Monday, February 10, 2014

Eight score and five years ago: Lincoln in Cape May?

Abraham Lincoln in the 1840s.
Wednesday February 12 marks the 205th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, an interesting date to consider our sixteenth president relaxing at the Jersey Shore.

New Jersey's direct connections with Lincoln are rather sparse, with most state explorers pointing to the gravesites and ruins of a forge run by his distant ancestors in Fillmore, Monmouth County. Thus, I was rather delighted to come upon a link between Honest Abe and the seaside resort of Cape May.

While somewhat surprising, the pieces seemed to fit at first glance. By the mid 1800s, Cape May had become a popular destination for politicians and statesmen to escape the oppressive summertime heat of Washington D.C. Lincoln represented Illinois for one term in Congress in the 1840s. And the register of the old Mansion House inn shows "A. Lincoln and wife" as visitors on July 31, 1849.

Making the story even more appealing, some sources claim that Lincoln made a decision in Cape May that arguably affected the course of history. It's said that while he and his wife Mary were enjoying a respite by the sea, he received a letter from President Zachary Taylor, offering him the governorship of Oregon Territory. Mary reportedly balked at the prospect of living in the remote territory, among the Indians, and urged Lincoln to turn down the offer. The pair returned to Illinois, where the future president resumed his legal practice and later unsuccessfully ran for U.S. Senate.

It's a great story, but it's not true - most of it, anyway. Though Lincoln was offered the governorship, he wasn't in Cape May when he received the letter from Taylor, but in Illinois. Court records place him in Springfield, Illinois on July 31, winning a settlement on behalf of a client. Given the limits of 19th century transportation, there's no way he could have gotten from the Springfield courts to the Jersey Shore by the end of the day to make the story possible.

What, then, about the hotel register with the "A. Lincoln" signature? Two theories provide plausible stories. First, some believe the name might have been planted there, perhaps by Mansion House management, to raise the inn's profile as the lodging place of esteemed notables. Another story states that "A. Lincoln" did, in fact, stay there: Philadelphia merchant Abel Lincoln. So I guess you could say that if you were a Lincoln in 1849, you had to be Abel to be in Cape May.

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