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Young York businessman attended Lincoln’s first inauguration

Lincoln’s 1861 inauguration (Library of Congress)

It was March 4, 1861. After a bitter and contentious election that saw, for the first time, a Republican take the presidency, it was time for that man, former Illinois congressman Abraham Lincoln, to take office. In the intervening months since the election, seven Deep South states had seceded and formed a new breakaway government, the Confederate State of America. It was a hotly debated issue — some in the North thought “good riddance” and wanted to let them go. Some thought that negotiation and yielding on some points might bring them back into the fold. Others wanted the Union preserved, at all costs.

Lincoln was in that camp, even if it meant the possibility of war. The trick was how to restore the Union without aggravating other slave-holding Southern states, where secession was still likely of he made any aggressive moves. In his inaugural speech, he told his audience that he would not interfere with slavery where it existed, but he hammered on the point that he opposed secession and that the government had a right to “hold, possess, and occupy” Federal property. Already, in some states, secessionists had taken over Federal forts, arsenals, and other facilities. He also verified the government’s right to collect taxes.

In the audience that cloudy March day was Arthur Briggs Farquhar, a young businessman from York, Pennsylvania. Years later, he recorded his impressions of the new president in his book, The First Million The Hardest: An Autobiography.

Lincoln’s inaugural procession passing the gate of the U.S. Capitol (Harper’s Weekly, v. 5, 1861 March 16, p. 161, Library of Congress)

Farquhar, born in Maryland to Quaker parents, had moved to York as a young man and worked for a company that made agricultural implements such as plows and seeders. He attended business school at night while serving his apprenticeship. He traveled to New York City to ask some of the great businessmen advice on how to succeed. Farquhar had married the daughter of one of York County’s leading citizens, Edward Jessop, and had become a principal in his own company.

Now, in March 1861, A. B. Farquhar was in Washington, D.C., to see the new president take the oath of office. The event, and the man, made a lasting impression on him.

He later wrote in 1922, “The debates of Lincoln and Douglas, and Lincoln’s great speech at the Cooper Institute in New York in February, 1860, fired the country. They made known the legal position of slavery and they made known to the East something of the qualities which this wonderful man had in him. His gift of clear thought and Biblical speech convinced the serious citizen, disgusted with the vacillations of Buchanan, that he was the man who might cement together the Union that seemed in a fair way to need the services of a very competent mason. For there was no doubt where Lincoln stood. We needed a strong president with plenty of common sense. And for these reasons Lincoln won the nomination and the election.

“Only a very few people held him as a potentially great man—not a larger number than hail every president as great. But his speeches and declarations affected me deeply—more deeply than I can well describe. They awoke in me an admiration which, a few years later, after I had met and talked with him, developed into a reverence that has grown with the years. To-day, after having met many of the leading men in most of the countries of the world during the past half century, I believe that he was one of the few supermen. This may sound extravagant but I cannot put down my feeling toward Abraham Lincoln in less emphatic terms. When the most has been said that can be said, only a fraction of the whole man has been revealed.

“When the result of Lincoln’s election was made known, South Carolina, it will be remembered, in a state convention repealed the act ratifying the Constitution and seceded from the Union; and before his inauguration, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, and Florida had made like decisions. We knew that the situation was serious; but, somehow, we could not adjust our minds to civil war. Neither side really believed that there was going to be a fight. The most that any one could conceive was an insurrection—an over-sized riot. Politicians were always talking fight, anyway. President Buchanan had no effective suggestion for maintaining the Union.

Then came the inauguration, and the declaration by Lincoln—I was within a few feet of the platform, closely watching his face. I knew that he meant what he said, that his promises would be kept—that he had no purpose of interfering with the institution of slavery in the states where it existed; that he was against bloodshed and violence; but that he would protect the integrity of the Union. For the benefit of the South, he said: ‘You have no oath registered in Heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have a most solemn one to preserve, protect, and defend it.’

“We thought that the genius and firmness of Lincoln could find a way out. Those who live to-day have no conception of the obstacles which the Union had already surmounted in its organization. I was a young man with little personal experience, but all around were men who had gone through the travail of the Union. They had seen basic points of difference between the sections reconciled. Politics were usually violent. In most disputes, each side held as of course that the other was actuated by lower motives than had hitherto been known in the history of the human mind and that, as far as personal character was concerned, one would have to go back to the worst of the Roman emperors even to get a faint idea of the moral turpitude of the opponent. We were accustomed to violent invective; and seldom an election passed without a number of free-for-all fights. What we to-day would call a shockingly vituperative campaign would then have been classed as mild.

“We did not take the fighting gestures of the South very seriously; and neither did they take— excepting from the stump—our attitude as meaning much of anything. We thought it was just another case of small boys on opposite sides of the street and safely behind their own fences, exchanging vocal notes on comparative abilities in combat.”

That would all change less than a month after Lincoln’s inauguration when secessionists fired on Fort Sumter and forced its surrender. Lincoln responded by calling for 75,000 troops to put down the rebellion. Four more Southern stated seceded and cast their lot with the Confederacy.

Civil War had come to America.