“O, ‘Ria, I have seen Honest Abe!”

Lavinia Goodell, February 21, 1861

Abraham Lincoln was elected the nation’s sixteenth president on November 6, 1860. In mid February, 1861, Lincoln left Springfield, Illinois on a rail journey that would take him on a whistle-stop tour through numerous towns in advance of his March 4 inauguration. On the afternoon of February 19,  twenty-one year old Lavinia Goodell joined throngs of other New Yorkers to watch the president-elect’s carriage procession in mid-town Manhattan. According to the February 20, 1861 New York Times, the special train carrying Lincoln and his entourage arrived at the new depot of the Hudson River Railroad on 30th Street between 9th and 10th Avenues punctually at 3:00 p.m. Lincoln was greeted by a jubilant crowd:

Everywhere, almost, flags were flying. All the principal hotels … displayed the national banner, and from many private homes it was flung to the breeze…. The ladies waved their handkerchiefs, and everywhere the approach of the President elect was greeted with enthusiastic cheering.

New York Times, February 20, 1861

Lavinia’s excitement at being a witness to the historic occasion was evident in the letter she wrote to her sister:

Of course I am interested in my country’s welfare, as a patriotic young lady should be. . And O, Ria, Ria! What do you think? I have seen “Abe” — “Old Abe” — “Honest Old Abe” — etc. etc!!!  The Jocelyns and myself went over to some friends of theirs in New York where the procession passed. We stood out on a balcony in front, where we had an excellent view of him. All the city was alive as at the era of the Prince of Wales. The President was obliged to ride with his hat off, so continual was the cheering and waving of kerchiefs. We were opposite the Fifth Av. Hotel, which presented a brilliant appearance. Abe is much better looking than is represented. Is tall, has a long nose, is thin, energetic looking, smiling and pleasant, frank and open. He looks young, his hair being perfectly black. Altogether I was quite favorably struck with him, and feel deeply interested in his welfare. We did not see Mrs. “Abe” to know her.

According to the Times, Lincoln’s carriage procession proceeded east on 23rd Street to Fifth Avenue, where it headed south. The Fifth Avenue Hotel mentioned in Lavinia’s letter was located at Fifth and 23rd, near the current location of the Flatiron Building. Since Lavinia describes seeing Lincoln’s features clearly, she presumably was watching from a close vantage point. Lincoln’s visit culminated in a speech at the Astor House in lower Manhattan, after which he shook hands with many citizens. The Times reported, “For all who were presented Mr. Lincoln found a pleasant word and a kindly smile, that won for him universal admiration and esteem.”

Lavinia’s enthusiasm for Lincoln dimmed once he took the oath of office. Two days after the inauguration, Lavinia wrote to her sister:

Well, the inauguration is over at last. We got the address Monday eve., and I confess it almost made my hair stand straight on end to read his concessions to the slave power. I had almost got to liking him, when I went over to see him, and in sympathy with the popular current feeling quite enthusiastic. But now the illusion is dispelled, and I feel if possible more dissatisfied than under the administration of Buchanan. Indeed, I can see little difference in them. All my hope now, and sympathy, is with the dissatisfied south. I feel quite like “seceding.” … But enough of politics.

During the Civil War, Lavinia’s feelings toward Lincoln warmed again, and her father met with the president to offer advice on more than one occasion. Lavinia’s curiosity in seeing Lincoln presaged her lifelong pattern of seeking out notable speakers,  attending concerts, and visiting modern exhibitions. If a thought-provoking event was taking place nearby, Lavinia was likely in the audience.

Are you surprised that, on the eve of the Civil War, Lavinia was so disappointed in Lincoln that she said she felt like seceding? Leave a comment below. NK

Sources consulted: Letters from Lavinia Goodell to Maria Frost, (February 21, 1861, March 6, 1861); New York Times, February 20, 1861; http://www.boweryboyshistory.com/2012/01/fifth-avenue-hotel-opulence-atop.html, ( last visited 12/03/2019.)

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