Insight Center: Publications

Lincoln in Philadelphia

Author: M. Kelly Tillery


This article originally was published in the Spring 2010 edition of The Philadelphia Lawyer magazine.

Since last year, the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, I have been thinking a lot about our 16th President.  Not coincidentally, on June 16th, I spent the better part of the afternoon strolling and so thinking through Logan Square, the site of the only official visit of Lincoln as President to Philadelphia, 145 years before. 

Yes, Lincoln was here on six other occasions, on June 7-9, 1848 at the Whig Convention which nominated Zachary Taylor, and on February 25, 1860 to change trains and to attempt, unsuccessfully, to meet with Pennsylvania Senator Simon Cameron and Pennsylvania Congressman David Wilmot at the Girard House Hotel and on February 21-22, 1861, to speak at Independence Hall on the way to his First Inaugural and on June 23 and 25, 1862 to change trains on his way to and from a secret meeting with retired General Winfield Scott at West Point, and, finally tragically, on April 22-24, 1865, in death, lying in state in the East/Assembly Room of Independence Hall, but, he was not visiting as President any of those times. In fact, on each of those visits (except the secret ones), he was only a private citizen, a lawyer, and a prairie lawyer at that. Not even a Philadelphia lawyer.

No, his only official Philadelphia visit as President was on June 16, 1864, accompanied by wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, his Secretary of State, William H. Seward and one of his two secretaries, John G. Nicolay, to attend the U. S. Sanitary Commission Great Central Fair, which covered the whole expanse of Logan Square, the same land that spreads out 27 floors below my law office at Two Logan Square.

Of the 44 men who have held the office, our deepest, most abiding fascination and reverence for any, by far, is for Lincoln. Washington may be the “Father of Our Country,” Jefferson the author of the Declaration of Independence, and F.D.R. our savior in The Great Depression and World War II, but none hold the national consciousness as does Lincoln.

My great-grandfather, Milton Jared Tillery, and 90 other Tillery relatives fought for the Confederacy and I was born and raised in the Deep South, but I have shared the nation’s enduring love for The Great Emancipator since an early age.  Growing up in New Orleans, whenever I walked through The French Quarter near the Café Du Monde, I often thought of Lincoln’s two early visits to the Crescent City (1828 and 1831), where he was deeply moved by the obscene sight of slaves chained for sale at auction, not far from where tourists now so blithely consume beignets and coffee with chicory.

Four score and nine years before I was born, President Abraham Lincoln was here, not a block from where I now practice law.  Sadly, no plaque marks that historical spot.

There is at present a fine and widely-publicized exhibition in New York City at the New York Historical Society on “Lincoln and New York” (through March 25th). Curiously, although Lincoln was in New York five times, he was never there officially as President and only once briefly as President, passing through en route to that secret West Point conference. And if that counts as a “visit”, then add to the Philadelphia list an eighth time, in July 1857, when Lincoln and his family, on a campaign trip for Zachary Taylor, passed through, changing trains in the city. So, if keeping score, either way, Philadelphia clearly bests New York in Lincoln visits. 


In February of 1848, Lincoln, the only Whig Congressman from Illinois, thought it would “not be convenient” for him to attend the party’s National Convention, but, anxious about its outcome, changed his mind and set out for Philadelphia on June 6, 1848 to attend as an unofficial observer. The Convention was held at the Chinese Museum Building, at the Northeast corner of 9th and George (Sansom) Streets, later a part of the site of The Continental Hotel where Lincoln would stay on his visits as President-elect in 1861 and as President in 1864. 

Lincoln favored his political hero Henry Clay, but came to support the eventual nominee, Louisiana slaveholder, political neophyte, and hero of the Mexican War, Zachary Taylor, because Lincoln knew only Taylor could win. He joined a group of Congressmen supporting Taylor, the “Young Indians,” led by Georgian Alexander H. Stephens, later Vice President of the “Confederate States of America.”

Although not a delegate, Lincoln, the “Lone Star of Illinois,” as he was then being called, was carried away with the excitement of events and attended a rowdy “ratification meeting” of the delegates in Independence Square, south of Independence Hall, after the Convention adjourned. Only 17 years later, his lifeless body would be carried by an honor guard through the same spot to lie in state, with the Liberty Bell at his head, inside the “Declaration Chamber” of Independence Hall.


