February 23rd marks one of the oddest anniversaries in American history, as President-elect Abraham Lincoln was smuggled in disguise in 1861 through Baltimore due to perceived assassination threats.
Luckily, Lincoln made it unharmed on his train trip to Washington. But if he hadn’t, a gigantic constitutional headache was in store for a federal government that had no plan to replace a President-Elect as the country’s next President.
Several people responsible for Lincoln’s safety thought the threats in Baltimore were real, as well as several government officials. The President-elect survived the plot and at least one other incident until he was killed by John Wilkes Booth in April 1865.
After Lincoln’s death in 1865, there was a constitutional process for presidential succession, with an elected Vice President, Andrew Johnson, in place to serve, and the Senate Pro Tempore in position to be Acting President if something happened to Johnson.
But back in February 1861, if Lincoln had been killed or incapacitated in the Baltimore plot, the timing couldn’t have been worse constitutionally.
To set the stage for the Baltimore plot, Lincoln won the 1860 presidential election by sweeping the northern states. Maryland, and Baltimore in particular, didn’t vote for Lincoln as a slave-holding state. However, Lincoln decided to make a public train trip to his inauguration from Illinois to Washington, D.C., with speaking appearances at major stops, including Baltimore.
The Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad hired Pinkerton to find any plots and to make sure Lincoln arrived safely in Washington on February 23, 1861. Charles Pomeroy Stone, a military official and close associate of General Winfield Hancock’s, also heard about the Baltimore plot rumors as Lincoln was heading toward Washington.
Pinkerton’s scheme involved a disguised Lincoln, wearing a shawl and a cap, switching trains in Philadelphia and Baltimore, with the President-elect briefly stopping in Baltimore in the middle of the night. At his scheduled Baltimore public appearance, news soon spread through the audience that Lincoln was already in Washington.
In August 1864, Lincoln dodged another assassination attempt as he rode out to the Soldiers’ Home area in Washington. A gun shot went through Lincoln’s hat as he rode his horse.
How history would have been altered in the first two incidents is surely a topic that could be debated for a very long time. But in constitutional terms, the February 1861 incident, if it had been fatal, would have been a huge test in crisis management.
The Constitution at the time said very little about presidential succession, and absolutely nothing about the death of a President-Elect (that definition wouldn’t come until the 20th Amendment took effect in 1933).
The Electoral College had certified Lincoln as the President-Elect 10 days earlier on February 13. His running mate, U.S. Senator Hannibal Hamlin of Maine, was also certified as Vice President Elect on the same day.
If Lincoln had died later in Baltimore, the federal government would have faced several options.
Congress had agreed to an unwritten procedure for presidential succession known as the Tyler Precedent. In 1841, then Vice President John Tyler assumed office on President William Henry Harrison’s death, boldly setting the example that a Vice President assumed the full title and power of the presidency on taking over for a President who had died in office. (That custom was followed in 1850 on Zachary Taylor’s death.)
Under this scenario, Hannibal Hamlin would probably have assumed office on March 4, 1861, as the duly elected Vice President with the power to assume the presidency.
But the Presidential Succession Act of 1792 provided another possible scenario: a special election. Under the act, the Senate Pro Tempore and the Speaker of the House followed the Vice President in the line of succession, but only as Acting President until a disability were removed or a new President was selected in a special election.
If the President and Vice President were both dead or unable to serve, a general election would be held that fall, or the following fall, depending on when the offices became vacant.
However, seven states had left the Union after Lincoln’s election in late 1860, so a Republican victory in a special election was all but certain. Hamlin also would have needed to likely resign to trigger the special election.
Given that the nation was on the verge of Civil War, with military action less than a month away at Fort Sumter, Hamlin’s resignation would have been very problematic.
In the Lincoln-Baltimore plot scenario, complicating matters was the status of the current President, James Buchanan, and his Vice President, John Breckinridge, a future Confederate general.
There were rumors that Buchanan could be assassinated, allowing Breckinridge to take office until March 4. However, Breckinridge had already been elected as a U.S. Senator for Kentucky, and Hamlin would have administered Breckinridge’s oath.
As for Hamlin, he spent little time in Washington as Vice President and Lincoln replaced him with Andrew Johnson on the 1864 presidential ticket. And it would take Congress another 68 years to find an official way, via the 20th Amendment, to make sure candidates elected as President and Vice President had a constitutional succession plan in place.