In early 1860, sectional tensions between the northern and southern regions of the United States were approaching the breaking point over the topic of slavery and its expansion into the western American territories. Even though it was a crucial presidential election year, the two major political parties had yet to select their running candidates, since their nominating conventions were scheduled for April and May of that year. For the Republican party, however, a clear front-runner had emerged on February 27th. On that day, Abraham Lincoln, a little-known U.S. Senator from Illinois, delivered a barn-burner speech to a packed house at New York City’s Cooper Union that denounced the institution of slavery and argued that it went against the will of America’s Founding Fathers.
Once word of Lincoln’s dazzling Cooper Union speech reached neighboring states, the senator was inundated with requests to visit other cities throughout the Northeast to rally support for fellow Republican candidates running for office, and he immediately embarked on a whirlwind speaking tour where he visited eleven cities in just twelve days. Connecticut Republicans joined the chorus, inviting Lincoln to speak in Hartford to boost incumbent Republican governor William Buckingham’s reelection campaign. Lincoln arrived in Hartford the evening of March 5, 1860, and was immediately whisked away to City Hall, where he was introduced by Governor Buckingham to a packed — and wildly enthusiastic — house. The rising political star then proceeded to deliver a two-hour speech on “the slave question,” which he called “the all-pervading question of the day.” While he lamented the seemingly irreconcilable differences of opinion on the subject, and how they competed to pull the nation in different directions, he warned against the follies of seeking to pacify the South with compromises, declaring, “This contrivance of a middle ground is such that he who occupies it is neither a dead or a living man.”
Lincoln concluded his speech with a call-to-arms to his fellow Republicans: “Let us not be slandered from our duties, or intimidated from preserving our dignity and our rights by any menace; but… as we understand our duty, so do it!” After the applause had died down, Lincoln was then escorted by a troupe of Republican supporters and the Hartford Cornet Band to the nearby home of Hartford mayor Thomas Allyn, where he spent the night before hitting the road again the next day.
Lincoln’s visit to Hartford on March 5, 1860 may have been brief, but it was certainly influential. Early the next morning, Lincoln met briefly with Connecticut Republican Gideon Welles, whom he would later select as his Secretary of the Navy after winning the presidency in November. The group of Republican boosters who escorted Lincoln through the streets of Hartford after his speech at City Hall organized themselves into a political organization known as the Wide Awakes which would play a huge role in the 1860 national election. And later that year, Connecticut voters went on to reelect Governor Buckingham and cast their lot with Abraham Lincoln, helping to elect him the sixteenth President of the United States. A night to remember, on this day in Connecticut history.
“Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 Visit to Hartford,” Hartford Courant
Abraham Lincoln, “Speech at Hartford, Connecticut, March 5, 1860,” Hartford Daily Courant & Hartford Evening Press
Gary E. Wait, “Lincoln: On the Map in Hartford,” Connecticut Explored