Table of Contents
Lincoln His Own President
Had the question been asked early in 1861, Who will be the real force of the republican administration? almost every unprejudiced observer would have answered promptly, Seward. He was a man of unusual intellectual powers, of the best education, and of the finest culture. In regard to the moral aspects of politics, he was on the right side. He had a career of brilliant success extending over thirty years of practical experience. He had been governor of the Empire State, and one of the leading members of the United States senate. He was the most accomplished diplomatist of the day.
In marked contrast was the President-elect. He had, in his encounters with Douglas, shown himself a master of debate. But his actual experience of administration was practically nil. He had served a few years in a frontier legislature and one term in the lower house of congress. Only this and nothing more. His record as representative may be summarized as follows:
1 comic speech on General Cass. 1 set of humorous resolutions, known as the spot resolutions. 1 bill in reference to slavery in the District of Columbia, which bill failed to pass.
There was thus no comparison between the careers of the two men. Seward’s friends, and Seward himself, assumed as a self-evident truth, that “where Seward sits is the head of the table.” Lincoln did not assent to this proposition.
He considered himself President and head of the cabinet. How the matter came out will appear later in the chapter.
The selection of a cabinet was a difficult and delicate task. It must be remembered that Lincoln confronted a solid South, backed by a divided North. It has already been said that in fifteen states he received not a single electoral vote, and in ten of these not a single popular vote. That was the solid South.
The divided condition of the North may be inferred from the following letter, written by ex-President Franklin Pierce to Jefferson Davis under date of January 6, 1860:
“If, through the madness of Northern abolitionists, that dire calamity [the disruption of the Union] must come, the fighting will not be along Mason and Dixon’s line merely. It will be within our own borders, in our own streets, between the two classes of citizens to whom I have referred. Those who defy law, and scout constitutional obligation, will, if we ever reach the arbitrament of arms, find occupation enough at home.”
It is plain that unless Lincoln could, in a large measure, unite the various classes of the North, his utter failure would be a foregone conclusion. He saw this with perfect clearness. His first move was in the selection of his cabinet. These selections were taken not only from the various geographical divisions of the country, but also from the divers political divisions of the party. It was not his purpose to have the secretaries simply echoes of himself, but able and representative men of various types of political opinion. At the outset this did not meet the approval of his friends. Later, its wisdom was apparent. In the more than a hundred years of cabinets in the history of the United States there has never been an abler or a purer cabinet than this.
As guesses, more or less accurate, were made as to what the cabinet would be, many “leading citizens” felt called on to labor with the President and show him the error of his ways. As late as March 2d there was an outbreak against Chase. A self-appointed committee, large in numbers and respectable in position, called on Lincoln to protest vigorously. He heard them with undivided attention. When they were through he replied. In voice of sorrow and disappointment, he said, in substance: “I had written out my choice and selection of members for the cabinet after most careful and deliberate consideration; and now you are here to tell me I must break the slate and begin the thing all over again. I don’t like your list as well as mine. I had hoped to have Mr. Seward as Secretary of State and Mr. Chase as Secretary of the Treasury. But of course I can’t expect to have things just as I want them.... This being the case, gentlemen, how would it do for us to agree to a change like this? To appoint Mr. Chase Secretary of the Treasury, and offer the State department to Mr. Dayton of New Jersey?
“Mr. Dayton is an old whig, like Mr. Seward and myself. Besides, he is from New Jersey, which is next door to New York. Then Mr. Seward can go to England, where his genius will find wonderful scope in keeping Europe straight about our troubles.”
The “committee” were astounded. They saw their mistake in meddling in matters they did not understand. They were glad enough to back out of the awkward situation. Mr. Lincoln “took that trick.”
The names sent on March 5th were: for Secretary of State, William H. Seward, of New York; for Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon P. Chase, of Ohio; for Secretary of War, Simon Cameron, of Pennsylvania; for Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, of Connecticut; for Secretary of the Interior, Caleb B. Smith of Indiana; for Attorney-General, Edward Bates, of Missouri; for Postmaster-General, Montgomery Blair, of Maryland.
All these names were confirmed by the senate the next day, March 6th. Of the variety of the selection he said, “I need them all. They enjoy the confidence of their several states and sections, and they will strengthen the administration. The times are too grave and perilous for ambitious schemes and rivalries.” To all who were associated with him in the government, he said, “Let us forget ourselves and join hands, like brothers, to save the republic. If we succeed, there will be glory enough for all.” He playfully spoke of this cabinet as his happy family.
