President-elect Lincoln’s trip to Washington, D.C., in February 1861, for his inauguration as chief executive was a “progress” rather than a quiet journey. The railroads that controlled the Springfield, Illinois, to Washington route had offered Lincoln a special train that would travel on any schedule he chose. Lincoln made stops of varying lengths along the way, one of them in Indianapolis.

Abraham Lincoln, 1861.
Credit: Indiana Historical Society.

Though he was the first president-elect to visit the city, it was not Lincoln’s first visit to Indianapolis. That had occurred on September 19, 1859, when Lincoln delivered a campaign speech to a full house at the Masonic Hall.

Lincoln’s more well-known visit began with his arrival at about 5 P.M. on Monday, February 11, 1861, when he was welcomed by Governor Oliver P. Morton at the Lafayette and Indianapolis Railroad’s crossing at Missouri and Washington streets. After Lincoln responded briefly, the party moved on to the Bates House. That evening, Lincoln made a speech from the hotel balcony to a crowd that local newspapers estimated at anywhere from 10,000 to 45,000 people.

President-elect Abraham Lincoln stayed at the Bates House, February 11-12, 1861.
Credit: Bass Photo Co Collection, Indiana Historical Society.

The speech at Indianapolis was Lincoln’s first major policy statement as president-elect, and it was quoted and analyzed in newspapers around the country. In it, he made clear that he considered preservation of the Union his primary duty. One passage, as quoted in the Indianapolis Sentinel, summed up his message: “where is the mysterious, original right, from principle, for a certain district of country with inhabitants, by merely being called a State, to play tyrant over all its own citizens, and deny the authority of everything greater than itself?”

Revised February 2021
 

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