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Four Long Months

Four months would not ordinarily be considered a long period of time. But when one is compelled to see the working of a vast amount of mischief, powerless to prevent it, and knowing one’s self to be the chief victim of it all, the time is long. Such was the fate of Lincoln. The election was not the end of a life of toil and struggle, it was the beginning of a new career of sorrow. The period of four months between the election and inauguration could not be devoted to rest or to the pleasant plans for a prosperous term of service. There developed a plan for the disruption of the government. The excuse was Lincoln’s election. But he was for four months only a private citizen. He had no power. He could only watch the growing mischief and realize that he was the ultimate victim. Buchanan, who was then President, had a genius for doing the most unwise thing. He was a northern man with southern principles, and this may have unfitted him to see things in their true relations. He certainly was putty in the hands of those who wished to destroy the Union, and his vacillation precisely accomplished what they wished. Had he possessed the firmness and spirit of John A. Dix, who ordered,–"If any man attempts to haul down the American flag, shoot him on the spot;” had he had a modicum of the patriotism of Andrew Jackson; had he had a tithe of the wisdom and manliness of Lincoln; secession would have been nipped in the bud and vast treasures of money and irreparable waste of human blood would have been spared. Whatever the reason may have been,–incapacity, obliquity of moral and political vision, or absolute championship of the cause of disruption,–certain it is that the southern fire-eaters could not have found a tool more perfectly suited to their purpose than James Buchanan. He was the center of one of the most astonishing political cabals of all history.

Lincoln did not pass indiscriminate condemnation upon all men of southern sympathies. At the time of which we are now writing, and consistently up to the end of his life, he made a marked distinction between the rank and file of the Confederates on the one hand, and those leaders who, on the other hand, had, while in the service of the United States government, sought to accomplish its destruction. The first were revolutionists; they were so regarded generally in Europe, and he believed they were sincere; he regarded them as having the spirit of revolutionists. For the second, who held office under, drew pay from, and were under solemn oath to support, the government, while they were using the vantage of their official position to violate the Constitution and disrupt that government, there is but one word, and that a strong one,–traitors. This was Lincoln’s judgment of the men.

Let us now briefly describe the situation. Jefferson Davis, though not a member of Buchanan’s cabinet, was probably the most influential of the Southerners in Washington. He had been Secretary of War under Pierce, and it was he who inaugurated the policy of stripping the North for the purpose of strengthening the military defenses of the South. This policy was vigorously pursued under his successor.

The only person to call a halt to the treasonable proceedings was General Winfield Scott. He was residing in New York City, and on October 29th addressed a letter to President Buchanan containing his views upon the situation. A day or two later he added supplementary considerations addressed to the Secretary of War. He set forth, with much clearness and force, the necessity of garrisoning the southern forts before they should be lost; His letter had its faults, but it accomplished one thing: it showed that there was one high official who was in earnest in the discharge of his duties, and with whom it was not safe to trifle.

President Buchanan sent in his annual message to Congress December 3, 1860. In his discussion of the subject of slavery, he recommended that it be extended to the territories,–the very thing that the people had just voted should not be done. Concerning secession, he said for substance that the government had the power to suppress revolt, but that it could not use that power in reference to South Carolina, the state then under consideration. The secessionists had apparently tied the hands of the executive effectually.

Now observe what was going on in the cabinet. Lewis Cass had been Secretary of State, but resigned in indignation over the inaction of the President when he failed to succor the forts in Charleston Harbor. He was succeeded by Jeremiah S. Black, who, as attorney-general, had given to Buchanan an opinion that the Federal government had no power to coerce a seceding state.

Howell Cobb, Secretary of the Treasury, having wasted the funds and destroyed the credit of the government, resigned and left an empty treasury.

John B. Floyd, Secretary of War, was not the least active. He carried out fully the plan which Jefferson Davis had begun to operate several years before. The northern arsenals were stripped of the arms and ammunition which were sent South for storage or use. The number of regular troops was small, but the few soldiers there were, he scattered in distant places, so that they should be out of reach. They were not to be available for the use of the government until the conspirators should have time to complete their work. It was Floyd whom an emotional Virginian later eulogized. With quite as much truth as poetry he declared that the Secretary of War “thwarted, objected, resisted, and forbade” the efforts of General Scott. This same admirer of Floyd further declared that, if Scott’s plans had been adopted and his measures executed, the conspiracy would have been defeated and it would have been impossible to form the Southern Confederacy.