The only one who withdrew early from this number, was Cameron. He was accused of various forms of corruption, especially of giving fat government contracts to his friends. Whether these charges were true or not, we cannot say. But in the following January he resigned and was succeeded by Edwin M. Stanton, a lifelong democrat, one who had accepted office under Buchanan. Probably no person was more amazed at this choice than Stanton himself. But he patriotically accepted the call of duty. With unspeakable loyalty and devotion he served his chief and his country to the end.
As has already been indicated, Seward cheerfully assumed that he was the government, while Lincoln’s duties were to consist largely in signing such papers as he instructed him to sign. As difficulties grew fast and thick, he wrote home, “These cares fall chiefly on me.” Mr. Welles wrote that confidence and mutual frankness existed among all the members of the cabinet, “with the exception of Mr. Seward, who had, or affected, a mysterious knowledge which he was not prepared to impart." He went so far as to meddle with the affairs of his associates. He did not entirely approve of the cabinet meetings and served notice that he would attend only upon special summons of the President.
This condition reached its climax on the first day of April, an appropriate date. Seward addressed on that day a document entitled, "Some Thoughts for the President’s Consideration, April 1, 1861.”
Henry Watterson said that Seward could not have spoken more explicitly and hardly more offensively if he had simply said: “Mr. Lincoln, you are a failure as President, but turn over the direction of affairs exclusively to me, and all shall be well and all be forgiven.” This statement gives a fair and truthful idea of Seward’s letter. It is not likely that its amazing assurance has ever been equaled in any nation by “thoughts” addressed by an inferior officer to his chief. The paper itself is here omitted from lack of space, but its tenor can be guessed from the character of the reply, which is given in full:
EXECUTIVE MANSION, April 1, 1881.
“HON. W. H. SEWARD,
“MY DEAR SIR: Since parting with you I have been considering your paper dated this day, and entitled ’Some Thoughts for the President’s Consideration.’ The first proposition in it is, ’First, We are at the end of a month’s administration, and yet without a policy either domestic or foreign.’”
“At the beginning of that month, in the inaugural, I said, ’The power confided to me will be used to hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the Government, and to collect the duties and imposts.’ This had your distinct approval at the time; and, taken in connection with the order I immediately gave General Scott, directing him to employ every means in his power to strengthen and hold the forts, comprises the exact domestic policy you now urge, with the single exception that it does not propose to abandon Fort Sumter.”
“Again, I do not perceive how the reinforcement of Fort Sumter would be done on a slavery or party issue, while that of Fort Pickens would be on a more national and patriotic one.”
“The news received yesterday in regard to St. Domingo certainly brings a new item within the range of our foreign policy; but up to that time we have been preparing circulars and instructions to ministers and the like, all in perfect harmony, without even a suggestion that we had no foreign policy.”
“Upon your closing propositions that ’whatever policy we adopt, there must be an energetic prosecution of it,”
“’For this purpose it must be somebody’s business to pursue and direct it incessantly,”
“’Either the President must do it himself, and be all the while active in it, or”
“’Devolve it on some member of his cabinet. Once adopted, debates on it must end, and all agree and abide.’”
“I remark that if this must be done, I must do it. When a general line of policy is adopted, I apprehend there is no danger of its being changed without good reason or continuing to be a subject of unnecessary debate; still, upon points arising in its progress I wish, and suppose, I am entitled to have the advice of all the cabinet.”
“Your ob’t serv’t, A. LINCOLN.”
The courtesy, the convincing logic, the spirit of forbearance shown in this letter, were characteristic of the man at the helm. It need hardly be said that Seward never again tried the experiment of patronizing his chief. He saw a great light. He suddenly realized that these cares did not fall chiefly on him.
So far as is known, neither gentleman ever made any reference to this correspondence. The result was worth while. It bound Seward to his President with hoops of steel. For four long, weary, trying years he served his chief with a loyal devotion which did credit to both men. Thus the hallucination that he was premier was forever dispelled. The "Public Man” wrote: “There can be no doubt of it any longer. This man from Illinois is not in the hands of Mr. Seward.”
There was surely no doubt of it. Lincoln was President. In the councils, the place where Lincoln sat was the head of the table. Seward was his secretary. And a good secretary he was, as well as a true man.