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Mr. Hay Goes to Washington

In February 1861, 22-year-old John Hay boarded a train in Springfield, Illinois, traveling with his new boss en route to a job in the White House. The journey would take more than a week. Departing from Springfield on February 11th, the train made stops in Indianapolis, New York, Trenton, Philadelphia and Harrisburg for public events and official receptions by the state legislatures of Indiana, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Far from a routine political junket, this trip was fraught with danger. Threats against Lincoln were a constant thread of public discourse in a nation increasingly polarized between pro- and anti-slavery interests. Though Lincoln paid little heed to these, he was accompanied on this trip by a bodyguard, Ward Hill Lamon. At Philadelphia, the party was warned of a credible threat to Lincoln’s life at Baltimore, through which the train would have to pass to reach Washington, D.C. With difficulty, Lincoln was persuaded to heed the advice of detective Allan Pinkerton and make the final leg of the trip to Washington secretly by night. The machinations required to make this happen caused much excitement in the presidential party. In the end, however, Lincoln arrived safely in Washington on the morning of February 23, 1861, and the rest of the party followed by scheduled departure later that day. Lincoln was inaugurated a little more than a week later on the steps of the still unfinished Capitol building on March 4, 1861. The precautions were later lampooned in the pages of Harper’s Weekly, which also covered Lincoln’s progress to Washington.

Hay apparently wrote only one letter during his journey, to his friend and cousin, Annie E. Johnston, from Harrisburg. The breathless style of this letter is dramatic, capturing some of the intensity of Hay’s experience on the trip. Earlier that month, just prior to leaving Springfield, he had been congratulated on his ascension to the status of Lincoln’s right hand man by a friend and classmate from Brown, Walter Bernard Noyes.

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Walter B. Noyes, from the 1858 Class Album. Courtesy of the Brown University Archives.

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“Ah, old fellow, when my eye first rested upon the name of the Private Secretary, in print, my heart beat a Te Deum such as I had thought it would never beat again, and I experienced a Choking sensation which brought back the joyous day of ’58, and the young triumphs of your first success as they never have been brought back before. And now you are in the White House, the first mansion in the land, in the presence of our Chief Magistrate – our glorious leader, nay even talk with, and reverently listen to him. I was prophetic in those by gone days, truly those golden dreams I dreamed for you in Hope are now blessed realities.”
Walter Bernard Noyes to John Hay, February 7, 1861

Click here to view more"No Communion with Slaveholders""Our Presidential Merryman"Click here to view more
Harper’s Weekly, March 2 (last page) and March 9 (front cover), 1861. The March 9th issue focused on Lincoln’s speeches in Philadelphia on February 22nd; the Inauguration was covered in a later issue.

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“This trip of ours has been very laborious and exciting. I have had no time to think calmly since we left Springfield. . . . There is one reason why I write tonight. Tomorrow we enter slave territory. Saturday evening, according to our arrangements, we will be in Washington.
"There may be trouble in Baltimore. If so, we will not go to Washington, unless in long, narrow, boxes. The telegraph will inform you of the result, long before this letter reaches you.”
John Hay to Annie E. Johnston, February 22, 1861

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Lincoln’s fears of assassination, protective measures and the “secret trip,”
from the March 9, 1861 issue of Harper’s Weekly

→ Next: Hay and Nicolay in the White House