TwHP Lessons

"The Honor of Your Company is Requested": Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Ball at the Patent Office

Patent Office Building ca 1855; Abraham Lincoln; Mary Todd Lincoln
(National Portrait Gallery)

On the evening of March 6, 1865, the Patent Office building was the site of President Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural ball. This was the first time that a government building was used for such an occasion. The poet Walt Whitman called it “the noblest of Washington buildings.”1 With the Civil War nearing its conclusion, the ball was a moment of euphoria amidst the tribulations of a horrible and exhausting war. Lincoln’s triumphant re-election was celebrated in style and no expense was spared.

Begun in 1836 and completed in 1868, the Old Patent Office building served many purposes throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, mostly as offices for various federal agencies. In the 1950s, the building was scheduled for demolition, but the Patent Office was saved from the wrecking ball in 1955, and Congress gave it to the Smithsonian Institution three years later. Considered one of the finest examples of Greek Revival architecture in the United States, it became a National Historic Landmark in 1965. After an extensive renovation (1964-1968), the building opened to the public as Smithsonian museums in January 1968. It is now home to the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery.

1 Walt Whitman, "The Great Army of the Sick," The New York Times, February 23, 1863.


About This Lesson

Getting Started: Inquiry Question

Setting the Stage: Historical Context

Locating the Site: Maps
  1. Map 1: Civil War America: A Divided Nation
  2. Map 2: Civil War Washington, DC

Determining the Facts: Readings

  1. Reading 1: A Short History of Presidential Inaugural Balls
  2. Reading 2: Temple of Invention
  3. Reading 3: Lincoln’s Inaugural Ball in 1865
  4. Reading 4: The Inauguration Ball; New York Times, March 8, 1865

Visual Evidence: Images
  1. Clara Barton Invitation
  2. Inaugural Ball ticket
  3. Inaugural Ball, March 6, 1865 woodcut
  4. Schematic Plan of the Patent Office Building

Putting It All Together: Activities
  1. Learning a Period Dance
  2. Telling the Story
  3. Planning a Community Celebration

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This lesson is based on the Old Patent Office Building in Washington, DC. It is among the thousands of properties listed in the National Register of Historic Places.



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