Not worse, perhaps, but more flagrant, was the action of the Secretary of the Interior, Thompson of Mississippi. With the advice and consent of Buchanan, he left his post at Washington to visit North Carolina and help on the work of secession, and then returned and resumed his official prerogatives under the government he had sworn to sustain. This is so grave a matter that a passage from the diary of Mr. Clingman is here inserted, quoted by Nicolay and Hay: “About the middle of December (1860) I had occasion to see the Secretary of the Interior on some official business. On my entering the room, Mr. Thompson said to me, ’Clingman, I am glad you have called, for I intended presently to go up to the senate to see you. I have been appointed a commissioner by the state of Mississippi to go down to North Carolina to get your state to secede.’ ... I said to him, ’I did not know you had resigned.’ He answered, ’Oh, no! I have not resigned.’ ’Then,’ I replied, ’I suppose you resign in the morning.’ ’No,’ he answered, ’I do not intend to resign, for Mr. Buchanan wished us all to hold on, and go out with him on the 4th of March.’ ’But,’ said I, ’does Mr. Buchanan know for what purpose you are going to North Carolina?’ ’Certainly,’ he said, ’he knows my object.’” In the meanwhile, Isaac Toucey, the Secretary of the Navy, had been prevailed on to put the navy out of reach. The armed vessels were sent to the ends of the earth. At the critical period, only two were available to the government. What was going on in congress? That body was very busy doing nothing. Both senate and house raised committees for the purpose of devising means of compromise. But every measure of concession was promptly voted down by the body that had appointed the committees. In the senate the slave power was in full control. In the house the slave power was not in majority, but they enjoyed this advantage that they were able to work together, while the constituency of the free states were usually divided among themselves. And in joint session the extreme pro-slavery men were always able to prevent anything from being accomplished. This was all they wished. They had sufficient pledges from the President that nothing would be done before the 4th of March, and it was their belief that by that time the new power would have so good a start that it could treat with the United States on equal terms. On January 7, 1861, Senator Yulee, of Florida, wrote: “By remaining in our places until the 4th of March, it is thought we can keep the hands of Mr. Buchanan tied, and disable the republicans from effecting any legislation which will strengthen the hands of the incoming administration.”

On December 14, thirty of the southern senators and representatives had issued a circular to their constituents. They said that the argument was exhausted, that all hope of relief was extinguished, that the republicans would grant nothing satisfactory, and that the honor, safety, and independence of the Southern people required the organization of a Southern Confederacy.

South Carolina was the first to act. Six days later that state passed the ordinance of secession.

Upon this, one of the extreme traitors was forced out of the cabinet. Floyd, the mischievous Secretary of War, was displaced by Holt, a loyal man. Floyd, however, had done nearly, if not quite, all the mischief he could have done. Stanton had already replaced Black as Attorney-General.

The conspirators then held a caucus. It is supposed that this caucus was held in one of the rooms of the Capitol. At all events it was held in the city of Washington. It was composed of the extreme southern congressmen. It decided to recommend immediate secession, the formation of the Southern Confederacy, and, not least, that the congressmen should remain in their seats to keep the President’s hands tied. The committee to carry out these plans consisted of Jefferson Davis, Slidell, and Mallory. By the first day of February, seven states had passed ordinances of secession.

This is about what was going on during the four months Lincoln was waiting for the appointed time when he should enter upon his duties. It was not unlike looking upon a house he was shortly to occupy, and seeing vandals applying the torch and ax of destruction, while he was not permitted to go to the rescue, all the while knowing that he would be held accountable for the preservation of the structure. So Lincoln saw this work of destruction going on at Washington. It was plain that the mischief ought to be, and could be, stopped. But Buchanan would not stop it, and Lincoln was, until March 4th, a private citizen and could do nothing. The bitterest part of it was that all the burden would fall on him. As soon as he should become President it would be his duty to save the government which these men were now openly destroying.

Miss Tarbell has recorded a conversation between Lincoln and his friend Judge Gillespie, which took place in Springfield early in January, in which the former expressed his feelings upon the situation. "Gillespie,” said he, “I would willingly take out of my life a period in years equal to the two months which intervene between now and the inauguration, to take the oath of office now.”


“Because every hour adds to the difficulties I am called upon to meet and the present administration does nothing to check the tendency towards dissolution. I, who have been called to meet this awful responsibility, am compelled to remain here, doing nothing to avert it or lessen its force when it comes to me.... Every day adds to the situation and makes the outlook more gloomy. Secession is being fostered rather than repressed.... I have read, upon my knees, the story of Gethsemane, where the Son of God prayed in vain that the cup of bitterness might pass from him. I am in the garden of Gethsemane now, and my cup of bitterness is full to overflowing” (Tarbell, “Life of Lincoln,” II., 406).

It was indeed hard to keep his patience and self-control. He was importuned for expressions of his views, for messages conciliatory to the South, for some kind of a proclamation which might quiet the public feeling. But he saw clearly that anything he might say at that time, no matter how wise or conciliatory, would surely be misused as fuel to add to the flames. While therefore he talked and wrote freely to his friends, he made no public announcement. He merely referred to his record. His opinions had been fully expressed in the debates with Douglas and in other speeches. There were four important points as to his future policy. The Union should be preserved, the Constitution should be upheld, and the fugitive slave law (being a law) should be enforced, but slavery should not be extended. These fully covered all the necessary points of the subject, and beyond these he would not go. He who would control others must first control himself. It is hard to imagine a more severe test than this imposed on Lincoln during this period of waiting. He made his preparations in silence, and not an injudicious word escaped him. He left his home for Washington the 11th day of February, but though he made several speeches on the way, he did not outline his policy until he read his inaugural address on the 4th of March.