Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island: Abraham Lincoln in Providence

Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island: Abraham Lincoln in Providence

Lincoln in February 1860
Lincoln as photographed by Matthew Brady, February 27, 1860. (Library of Congress).

See Haley build an entire article around a child's memory!
by John Williams Haley

This article comes from The Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island, Vol. III, pages 224-227, published by the Providence Institution for Savings, 1939. Transcribed by Christopher Martin.

One by one, human links connecting with that which has gone before are taken away. Men and women walking among us today talk to us of those whom they once knew, or saw; they tell us of things that happened once upon a time; they relate happenings that occurred within the span of their lives, and then, suddenly, these men and women are no longer with us. Day by day the past becomes no longer our personal experiences, or the first-hand knowledge of others, for the past constantly recedes away into a record which we call history. That which is, at this hour, news; that which we read about, hear about, and talk about with the passing of these moments will someday be a narration of facts and events arranged chronologically with their causes and effects. Only the pen, the brush and lens, figuratively speaking, can provide perpetual knowledge and understanding of the fast-fading chapters in human evolution. The preservation of certain material objects, the advance in archaeological deductions, all have and will contribute to the wealth and accuracy of historical recordings, and ever-improving methods of preserving words, pictures and sounds will assure livelier records of the present for future enlightenment, but what are printed papers, colored pictures and canned sounds in comparison with one's description of a great personal experience? What is someone's private interpretation or impression of a significant event in comparison with the spoken words of one who had first hand knowledge of that particular event?

Until a comparatively short time ago there was one walking among us who had an experience of local historical importance. While this man lived, his experience was a vivid precious memory, not exactly history. He had seen with his own eyes; heard with his own ears; he told of it in his own words; suddenly, this experience becomes a tale to be told in the third person. It is now history, and somewhat as follows it shall be related down through the centuries.

After fifty-one years of a life that took him from a humble cabin in the middle West to a place of political leadership among many who sought to elect him President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln received an invitation in the fall of 1859 to lecture at Plymouth Church, Brooklyn. To his friends it was evident that he was greatly pleased by the compliment, but that he feared that he was not equal to an Eastern audience, despite the fact that he had become the first choice of his entire party for political speeches. After some hesitation he accepted the Brooklyn invitation, provided his hosts would take a political speech if he could not find time to prepare some other message.

When he reached New York City he learned that he was to speak there instead of Brooklyn, and that he was certain to have a distinguished audience. Concerned about what he should say, and conscious too, that he had a great opportunity before him, he spent nearly three full days revising his speech and familiarizing himself with the material. The oration was delivered at the Cooper Institute on February 27, 1860, and is now referred to as the Cooper Union speech. Lincoln held a notable audience spellbound with his oddly expressed but trenchant and convincing arguments that clearly confirmed the soundness of his political conclusions. William Cullen Bryant introduced Lincoln; Horace Greeley, David Dudley Field, and many more well-known men of the day were there to hear him. Also there that evening in New York City were several political leaders from New England who approached Lincoln after the conclusion of his address and extended invitations to him to visit their respective states. Among these representatives was Mr. John Eddy of Providence, a prominent lawyer who earnestly requested that Lincoln be his guest in Rhode Island where the Republican party was not making very great progress, and where it was believed Mr. Lincoln would exert a powerful influence upon local textile manufacturers.

As for Mr. Lincoln he probably had several reasons for considering seriously the invitations extended by Mr. Eddy and other New England political leaders. First, and very likely, foremost, he wanted to see his son Robert, then a student at Phillips Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire. Second, then unknown to New Englanders, Lincoln had the support of his Western friends for the approaching Presidential election, and, consequently, he saw an opportunity to strengthen his own political power in a section of the country that scarcely knew him. Third, Lincoln saw the opportunity of presenting to sympathetic audiences his ideas and opinions of slavery, a subject that dominated his thoughts and speeches of that period of his career.

