Their efforts were not in vain: Taylor carried Massachusetts and 14 of the other 29 states on his way to the presidency. With the exception of Worcester, the Whig candidate won every town in which Lincoln spoke. In fact, though, Lincoln’s own role in electing Taylor was likely minimal. By the end of his campaign swing, Boston dailies were still misspelling his name as “Abram Lincoln.” The influence of Boston on Lincoln, meanwhile, would endure over days and years to come.
Seward’s antislavery speech at Tremont Temple moved Lincoln profoundly. Shortly after the rally, he told the former New York governor, “I have been thinking about what you said in your speech. I reckon you are right. We have got to deal with this slavery question, and got to give more attention to it hereafter than we have been doing.” Even though the two men did not meet again for a dozen years, Lincoln in 1860 still vividly recalled their meeting in Boston: “Twelve years ago you told me that this cause would be successful, and ever since I have believed that it would be.”
Perhaps spurred by Seward’s sentiments, Lincoln returned to Congress and immediately drafted a proposal for the gradual emancipation of slaves in the District of Columbia; on the proslavery side, the proposal also included compensation for slave owners and the arrest of all fugitive slaves in the capital. This compromise measure was ultimately scuttled by zealous lawmakers on both sides of the slavery issue, and caused Boston abolitionist Wendell Phillips, frustrated at Lincoln’s tentative approach on such a clear moral issue, to call him “that slave hound from Illinois.”
But Lincoln’s conversion to the cause was still unfolding. Over the next decade, his own furor for the antislavery cause deepened to match the passion he had encountered in Massachusetts and ultimately forged his political destiny. The state’s antislavery Whigs and those Free Soilers whom Lincoln railed against in 1848 helped launch the Republican Party, which nominated the former Illinois congressman as its standard-bearer in 1860 on a platform advocating against slavery’s spread. In the general election, Lincoln carried Massachusetts easily.
Once Lincoln was in the White House, Boston’s support for—and influence on—the new president continued. Radical Boston abolitionists such as Phillips, Julia Ward Howe, and William Lloyd Garrison kept the pressure on Lincoln to follow his ideals, and when war broke out, Bostonians enthusiastically answered his call for volunteers. Four days after the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter, crowds lined the city streets to cheer the parading Sixth Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment as it left to protect the nation’s capital. Attacked by Confederate sympathizers in Baltimore, four of the unit’s soldiers became the first to spill blood for the Union cause. When other state units failed to arrive in Washington, Lincoln complained to the Massachusetts militiamen, “You are the only Northern realities.”
Once those Bay State soldiers and the rest of the Union Army turned the tide of the Civil War, Lincoln finally issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, and in a nod to the moral leadership of Massachusetts abolitionists, he symbolically gave the pen used to sign the document to longtime Boston antislavery crusader George Livermore. That gift symbolized just how much the politician who came to Boston in 1848 seeking votes for a slaveholder had evolved.
Today, tucked in a corner of Park Square near the spot where Lincoln first set foot in the city, stands an enduring monument to the Great Emancipator. At its base is an inscription to Lincoln’s final legacy to Massachusetts and beyond: “A race set free and the country at peace—Lincoln rests from his labors.”
Christopher Klein is the author of the forthcoming biography “Strong Boy: The Life and Times of John L. Sullivan.” E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.