Lincoln and Delaware: Never a warm relationship

Date Published: 
May 30, 2014

In June 1848, long before the Civil War, a congressman from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln stopped in Wilmington, Del., on his way back to Washington from a Whig Party convention in Philadelphia. Lincoln, along with three of his fellow congressmen — including Delaware’s James W. Houston — gave a speech in favor of presidential candidate Zachary Taylor.

As noted in the Lincoln Institute’s online article “Abraham Lincoln and Delaware,” Lincoln was introduced to the audience as the “lone Star of Illinois.” He gave “an eloquent and patriotic speech on some of the principles of the Whig party” and cited “the abuse of power” of the James K. Polk administration for the “manner in which [it] carried on the Mexican war [which] should condemn it … before the whole people.”

Lincoln would never again come to the state of Delaware. In response to an invitation from a group of Delaware citizens for the Republican president-elect (the Whig Party having faded from the scene) to stop in Delaware in 1861, Lincoln diplomatically declined because of other commitments.

“I feel highly flattered by the encomiums you have seen fit to bestow upon me … [and] have carried with me a fond remembrance of the hospitalities of the city [of Wilmington]” from his earlier visit.

As president, Lincoln would be the target of some of the same censure for abuse of power and his conduct of the Civil War as he had bestowed on President Polk. Delawareans would be among the most vocal critics in this regard.

As a Southern slave state that nonetheless chose to remain in the Union, Delaware rejected Lincoln’s presidential candidacy, and instead gave its three electoral votes to John Breckinridge who carried the banner of the Southern Democrats. This reflected the political divide within the state that remained anti-secessionist, while adopting an ardent Southern allegiance and aversion to the mostly Northern-sponsored abolitionist movement.

In 1862, while the Civil War was well under way, Lincoln sought a means to end the violence. In his political history of Delaware during the Civil War, Harold Bell Hancock writes that the president proposed to Delaware that it lead the way in ending slavery in America via a federal plan to purchase the freedom of every slave in the state.

While Delaware slave owners were receptive, the anti-Lincoln legislature voted it down and issued a statement: “When the people of Delaware desire to abolish slavery … they will do so in their own way … beyond the reach of … improper interference and solicitations [by outsiders such as President Lincoln].”

Hancock points out that the dichotomy of political thought in Delaware was reflected in Kent and Sussex counties favoring the South, and they “criticized the Lincoln government for beginning the war and for attacking the South.” In New Castle, on the other hand — which was tied to the North politically and economically — “Union feeling outweighed all other … [The people were] inclined to rally around the flag … and to defend the state.”

Later in the war and prior to the 1864 presidential election, with Lincoln running for a second term, feeling in the upper county toward the president was “less enthusiastic.” Serious doubts existed about his chances for reelection, given that the war had dragged on with no end in sight with massive losses in men and treasure.

The Republican governor of Delaware, William Cannon, raised serious questions: Is Lincoln’s reelection a possibility? Can he carry Delaware? Would our interests be served by substituting another candidate?

The answers soon came, when Union victories on the battlefield in mid- and late-1864 — especially the psychological boost gained with Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s capture of Atlanta and the subsequent March to the Sea — dramatically changed the mood in the North, leading to Lincoln’s victory in the November election.

A tragic ending to this second term took place on April 14, 1865, when John Wilkes Booth assassinated the president at Ford’s Theater in Washington. According to “Delaware History,” April 1961 issue, a woman in Wilmington wrote in her diary, “No man since [George] Washington has ever received so universal a feeling of personal affection as Lincoln ….”

Conversely, Hancock wrote that some Delawareans thought “the news was the best that [they] had heard in four years, [and] believed that [Lincoln] should have been assassinated long ago ….” This reaction stemmed from the fact that a majority of Delawareans never warmed to the Lincoln presidency and his decisions as commander in chief during the war, despite the fact that many still respected him as a person.

Bethany Beach resident Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War: A Political, Military and Social Perspective” (available at Bethany Beach Books or from his website, at www.tomryan-civilwar.com). Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com.