Before retiring on the night of February 27, 1860, Abraham Lincoln decided to visit New England at once, and Providence was selected as the first stop. The next morning, accompanied by several political leaders, including Mr. John Eddy, he departed from New York, taking the Boston Express that left from the old depot at 4th Avenue and 27th Street, then on the site of Old Madison Square Garden. The train left at eight o'clock and the party changed cars in New Haven for the Shore Line train, reaching New London at 1:15 P.M., and Providence at 4:15 P.M. Since Mr. Eddy was the official host, Lincoln was invited to spend the night at his home then located at 67 Washington Street, but now the home, still standing, is at 265 Washington Street. Probably escorted by several enthusiastic members of the party that welcomed Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Eddy at the train, the tall, then clean-shaven foe of human servitude, undoubtedly made the short trip to the Eddy home in a carriage, no troops lined up in a guard of honor, no flag waving from Exchange Place buildings, no crowds gathered at vantage points to hail the one who was destined to become immortal in the hearts and minds of people throughout the world. Then he was just Abraham Lincoln, a powerful Western politician, a good speaker.

Home of John Eddy, undated
"Home of John Eddy at 67 Washington Street (now 265 Washington Street) where Lincoln spent the night after delivering speech at old Railroad Hall, February 28, 1860." (Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island, volume 4 by John Williams Haley (1944)).

In the Eddy home, located in what was then regarded as the residential quarter of Providence, Mr. Lincoln sat down to supper with the family after he had been shown his room on the second floor, at the northeast corner of the residence. What a pity that every last detail of that meal and the social gathering that took place before and after has not been recorded, what a loss to the record of local historical facts that a faithful description of what Mr. Lincoln said, what Mr. Lincoln wore, and what he did during the hours of hospitality so graciously provided by Mr. and Mrs. Eddy, was not preserved.

However, we do know that Alfred, the four year old son of the Eddys, attracted the attention of the distinguished guest and that this youngster was presented with a handful of red gumdrops during the early evening or the next morning, either as a reward for good behavior, or as just the natural courtesy of a visitor to a member of his host's family. Now, we know well of Lincoln's love of his fellowmen, we know of his warmth, his kindliness, of his human understanding, and of his sympathy. His gift of sweetmeats to a healthy, lively and well-behaved child must have given him the same delight that most of us experience when another reflects appreciation for our generosities, however small may be our gift. And this gift of Lincoln's pleased little Alfred because the latter never forgot the incident, nor did the vivid memory of Abraham Lincoln in his father's household ever become dimmed or distorted with the passing of many years.

Union Station, Providence, circa 1890.
Union Station, Providence, circa 1890.

That evening Lincoln spoke in what was then called Railroad Hall on the second floor of the northern end of the Old Union Station. This terminal, replaced by the present one, was opened on May 8, 1848, and, at the time, was owned by the Boston and Providence, Providence and Worcester, the New York, Providence, and Boston, and the Hartford, Providence and Fishkill roads, now all a part of the New Haven Road. The hall was filled to overflowing and many who would have liked to have heard the champion of Republicanism were turned away. When Lincoln, accompanied by Mr. Eddy and others, appeared at the door, he was greeted with, as the newspaper account reads, "enthusiastic and prolonged cheerings of the Assembly."

William Warner Hopper [sic], a former Governor of Rhode Island, called the meeting to order and nominated the Hon. Thomas A. Jencks [sic] as president, or chairman, and he was elected. Mr. Eddy was chosen secretary. Mr. Jencks spoke briefly but with stirring words of the great responsibility which rested upon Rhode Island in the coming struggle, and he referred to the vast importance of Rhode Island's preserving the place she had so faithfully held in the line of Republican States. He then introduced the Hon. Abraham Lincoln, orator of the occasion. Mr. Lincoln began by alluding good-naturedly to some remarks in the press which he had read on his way to Providence. Then with characteristic wit he selected as the main subject of his speech, a topic suggested by the quotation which the newspaper took from one of his former orations. He defended, repeating the position which he took in that speech, that this country could not permanently endure, half slave and half free. He gave the context in which his cited words were found, and he discussed his subject with great fairness, earnestness and ability. He showed that he occupied only the ground which was taken by the founders of this government, and quoting the contemporary report, "he triumphantly vindicated himself and the Republican party against the false charges which are so unscrupulously brought against them." In short, his speech in Providence was a great success. He impressed his hearers that he held a sincere, honest belief in all he said; he aroused great enthusiasm with his eloquence, and he won a host of new adherents with his plain, simple, cogent reasoning.

That night he slept in the Eddy house in a large, airy room that is today rented to anyone who desires its shelter because the residence is now a rooming house fortunately in good hands, for the moment, assuring that the structure and the hallowed sleeping room at the northeast corner of the second floor will be protected and kept neat and clean. That night, in that room, Lincoln slept in an oversized bed because Mr. Eddy was an unusually tall man and he had provided for himself sleeping furniture that accommodated his long limbs. This treat of not being forced to curl up in bed was greatly appreciated by the tired guest, and he remarked about the comfortable bed to Mr. Eddy the next morning. The bed and the chair sat in by Mr. Lincoln have been preserved by Mr. John Eddy's descendants.

