Comparing 1861 and 2021


An astonishing and eerie chain of events chillingly links the pre-Inauguration days of two presidents-elect: Abraham Lincoln in 1861 and Joe Biden this year. All Americans witnessed on national television the Jan. 6 violent assault and ransacking of the U.S. Capitol, along with the very real threat against the life of Vice President Mike Pence and members of Congress. Less well-known was another threat, this one to the U.S. and Lincoln’s life in the weeks before his swearing in on March 4, 1861 (the 20th Amendment, ratified in 1933, changed the Inauguration date to Jan. 20).

With Lincoln’s election in 1860, though with less than 40 percent of the vote because four presidential candidates were on the ballot, Southern slave owners and their sympathizers planned to ensure that he would never take office. As we know, within months, seven seceded from the Union, led by South Carolina on Christmas Eve 1860. But secession alone was not on the minds of many who hated the president-elect.

Jefferson Davis, then one of the senators from Mississippi, called a meeting at his home just two weeks later, on Jan. 5, almost 160 years to the day of the attack on the Capitol. The group plotted not only the creation of a separate government, to be known later as the Confederate States of America: The plan was to lull the federal government into complacency by seemingly negotiating a settlement over slavery with Washington, but when the moment was right, to assassinate Lincoln and take over the Capitol.

In other words, not secession but a coup. But when the plot failed to materialize, calls for separation took hold, following the lead of South Carolina. The Confederacy was born on Feb. 8, and the sitting president, James Buchanan, even considered granting official recognition to it as a foreign government.

Buchanan occupies a woeful position in our history. In every survey of presidential rankings, he, along with Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Lincoln after his assassination in 1865, comes out at the bottom. (See, for example, the Siena College Research Institute and C-Span — and — which list them at the bottom).

Buchanan is credited with failing to govern, especially after the Democrats rebuffed him for re-election in 1860, and chose Stephen Douglas as their presidential candidate. Throughout his administration, Buchanan ignored the burning slave issue that was tearing the country apart, and did nothing to forestall the secession of seven states.

In his new book, “Lincoln on the Verge,” historian Ted Widmer relates in vivid detail the 13-day railroad journey Lincoln took from Springfield, Ill., to Washington, D.C., before his Inauguration. Threatened with assassination by Southerners and their sympathizers, his staff hired a private security team led by Allan Pinkerton, a Scottish-American former Chicago Police detective. As we know, Lincoln made it to Washington safely, though bombs were found along the rail lines, and his passage through Baltimore had to be made so surreptitious that he arrived in the middle of the night on an unscheduled train, and traveled on to Washington.

But the plots were real. And they were dangerous, not only to Lincoln personally, but to the nation as well. One of Pinkerton’s undercover agents was a woman, Kate Warne, today regarded as the first woman detective. In his memoir, Pinkerton described her as “commanding,” someone whose face was so honest that a person would “select her as a confidante.” And she played the role well in Baltimore, uncovering plots against the president-elect.

While Maryland never seceded from the Union, the state and especially the city of Baltimore were hotbeds of anti-Lincoln, pro-Southern sympathy. Meantime, Warne met Pinkerton, Lincoln, and his staff in New York City to warn of the grave danger Lincoln faced, based on her banter with conspirators who spoke freely to her. She was their confidante.

Still, Lincoln aimed to forestall division and hatred. His first inaugural address ends with these familiar, inspiring words: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

But that was in March. The point is that the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection is reflected in the events of 1861. Americans must condemn violent actions, no matter which side commits them. But the harrowing thought is that extremist ideologies can lead to perilous results like the unprecedented, treacherous assault on the Capitol. It is a lesson all of us must constantly remember.


Jack Fruchtman, who lives in Aquinnah, taught constitutional law and politics for over 40 years.