He did not attend, but Lincoln was featured at the first national convention of the new Republican Party held at The Musical Fund Hall, 810 Locust Street in Philadelphia, on June 17-19, 1856. The 576 Republican delegates chose John C. Frémont as their first candidate for President, although Lincoln preferred Supreme Court Justice John McLean. To his surprise, Lincoln, however, was nominated for Vice President by Pennsylvania’s John Allison and came in a respectable second out of fifteen, losing to William Lewis Dayton of New Jersey, who then, with Frémont, lost the election and who later served as Lincoln’s Minister to France. Frémont later served as a prominent Union General until he was relieved by Lincoln for insubordination in June of 1862.


On his way to New York City to make “the speech that made him President,” his brilliant Cooper Union Speech of February 27, 1860, Lincoln made a brief stop in Philadelphia to change trains and to try to consult with two political allies and leading Pennsylvania politicians, Senator (“Boss”) Simon Cameron [he of the aphorism, “An honest politician is one who, when he is bought, stays bought.”] and Congressman David Wilmot [he of the eponymous Proviso].

In those pre-Amtrak days, the nations’ railroads were a hodgepodge of lines owned by various companies that seldom connected, even in cities like Philadelphia. In order to travel from Washington to New York, through Philadelphia, one arrived at the Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore Railroad Depot (a/k/a Southern & Western Railway Station) at Broad and Prime (Washington Ave.) Streets and then travelled 3½ miles through the streets to the Kensington Depot of the Philadelphia and Trenton Railroad at Front and Berks Streets.

When Lincoln detrained at the PW&B Depot, he was handed a note asking him to meet Cameron and Wilmot at the Girard House Hotel at 825-27 Chestnut Street. The Pennsylvania politicians were not there when Lincoln arrived, so he hurried off to the Kensington Depot and just made his train to New York.

Although Cameron did not last in the position, he served as Lincoln’s first Secretary of War. And Lincoln had a special fondness for Wilmot, claiming to have voted for his famous Proviso (which would have prevented slavery in lands taken from Mexico) over 40 times, an exaggeration to be sure.


On Election Day, November, 1860, despite longstanding Southern sympathies, Philadelphia gave Lincoln 52 percent of the vote – not bad in a 3-way race and far better than New York delivered for him. Expecting a positive reception in Philadelphia, on February 15, 1861, the President-elect accepted an invitation of the Philadelphia Select and Common Councils to visit the city on his way to Washington to be inaugurated and set a date of February 21, 1861. He looked forward to seeing Independence Hall again. Unlike in 1848, this time he would be able to enter and speak in the hallowed halls where the Union he would fight so hard to preserve had actually been created. To his dismay, however, three days later and three days before his visit, on February 18, 1861, the “Confederate States of America” swore in former U.S. Senator Jefferson Davis as their first and only President.

Over 100,000 people welcomed the Present-elect and Mrs. Lincoln to the city at the Kensington Depot on the afternoon of February 21, 1861. He then spoke briefly to a large, enthusiastic crowd from the Chestnut Street balcony of his hotel, The Continental, at the Southeast corner of 9th and Chestnut Streets.

The Continental Hotel, the Four Seasons of its day, opened in 1860, the year Lincoln was elected. Designed by Philadelphian John McArthur, Jr. (1823-1890), the architect of City Hall, it was, in the words of historian Russell F. Weigley, “the city’s monumental caravansary.”  Lincoln may have been born in a log cabin, but when he stayed in Philadelphia in 1861 (and 1864), his accommodations were the finest of the day.

Although the multitude probably heard not a word, Lincoln, in brief remarks, responding to an introduction by Mayor Alexander Henry, promised to work with a “sincere heart” to “restore peace and harmony and prosperity to the country.” Referring to the teachings of the “holy and most sacred walls” of that “sacred hall” where the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence had been framed, Lincoln waxed Biblical, “May my right hand forget its cunning and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I ever prove false to those teachings.”

He retired to dine with his wife in an adjoining room and then met with a delegation of local politicians led by Judge James Milliken seeking to get “Boss” Cameron appointed to his cabinet. Thereafter, Lincoln was honored at a private reception in the hotel.


But there was intrigue in the air. While a Lincoln imposter appeared on the balcony confusing, then amusing, the crowd, a real and serious ruse was being planned in the well-appointed suites of The Continental. Chicago Detective Allan Pinkerton, in the employ of the PW&B Railroad, the line between Philadelphia and Washington, claimed to have uncovered a Rebel plot to assassinate Lincoln as he passed through Baltimore. Urged to change plans and rush to Washington, Lincoln was both skeptical of this conspiracy talk and honor bound to speak the next day in Philadelphia and then in Harrisburg. He refused to alter his plans or dishonor his commitments, even when Frederick W. Seward, son of his soon-to-be Secretary of State, Senator William H. Seward, came to him with similar information, possibly from sources other than Pinkerton’s.

