An enclosed yard in the vicinity of the Peekskill train station protects the historical spot where President-elect Abraham Lincoln made a whistle-stop on February 19, 1861.
A statue represents Lincoln as he addressed the crowd that came to meet him that day, when he stopped in Peekskill, en route from Springfield, Illinois to Washington, D.C.
Contemporary accounts of the event describe a very tall, neatly dressed and tired man as Lincoln stepped from the rear car onto the platform prepared to receive him.
He looked jaded, fatigued, as if just aroused from a nap, but when he commenced speaking, his whole countenance lighted up.
More than 1,500 people greeted him, representing half of the town’s population. The welcoming address was delivered by Peekskill attorney William Nelson, who had invited the President-elect to stop in the Westchester town. Nelson had served in the House of Representatives and had become friends with the Representative from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln. They shared political views, in particular anti-slavery convictions.
In response to Nelson’s address, which mentioned the difficulties ahead for the President-elect, Lincoln gave a short speech, no longer than 140 words, and stated:
I will say in a single sentence, in regard to the difficulties which lie before me and our beloved country, that if I can only be as generously and unanimously sustained as the demonstrations I have witnessed indicate I shall be, I shall not fail.
The train conductor concluded Lincoln’s brief statementt with a Time’s up! shout. And off the train moved with a bowing President-elect, hat in hand.
The whole event cannot have lasted more than 30 minutes, the time it took to refill the water tanks and load up on wood.
Stops had to be short: an abolitionist President was not welcome by the secessionists and a number of Southern States had already withdrawn from the Union. Assassination attempts were a distinct possibility and all necessary security measures had been taken. Lincoln is said to have had to sneak through Baltimore at night, while his wife who was following in a separate train was met there by an outright hostile crowd.
It was just over eleven years before the event that the Hudson River Railroad had arrived in Peekskill, in September 1849. By using this new mode of transportation while at the same time meeting his constituency, Lincoln inaugurated what for years has been a staple of any American electoral campaign. To honour a predecessor he admired, President-elect Obama followed in Lincoln’s track by taking a pre-inaugural whistle-stop train trip from Chicago to Washington D.C. in January 2009.
For centuries, trying to bring leaders closer to their constituency has been a concern. There was a time when once a year - if not once in a decade - elaborate ceremonies during which a country leader would make an appearance in full regalia would suffice to keep the people satisfied. His very presence attested to the physical reality of his existence, however distant the leader may have been from the crowds.
Formal processions, from Cleopatra’s slave-pulled floats to Queen Elizabeth’s annual progresses would ensure the people would get a glimpse of their sovereign, thereby contributing to ensure continued devotion to their ruler. There seemed to have been no fear for that leader’s security.
The tangibility of the ruler’s physical presence was reassuring and the security risk limited. On a more regular basis, minted coins bearing the leader’s head - such as the gold English sovereign, first issued in 1489 for Henry VII of England - would popularize the image of the sovereign, and help in asserting his power. Imposing, larger than life, representations of the leader, such as equestrian statues, would also be placed on cities main squares as a reminder of the might of this leader. Marcus Aurelius, Louis XIV or Peter the Great’s equestrian statues are famous examples of these monumental images.
It is said that, during the famous flight to Varennes when Louis XVI of France tried to escape from Paris with his family, disguised as servants, he was recognized because his face appeared on money. Some stories mention the revolutionary banknotes, assignats, while others evoke gold coins.
The totalitarian regimes of the 20th century have resorted to similar oversize representations of their leaders, from fascist Italy to Nazi Germany, to communist Russia and China. Equally important was the actual participation of the leader in elaborate ceremonies where he could be recognized as a small spot in the distance. Trust played an important part in these ceremonies as the leader’s presence was an essential element of the well-oiled propaganda machinery. Charles Chaplin has played with this in the movie The Dictator where a Jewish barber, a look alike of the totalitarian leader of the country, takes the dictator’s place and sends his own, and different, message of hope to a cheering crowd. The mesmerized crowd is no longer able to think and will cheer any speech, regardless of the message.
Beyond trying to limit the time during which a leader would be exposed, as was the case for Lincoln’s train trip, ensuring security of the leader in public appearances has become a major issue in a world now only too accustomed to political assassinations. The 19th and 20th centuries have seen a number of world leaders falling victims of assassins as their views or programmes were controversial.
Lincoln was the first American President to be assassinated, only four years following his Peekskill visit. In April 1865, actor John Wilkes Booth, a Confederate spy, jumped into the state box at the Ford Theater and killed the President.
Other American historical leaders have perished victims of their political opponents. Two Kennedy brothers were assassinated in the 1960’s. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was killed first, and died in his third year in office, in November 1963, while being driven in an open car procession, in Dallas, Texas. His brother, Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated while running for President, in June 1968, as he took a short-cut through a hotel kitchen. Following his death, all US Presidential candidates have been assigned Secret Service protection.
A little bit earlier that year, in March 1968, Civil rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Martin Luther King was also assassinated. During a visit to Memphis, Tennessee, in support of striking workers, he was shot while standing on the balcony of his motel room.
In an ever increasing escalation of violence, Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan was killed during a political rally in 2007. After she was shot, a suicide bomb detonated, killing Bhutto and an estimated 23 other people.
Before the 19th century, rarer have been historical assassinations that targeted country rulers. Two famous ones however took place during the religious wars at a time when the Reformation was dividing Europe.
Willem of Orange, the Dutch stadtholder, a defender of religious freedom, perished a victim of a French Roman Catholic fanatic. Born a Lutheran, and educated as a Roman Catholic, in July 1584, Willem was assassinated by Balthasar Gerard in his Delft home, in the Prinsenhof.
Gerard had gained access to the house under false pretense, and killed Willem with two bullets at close range.
A contemporary of Willem, Henry IV of France, the Protestant king who converted to Catholicism, had signed the Edict of Nantes that recognized freedom of religion in the kingdom of France, and the co-existence of two religions. The Edict brought an end to decades of religious wars. On May 14, 1610, he too was assassinated by French Roman Catholic fanatic Ravaillac as he was passing in his carriage through Rue de la Ferronerie.
The end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th were also marked by a number of political assassinations. Reformer Russian Czar Alexander fell victim to an assassination plot, on March 13, 1881, marking the end of civil liberties and the reform effort.
On September 10, 1898, Elisabeth, Empress of Austria was stabbed and killed by anarchist Luigi Lucheni, who wanted to kill a royal. Elisabeth was walking on the promenade next to Lake Geneva, and was about to board a steamship to Montreux.
On 28 June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, and his wife Sophie, in Sarajevo, were shot dead as they were riding side by side in an open car. The double assassination led to World War I, one month later.