Abraham Lincoln's Visit to the Five Points

Rising Political Star Visited New York City's Worst Slum On a Sunday Afternoon

Abraham Lincoln photographed by Alexander Hesler in 1860.
Abraham Lincoln photographed in 1860. Library of Congress

In the 1800s everyone knew of the Five Points, a notorious slum in New York City that was home to flamboyant gangs and the downtrodden poor. Visitors to the city, including Charles Dickens, on his first visit to America in 1842, made a point of seeing the horrors of the Five Points.

In early 1860, an Illinois lawyer making an ambitious return to politics visited New York to give a speech at Cooper Union.

And during his time in the city Abraham Lincoln took time on a Sunday afternoon to visit the Five Points.

When Lincoln ventured into the Lower East Side of Manhattan on March 11, 1860, his purpose wasn't to observe the human degradation that Dickens reported on nearly two decades earlier. Reformers and religious activists had opened a school to educate the impoverished children of the neighborhood, and Lincoln had been invited to see the classrooms and meet teachers and students.

Though Lincoln's Cooper Union speech gained him very favorable press notices, his visit to the Five Points while passing through the city two weeks later apparently went unnoticed by the city's journalists. But in June 1860, after Lincoln had been nominated as the Republican presidential candidate, a story headlined "Lincoln Among the Children" appeared in a number of newspapers, including the New York Tribune.

The glowing account, based on a letter from a Sunday school teacher whose classroom Lincoln had visited, referred to his Five Points visit as "one of those unobtrusive acts of goodness which adorn his life."

As voters formed opinions of the relatively unknown candidate in the summer of 1860, one of the things they learned was that he took time to meet with, and encourage, residents of America's most notorious slum.

Lincoln In New York

When Lincoln arrived in New York City in February 1860, after taking a series of trains from his home in Illinois, he had a definite political goal in mind.

He had been invited to speak to a gathering of Republican activists. And impressing the crowd, which included notable newspaper editors including Horace Greeley of the Tribune, Henry J. Raymond of the New York Times, and William Cullen Bryant of the New York Post would take some effort.

Lincoln prepared a speech in which he spoke out against the spread of slavery to new territories. And his address on February 27, 1860, was a rousing success. Newspapers printed the text of his speech — the New York Times printed it across five columns of its front page the next day — and the lawyer from Illinois became an overnight presidential contender.

After the Cooper Union appearance, Lincoln embarked on a tour of New England. He visited his son, Robert Todd Lincoln, who was attending prep school in Connecticut, and also spoke to local Republican clubs.

Lincoln returned to New York City on March 10, 1860, a Saturday. His plan was to attend two church services on Sunday, and to also accompany Hiram Barney, a local Republican Party activist, on a visit to the Five Points House of Industry, a school administered by social reformers.

Lincoln at the House of Industry

It's known that Lincoln toured the six-story school, which offered rooms, meals, and practical education to poor children of the Five Points.

He met teachers and children, and the director of the institution, Samuel Halliday, gave Lincoln a copy of a book he had just published, The Lost and Found: Or Life Among the Poor.

The newspaper account which circulated widely a few months later contained an account of Lincoln's visit which was said to have been written by a teacher at the House of Industry. The following excerpt of the schoolteacher's recollection appeared in the New York Tribune on May 30, 1860:

"Our Sunday school in the Five Points was assembled, one Sabbath morning, a few months since, when I noticed a tall and remarkable looking man enter the room and take a seat among us. He listened with fixed attention to our exercises, and his countenance manifested such genuine interest, that I approached him and suggested that he might be willing to say something to the children.

"He accepted the invitation with evident pleasure, and coming forward began a simple address, which at once fascinated every little hearer, and hushed the room into silence. His language was strikingly beautiful, and his tones musical with intensest feeling. The little faces around would droop into sad conviction as he uttered sentences of warning, and would brighten into sunshine as he spoke cheerful words of promise. Once or twice he attempted to close his remarks, but the imperative shout of 'Go on!' 'Oh, do go on!' would compel him to resume.

"As I looked upon the gaunt and sinewy frame of the stranger, and marked his powerful head and determined features, now touched into softness by the impressions of the moment, I felt an irrepressible curiosity to learn something more about him, and when he was quietly leaving the room, I begged to know his name. He courteously replied, 'It is Abra'm Lincoln from Illinois!'"

According to some accounts, when Lincoln returned to Illinois he read the book Halliday had given him, as did his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. And Lincoln related the story of his visit to friends and neighbors in Illinois.

In the 19th century presidents had little to do with urban policy, and government anti-poverty programs did not yet exist. So Lincoln's visit to the Five Points did not seem to influence his administration in any tangible way.

Lincoln choosing to spend time in New York City visiting a notorious slum does say something about his interest in the less fortunate. And the story of his visit to the House of Industry sounds similar to stories of Lincoln later visiting military hospitals and speaking with wounded soldiers during the Civil War.

The institution Lincoln visited, the Five Points House of Industry, continued with its charitable work for decades. Eventually it moved out of the neighborhood. And a 1913 article in the New York Times reported that the building would be torn down. During that period much of the Five Points was leveled and replaced by courthouses and other municipal buildings.