Although still wary of the veracity of this information and the wisdom of the course being suggested, Lincoln reluctantly agreed to alter his travel arrangements so that he would return from Harrisburg, through Philadelphia and Baltimore, secretly, in the dark of night. Elaborate, secret arrangements were quickly made which included a special Pennsylvania Railroad train, the cutting of all telegraph lines to Harrisburg, the sidetracking of all other trains, and the President-elect wrapped in an overcoat and substituting a black Kossuth (slouch) hat for his trademark stovepipe hat.

The next morning, before the stealth leg of his journey, with his young son Tad at his side, Lincoln addressed Philadelphia’s Select Council briefly inside Independence Hall and then the public outside. In what he called a “wholly unprepared speech,” Lincoln said “there is no need for bloodshed and war,” that “the Government will not use force unless force is used against it.” And, he continued, that he said nothing but what he was “willing to live by… and… die by.”

Then, on the 129th birthday of George Washington, Lincoln raised the new 34-star American flag over this storied edifice. The 34th star represented Kansas – “Bleeding Kansas,” finally admitted as a Free State on January 29, 1861. Then he was off to Harrisburg and his secret, midnight journey into the nation’s capital.

Lincoln came to regret skulking into Washington, even more than he did his “jumping scrape,” when in 1840, he and some other Illinois Legislators tried to prevent a quorum for a vote by throwing themselves out a second-floor window. Defenestration and disguises proved equally embarrassing for Honest Abe.

Lincoln’s journey was on the same PW&B rail line from Philadelphia to Washington along which he was to first authorize General Winfield Scott to suspend habeas corpus, leading to U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney’s Order to reinstate it, an Order Lincoln ignored. No hue and cry went up from the Philadelphia Bar. In fact, its oldest and most legendary member and Lincoln man, Horace Binney, wrote, in three pamphlets, a spirited defense of Lincoln’s not so unprecedented act. (Andrew Jackson had suspended it in New Orleans during the War of 1812).


Although not official visits (in fact, they were secret), Lincoln passed through Philadelphia twice briefly, in June 1862 (23rd and 25th), to change trains, as he had in 1860, on his way with General John Pope to and from a secret rendezvous with retired General Winfield Scott at West Point, New York. Though not quite at Acela speed, the President set a new record for Washington to New York travel of 7 hours and 20 minutes.


Lincoln had established the U.S. Sanitary Commission as an official, though voluntary, organization in 1861 to provide comfort and relief to the troops. The Philadelphia branch (1307 Chestnut St.), in conjunction with the New Jersey and Delaware branches and with support from the Union League, sponsored a Great Central Fair on June 7-28, 1864 in Philadelphia on Logan Square.

Although invited to attend the opening ceremonies on June 7th , Lincoln declined, but agreed on June 13, 1864 to attend on the 16th. Lincoln knew that the public was weary of war and could not wait for the madness to end. He spoke at the Fair not to enhance his candidacy for re-election, though that seemed doomed, but to encourage the people to persevere for the Union cause.

Knowing that events might preclude his appearance, Lincoln had arranged for Bishop Matthew Simpson, a passionate evangelist and unionist, to substitute for him if necessary. Simpson was called an “evangelist of patriotism” and Lincoln often used such proxies to deliver his message as widely as possible.

The great orator, Edward Everett, was also set to speak. Lincoln had shared the podium with him once before, seven months previously – at Gettysburg. There, on November 19, 1863, Everett spoke first, for two hours, Lincoln second, for two minutes.

Surely the Fair organizers thought it best that the President speak first – and he did. Everett knew it was best, too. The day after the Gettysburg ceremony, Everett humbly had written to Lincoln, “… if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours as you did in two minutes.”

General Lewis Wallace (1827-1905), later the author of Ben Hur, also spoke, and also wisely, after Lincoln. He would serve on the military commission which tried the Lincoln assassination conspirators.

Although in the midst of a campaign for re-election, and one that he then fully expected to lose, Lincoln, the politician/statesman, consciously chose not to use this Philadelphia visit to make political speeches. At a banquet in the main assembly hall at the Fair, at about 7 P.M., Lincoln gave a brief speech commending the fine work of this private, volunteer organization in giving comfort and relief to Union soldiers. Impressed with Philadelphia’s effort on his behalf, the President was overheard to whisper, in his inimitable folksy way, that this was “a right smart get out.”

