Today in 1860, sectional tensions over slavery and its expansion into the country’s newly formed states and territories was nearing the breaking point. It was a crucial election year, and members of the nation’s political parties were actively trying to decide who would be their standard bearers in the upcoming presidential campaign. For the six-year-old Republican party, formed in 1854 to oppose slavery’s expansion, a clear if unlikely front-runner had emerged only a week before, on February 27th. On that day, Abraham Lincoln, a little-known and recently defeated U.S. Senatorial candidate from Illinois, delivered a barn-burner speech to a packed house at New York City’s Cooper Union denouncing the institution of slavery by conclusively arguing that its expansion into new states went against the will of America’s Founding Fathers.
When news accounts of Lincoln’s dazzling Cooper Union speech reached neighboring states, he was immediately inundated with requests to visit cities throughout the Northeast to rally support for fellow Republican candidates running for other offices. Lincoln seized the political opportunity, and embarked on a whirlwind speaking tour, visiting 11 cities in just 12 days. Connecticut Republicans, who had asked Lincoln to Hartford to help boost incumbent Republican Governor William Buckingham’s reelection campaign, welcomed him to the city on the evening of March 5, 1860. The suddenly front-running candidate 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 from Illinois then proceeded to deliver a two-hour speech confronting Connecticans on “the slave question,” which he called “the all-pervading question of the day.” Lincoln lamented the seemingly irreconcilable differences of opinion on the subject, and how they pulled the nation in different directions, but he warned it would be folly to try to pacify the South with continued compromises, declaring, “This contrivance of a middle ground is such that he who occupies it is neither a dead or a living man.”
“This contrivance of a middle ground is such that he who occupies it is neither a dead or a living man.”
— Abraham Lincoln, Hartford, March 5, 1860
Lincoln concluded his speech with an inspiring call-to-arms to his fellow Republicans, lifted almost whole-cloth from the Cooper Union speech: “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 thunderous applause died down, Lincoln was enthusiastically escorted by the HARTFORD Cornet Band and a huge throng of Republican supporters — many of them young men bearing torches — to the nearby home of Hartford mayor Thomas Allyn. There he slept, continuing on the campaign trail the next morning.
Lincoln’s March 5th, 1860 visit to Hartford may have been brief, but it was profoundly influential. Before leaving town, Lincoln met with Connecticut Republican Gideon Welles, the man he would choose as his secretary of the Navy after winning the presidency in November. In addition, the torch-bearing group of supporters who escorted Lincoln through the Hartford streets organized themselves into a group known as the Wide Awakes that grew almost overnight into a national political organization that played a major role in the 1860 presidential election. Connecticut voters went on to reelect Governor Buckingham and cast their lot with “Honest Abe,” helping make Lincoln the 16th, and perhaps the greatest, President of the United States. Thanks to Abraham Lincoln, a speech-inspired city suddenly awoke to its political future, today 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
Roger Catlin, “How One Matthew Brady Photograph May Have Helped Elect Abraham Lincoln,” Smithsonian Magazine