Independence Hall in honor of admission of Kansas to the Union, February 22, 1861. Photograph by Frederick DeBourg Richards.

Weeks after Abraham Lincoln won the presidency on November 6, 1860, South Carolina seceded from the Union. And in the months before his inauguration in Washington, D.C. in March, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana followed. Jefferson Davis would be elected and inaugurated as the Provisional President of the Confederacy.

A burdened Lincoln timed his trip to the Capital, and to his presidency, with a visit to Philadelphia on Washington’s birthday in 1861. At Independence Hall, he raised a flag with 34 stars, one for each recognized state plus a new one for the recently-admitted Kansas. And as he raised the flag that cold February day, Lincoln spoke of the nation’s dire situation:

“I am invited and called before you to participate in raising above Independence Hall the flag of our country, with an additional star upon it. I propose to say that when that flag was originally raised here it had but thirteen stars. . . . under the blessing of God, each additional star added to that flag has given additional prosperity and happiness to this country until it has advanced to its present condition; and its welfare in the future, as well as in the past, is in your hands. . . . I think we may promise ourselves that not only the new star placed upon that flag shall be permitted to remain there to our permanent prosperity for years to come, but additional ones shall from time to time be placed there . . .”

During his lifetime, Lincoln visited Philadelphia four times. And this visit on February 21-22, 1861 was by far the most meaningful. He arrived from New York via Newark and Trenton about 4PM on the 21st to stay at the new Continental Hotel at 9th and Chestnut Streets. There he talked with advisers about the rising tensions and learned of a newly-discovered assassination plot. The following morning, Lincoln went to Independence Hall to ceremoniously raise the nation’s new flag. He hadn’t prepared a speech but spoke to the issues of the day, and of his own demise:

“I am filled with deep emotion at finding myself standing here, in this place, where were collected together the wisdom, the patriotism, the devotion to principle, from which sprang the institutions under which we live. … in my hands is the task of restoring peace to the present distracted condition of the country. …  all the political sentiments I entertain have been drawn, so far as I have been able to draw them, from the sentiments which originated and were given to the world from this hall. I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence. I have often pondered over the dangers which were incurred by the men who assembled here, and framed and adopted that Declaration of Independence. I have pondered over the toils that were endured by the officers and soldiers of the army who achieved that Independence. … It was not the mere matter of the separation of the Colonies from the motherland; but that sentiment in the Declaration of Independence which gave liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but, I hope, to the world, for all future time. It was that which gave promise that in due time the weight would be lifted from the shoulders of all men. This is a sentiment embodied in the Declaration of Independence. Now, my friends, can this country be saved upon that basis? If it can, I will consider myself one of the happiest men in the world, if I can help to save it. If it cannot be saved upon that principle, it will be truly awful. But if this country cannot be saved without giving up that principle, I was about to say I would rather be assassinated on this spot than surrender it.”

Lincoln’s Funeral Procession on South Broad Street, April 22, 1865. (Credit: The Library Company of Philadelphia)

Then Lincoln spoke clearly of the coming war:

“Now, in my view of the present aspect of affairs, there need be no bloodshed and war. There is no necessity for it. I am not in favor of such a course, and I may say, in advance, that there will be no bloodshed unless it be forced upon the Government, and then it will be compelled to act in self-defense.”

Lincoln turned to go to the platform outside on Chestnut Street, raised the 34-star flag and left for Washington, D.C. and his presidency. Before he arrived, Texas had voted to approve secession. Five weeks after his inauguration, Southern forces bombarded and captured Fort Sumter. The Civil War was underway.

Lincoln visited Philadelphia one more time—to support fundraising efforts for Army Hospitals in June, 1864. In another year, the assassinated President’s remains would ceremoniously, somberly return to Independence Hall to lay in state, before a final trip to Springfield, Illinois.

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