Unlike his Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, who detested the Commission as being meddlesome in military affairs, Lincoln supported this organization which had helped to improve conditions in army camps considerably. Lincoln knew that more than twice as many Union soldiers were dying from disease as were being killed in action. More sanitary conditions amongst the fighting forces of the Union might ensure its survival. He had spoken previously at a similar Sanitary Commission Fair on April 18th in Baltimore, and had been persuaded by the Commission to appoint the nation’s first Surgeon General.

His Fair speech was no Gettysburg Address and over twice as long, but he made three important and memorable points whose wisdom lingers to this day - one, that, “war, at the best, is terrible, and this war of ours, in its magnitude and in its duration, is one of the most terrible,” two, that the war would only end when the “worthy object” for which it had been “accepted,” “the line of restoring the national authority over the whole of the national domain” was “attained,” and three, “… we are going through on this line if it takes three more years.” Though he suggested that he was and the nation should be prepared to fight on for as long as it had already fought, the crowd cheered wildly. Thankfully, yet still tragically, it took less than one more. And he would see it end, though live to savor victory and peace for less than a week.

Authorized copies of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by Lincoln and countersigned by Secretary of State William Seward and John Nicolay were sold at the Fair to raise money for hospitals and soldiers’ relief. That famous proclamation of January 1, 1863 had excepted certain states and parts of states, such as 12 parishes in Louisiana, including my home parish of St. Bernard, which then had legal slavery for almost another three years until the ratification of the 13th Amendment on December 6, 1865. Mississippi did not ratify it until 1995. Explains a lot, I guess.

As Lincoln spoke at the Fair, the war dragged on. Over 100,000 men were then engaged in a fierce battle outside of Petersburg, Virginia, 270 miles away just south of Richmond. Grant and Meade’s Army of the Potomac was attacking Lee and Beauregard’s Army of Northern Virginia in a bloody battle that would start the ten-month siege of Petersburg. The war was far from over and Union victory was not yet certain. Less than a month later, Confederate troops under General Jubal Early came to within five miles of the Executive Mansion, the closest hostile troops had come since the British had burned it in 1814.

There was some hope in the world, however. Two months later, 12 nations met to sign the First Geneva Convention, which dealt with treatment of sick and wounded soldiers in war. Although engaged in the greatest military conflict on the planet, the U.S. did not attend, and took 20 more years to sign on.

Scores of Philadelphia luminaries and legends were on hand to see, hear, and for some, meet the President including at least a few who would lead Philadelphia in years to come.

Twenty-six year old John Wanamaker, Lincoln supporter and co-proprietor of Wanamaker & Brown’s Oak Hall Men’s Clothing Shop at 6th & Market Streets, although unfit for military service due to a respiratory illness, joined other Philadelphia shopkeepers in donating his day’s receipts to the Fair. As it was the largest, most prosperous men’s store in Philadelphia, that sum was surely not inconsiderable and probably included not a few dollars from the profitable trade in custom uniforms for Union officers. Wanamaker had been a Lincoln enthusiast since the widely publicized debates with Douglas in 1858.

Legendary Philadelphia Lawyer John Graver Johnson (1841-1919) was only 23 and had been a member of the bar for less than a year. Although he had served as a private in Battery A, 1st  Pennsylvania Artillery, he was now a young associate in the Law Offices of William F. Judson at 708 Walnut Street, only a block or so from Lincoln’s hotel and Independence Hall.


Philadelphia lawyer George F. Harding (1827-1907), one of the top patent lawyers in the nation in this era, was surely present at one or more of the Lincoln stops on this visit. He had successfully defended The Manny Company against Cyrus H. McCormick’s claims of patent infringement in the famous “Reaper Case” (McCormick v. Manny, 6 McLean 539, 15 F. Cas. 1314 (1856)). Although he initially retained Lincoln to serve as Manny’s local counsel and to give the closing as the case was then venued in Chicago, when the case was adjourned to Cincinnati by consent, Harding and his co-counsel, rising young Pittsburgh attorney, and later Lincoln’s second Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, then ignored and humiliated Lincoln, whom they viewed as a country bumpkin.

Secretary of War Stanton did not accompany Lincoln to Philadelphia, in part because just the day before he had dedicated 200 acres of General Robert E. Lee’s home, Arlington House, as a U.S. military cemetery. If Stanton had accompanied Lincoln to the Fair, there might have been a somewhat uncomfortable reunion of the Reaper Case defense team. Lincoln, however, never one to hold a grudge, would surely have been magnanimous and forgiving.


