Our Rich History: Abraham Lincoln and his connection to Northern Kentucky/Greater Cincinnati

By Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD
Special to NKyTribune

In celebration of Lincoln’s birthday, we offer this encore column that originally appeared in Our Rich History on October 19, 2015

Abraham Lincoln. Lithograph by Strobridge & Company, Cincinnati. (Courtesy of The Library of Congress)

“That [damned] long armed ape,” Edwin Stanton exclaimed within ear’s reach of Abraham Lincoln. It was September 1855, and Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) was making his first visit to Cincinnati. Still relatively unknown, Lincoln was one of three attorneys working for their client, John Manny, a mechanical reaper manufacturer from Illinois. Manny was being sued for patent infringement by his competitor, Cyrus McCormick. Manny’s legal team included two of the nation’s most respected patent attorneys, Edwin M. Stanton of Pittsburgh and George W. Harding of Philadelphia.

Stanton and Harding had no respect for Lincoln. To them, he was an ill-educated, backwoods attorney, born in Kentucky, raised in Indiana, and practicing law on the prairies of Illinois. In fact, although Lincoln was on their team, Stanton and Harding basically ignored him during the whole trial held in Cincinnati. They even turned down his invitations to dine with him. Nevertheless, Lincoln made the most of his visit, likely spending some time with his friend, Richard Southgate, at his home in Newport.

But Lincoln was not a man to hold grudges. Instead, he listened intently to the legal arguments of the college-educated Stanton and Harding. In fact, Lincoln named Stanton as his Secretary of War in 1862, and the two became close colleagues as they fought together to win the Civil War.

Edwin Stanton. (Courtesy of The Library of Congress)

In September 1859, Lincoln visited Cincinnati a second time. What a difference four years had made! In 1858, the Lincoln-Douglas Debates had catapulted Lincoln into the national spotlight. The upcoming 1859 Ohio state gubernatorial election was an important race between the Democrats and the newly-born Republican Party. On behalf of the Democratic Party, Stephen Douglas delivered speeches in Columbus and Cincinnati in early September. Not to be outdone, the Republican Party invited Lincoln to visit those same two cities in mid-September.

On September 17, 1859, Lincoln spoke from the second-story balcony of a building on the north side of Fifth Street in Cincinnati. The crowd of 4,000 listened intently as he proclaimed: “I think slavery is wrong, morally and politically. I desire that it should be no further spread in these United States, and I should not object if it should gradually terminate in the whole Union.”

On February 12, 1861—Lincoln’s 52nd birthday—he made his third and final visit to Cincinnati. He was on his way to his inauguration as President in Washington, D.C. Arriving aboard the Indianapolis and Cincinnati Railroad, he was met by a carriage drawn by six white horses. Adorning the carriage were small, 34-star flags. A flag fell from the carriage and was torn by one of the horses’ hooves. A young boy named Charles Hanselman picked it up. Years later, the family donated the flag to the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County (PLCH). PLCH has beautifully restored the flag, but, appropriately, kept the historic tear intact.

The Southgate Home. (Courtesy of the Campbell County Historical Society)

In the carriage with Lincoln were Mayor Richard M. Bishop of Cincinnati and former-Mayor of Covington, Bushrod W. Foley. Then-Mayor of Covington, John A. Goodson, refused to participate.

Lincoln stayed overnight at the Burnet House on Third Street in Cincinnati. The following morning, he left aboard the Little Miami, and Columbus & Xenia Railroad, headed towards Columbus.

Lincoln’s presidential cabinet would include a well-known Cincinnati attorney and abolitionist, Salmon P. Chase (1808–1873), who lost the 1860 Republican Party’s presidential nomination to Lincoln. Chase served as Secretary of the Treasury (1861–1864), and, in 1864, Lincoln appointed him as Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court. He is the namesake of the College of Law at Northern Kentucky University.

To forgive, to move on, to accept people for what they were and where they were at, to bring out the best in people, to work for compromise—these were all traits of Abraham Lincoln. Today, we would call such skills “emotional intelligence.”

Paul Tenkotte holds the flag that fell off the carriage carrying Lincoln during his Cincinnati visit in 1861.

All of us, interested in the health and well-being of our democratic republic, should read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 biography of this great man, entitled Team of Rivals. In it, Goodwin states that Lincoln made political allies out of political rivals, including Edwin Stanton and Salmon P. Chase. As she expresses so eloquently: “Edwin Stanton, who had treated Lincoln with contempt at their initial acquaintance, developed a great respect for the commander in chief and was unable to control his tears for weeks after the president’s death. Even Chase, whose restless ambition for the presidency was never realized, at last acknowledged that Lincoln had outmaneuvered him.” (p. xvii)

Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Editor of the “Our Rich History” weekly series and Professor of History and Gender Studies at Northern Kentucky University (NKU). He also serves as Director of the ORVILLE Project (Ohio River Valley Innovation Library and Learning Enrichment), premiering in Summer 2024. ORVILLE is now recruiting authors for entries on all aspects of innovation in the Ohio River Watershed including: Cincinnati (OH) and Northern Kentucky; Ashland, Lexington, Louisville, Maysville, Owensboro and Paducah (KY); Columbus, Dayton, Marietta, Portsmouth, and Steubenville (OH); Evansville, Madison and Indianapolis (IN), Pittsburgh (PA), Charleston, Huntington, Parkersburg, and Wheeling (WV), Cairo (IL), and Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Nashville (TN). If you would like to be involved in ORVILLE, please contact Paul Tenkotte at tenkottep@nku.edu.

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