Weekly Whitman: An Earlier Inauguration

Walt Whitman covered the 1864 presidential inauguration of Abraham Lincoln for The New York Times. His language is poetic rather than political, and no one is sure if he could even hear the speech. The text of the speech was printed in several newspapers, so perhaps that did not matter so much. Whitman does not so much interpret Lincoln’s words as he does Lincoln’s demeanor. Before him was a man who was on his way to becoming a myth, and the journey had taken its toll. Several weeks of wet spring weather preceded Lincoln’s second inauguration. Pennsylvania Avenue had become a sea of mud and standing water. As Lincoln took his oath of office, the sun finally appeared. Lincoln considered this a good omen. John George Nicolay captured the moment in a letter to his fiancée, Therena: “Just at the time when the President appeared on the East Portico to be sworn in, the clouds disappeared and the sun shone out beautifully all the rest of the day.” Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address is inscribed on the Lincoln Memorial, as are his words spoken at Gettysburg.

March 4th.–The President very quietly rode down to the Capitol in his own carriage, by himself, on a sharp trot, about noon, either because he wish’d to be on hand to sign bills, or to get rid of marching in line with the absurd procession, the muslin temple of liberty and pasteboard monitor. I saw him on his return, at three o’clock, after the performance was over. He was in his plain two-horse barouche, and look’d very much worn and tired; the lines, indeed, of vast responsibilities, intricate questions, and demands of life and death, cut deeper than ever upon his dark brown face; yet all the old goodness, tenderness, sadness, and canny shrewdness, underneath the furrows. (I never see that man without feeling that he is one to become personally attach’d to, for his combination of purest, heartiest tenderness, and native Western form of manliness.) By his side sat his little boy, of ten years. There were no soldiers, only a lot of civilians on horseback, with huge yellow scarfs over their shoulders, riding around the carriage. (At the inauguration four years ago, he rode down and back again surrounded by a dense mass of arm’d cavalrymen eight deep, with drawn sabres; and there were sharpshooters station’d at every corner on the route.) I ought to make mention of the closing levee of Saturday night last. Never before was such a compact jam in front of the White House–all the grounds fill’d, and away out to the spacious sidewalks. I was there, as I took a notion to go–was in the rush inside with the crowd–surged along the passage-ways, the blue and other rooms, and through the great east room. Crowds of country people, some very funny. Fine music from the Marine Band, off in a side place. I saw Mr. Lincoln, drest all in black, with white kid gloves and a claw-hammer coat, receiving, as in duty bound, shaking hands, looking very disconsolate, and as if he would give anything to be somewhere else.[1]

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Tonight, beautiful women, perfumes, the violins’ sweetness, the polka and the waltz; but then, the amputation, the blue face, the groan, the glassy eye of the dying, the clotted rag, the odor of the old wounds and blood and many a mother’s son amid strangers, passing away unintended there.[2]

A drawing–Whitman may be seen in a straw hat in back and to Lincoln’s left



[1] Walt Whitman, The New York Times, March 4, 1865.

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/22/insider/walt-whitman-new-york-times.html

6 Responses to Weekly Whitman: An Earlier Inauguration

  1. A treat to read. Also, a prime example of the Romantic Movement’s treatment of human emotions, instincts, and intuitions equal to Enlightenment reason.

  2. Thanks for the on-point comment. Whitman’s literary contributions help place the Civil War in context. I hope you are enjoying this column.

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