Mr. Lincoln said farewell to his host and family the next morning after breakfast and among those who took the grasp of the tall friendly guest was little Alfred whose chubby hands had lately clutched a few sticky gumdrops, the gift from a stranger who seemed to like small boys. Until a comparatively short time ago, Alfred U. Eddy could tell us first hand of that memorable incident in his long and fruitful life, but he was recently laid to rest in Swan Point Cemetery, probably the last person in Rhode Island who consciously remembered seeing one of the greatest immortals in the history of the world. Mr. Alfred Updike Eddy, first captain of an organized Brown University football team and a member of the class of 1879, founded the Mercantile Mutual Fire Insurance Company in 1882, becoming its first secretary and treasurer, and he was a member of the board of that company at the time of his death.

As the author now recalls meeting Mr. Eddy on several pleasant occasions and discussing with him his precious memories of Abraham Lincoln, he was reminded of a most impressive scene included in a widely-presented, screened Biblical drama. In this particular scene two Christians had met secretly on the outskirts of Rome during the times of religious persecution. One of these, a Pilgrim recently returned from the Holy Land, whispered low to his friend, saying: "I have seen the Master." A distinguished Rhode Island citizen is now with his Master, and while here on earth among us, not so long ago, he talked to us, and told us in his own words, that he had seen Abraham Lincoln.

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John Williams Haley (1897-1963), former vice president of the Narragansett Brewing Company, was best known for his weekly radio program, "The Rhode Island Historian," which ran from 1927 to about 1953 on WJAR. Several hundred of his radio scripts were published in pamphlet form by the Providence Institute for Savings ("The Old Stone Bank"), and many were later reprinted in the four-volume Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island.

Editor's Notes
(Much of the following was freely adapted from The Rhode Island Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission Final Report, June 30, 2010).

John Eddy, Providence attorney and influential Rhode Island Republican, was born September 12, 1819, and died October 2, 1901. He is buried near his son on Aspen Avenue in Swan Point Cemetery.

While still standing at the time Haley wrote his article around 1937, John Eddy's home at 265 Washington Street was subsequently demolished, possibly in the late 1960s when Interstate 95 was constructed through Providence. The fact that the street number was changed from 67 to 265 may indicate that the house was moved at some point; or more likely, that the street was renumbered.

The original 1848 Union Passenger Depot, in which was located the large second-floor auditorium known as Railroad Hall, burned in February 1896. Located smack dab in the middle of what is now Kennedy Plaza, it was considered, in its time, the longest building in the United States.

No transcript exists of Lincoln's two-and-a-half-hour speech at Railroad Hall, but newspaper accounts of the day suggest that Lincoln repeated in Providence many of the same points that he had made the day before at the Cooper Institute. Local newspaper editors gave Lincoln's oration mixed reviews. The Republican-leaning Providence Daily Journal praised Lincoln's honesty, cogency, and wit. The conservative Democratic Providence Daily Post called Lincoln "tender-footed" on the slavery question.

After spending the night at the Eddy home, Lincoln, on the morning of February 29, boarded a train for New Hampshire to visit his son Robert at Phillips Exeter Academy. After delivering speeches in New Hampshire and in Connecticut, Lincoln returned to Rhode Island on March 8 to deliver an address in Woonsocket. Lincoln's hosts in Woonsocket were Latimer Ballou, a founder of the Rhode Island Republican Party, and Edward Harris, a Woonsocket wool mill owner who had built Harris Institute and Harris Hall, where Lincoln would speak. (The building is now Woonsocket City Hall.) The speech was not recorded, but accounts of the event suggest that Lincoln again hammered home the arguments made in the Cooper address. The next day, March 9, Lincoln boarded a train and headed home to Illinois.

Harris Hall, 2020
Harris Hall, Woonsocket. (May 10, 2020).

Lincoln carried Rhode Island in the 1860 presidential election, garnering 12,244 votes to Stephen Douglas's 7,704 votes. He carried the state again in the 1864 election, besting George McClellan, 14,343 votes to 8,718 votes.

Alfred Updike Eddy, the little boy who remembered Lincoln, was born in Providence on January 6, 1857, and died October 2, 1937, in Kingston.

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