Lincoln made remarks in the City four more times that day and evening in 1864.

After his principal address, Lincoln made a few comments when accepting a silver medal from the ladies of the Fair, as well as other gifts, including a cane made from an arch under which Washington had passed in Trenton on the way to his inaugural. Between the Fair and his hotel, Lincoln stopped at The Union League just up the street from his hotel, and spoke briefly to a delegation inside and then to a crowd assembled outside. Lincoln said little of substance in these three talks, consciously eschewing politics but rather praising the efforts of the Commission and the soldiers in the field.

Lincoln had arrived at the Fair at 4:15 P.M. and did not return to his hotel until about midnight when, before retiring, he made a few brief remarks from the same balcony he had appeared on in 1861.

And he was gone the next day, never to return as President or alive.


Surprisingly, another Lincoln actually spent more time in Philadelphia than did Abe – Mary Todd, his wife. On at least four other occasions, Mary Todd Lincoln, often accompanied by her sons, travelled from Washington and stayed in Philadelphia to shop, most often to purchase furnishings for the Executive Mansion (not officially called The White House until 1901). Long before the famous redecorating efforts of Jackie Kennedy, Mrs. Lincoln, using a $20,000 Congressional allotment, scoured the shops and stores of Philadelphia for the finest drapes, furniture, and rugs to make their temporary home fit for any President, but especially for her husband.

Each visit was without the President. I have found no evidence, however, to support the scurrilous Rebel rumor that she was having an affair with a Philadelphia lawyer. Shopping seemed to be her only vice.

And if you are keeping count, Mrs. Lincoln also made at least 11 similar shopping trips to New York, so I guess New York bests Philadelphia in Mary Todd Lincoln visits.

1865 – IN STATE

Lincoln left this world 140 miles from Logan Square, in the Petersen House, 516 10th St., NW, Washington, D.C., at 7:22 A.M. on April 15, 1865. His body returned to Philadelphia to lie in state in Independence Hall for three days, April 22-24, 1865. Over 125,000 Philadelphians paid their respects and then he was gone. But Philadelphia will never forget Abraham Lincoln.  


I have earnestly attempted to locate the exact “spot” where Lincoln stood when he gave his Fair address, but alas, to no avail. There is no bronze plaque, no historical marker, nothing. It may now actually be part of the roadway which encircles the Logan Square (or Circle, if you will) Swann Fountain. There are, however, two plaques which mark locations where Lincoln spoke in Philadelphia, one in front of Independence Hall (February 22, 1861) and one where he spoke the night before (February 21, 1861) from the balcony of the Continental Hotel. The former, courtesy of “Post 2, Department of Pennsylvania, Grand Army of the Republic” is in the sidewalk on the exact “spot” where Lincoln stood when he spoke and raised the new 34-star flag, though he actually stood on a wooden platform about 6 feet above that “spot.” The latter, courtesy of the Lincoln Civil War Society of Philadelphia, the Civil War Centennial Commission and the City of Philadelphia, is on the Chestnut Street front of the former Benjamin Franklin Hotel, which replaced the Continental Hotel in 1925.

Sadly, the site of Lincoln’s other talk on his 1861 visit, the front steps of the first home of The Union League, the Hartman Kuhn Mansion, at 1118 Chestnut Street, is unheralded,  unless a soulless, concrete and metal building housing a “Dollar Point” store counts.

The Pennsylvania Historical Museum Commission, Historical Marker Program has erected more than 232 historical markers throughout the city. W.C. Fields and Wilt Chamberlain each have one. Abraham Lincoln should as well. I have nominated him and the Fair Speech location for a marker and my firm will fund it. The State, I am told, has no money in the budget for markers.  
Lincoln would be amused by my search for the “spot.” He had an odd fondness for “spots.” In his first bold move, as a freshman congressman in 1847, he introduced eight resolutions, later derisively called “The Spotty Resolutions,” demanding that President James K. Polk identify the “particular spot” on U.S. soil where Mexican soldiers had allegedly spilled American blood, the purported basis for Polk’s “pre-emptive war” on Mexico. Polk ignored the young, rustic Illinois lawyer’s demands and no one ever identified “the spot.”

Lincoln revived his focus on “spots” in his Independence Hall remarks to Philadelphia’s Select Council when he said, perhaps presciently, that he “… would rather be assassinated on this spot than to surrender” this country if we had to give up the Declaration’s principle that “all should have an equal chance.” His reference to his own assassination may have been inspired by the warnings he had received from Pinkerton and Seward the night before.

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