The Writings of Abraham Lincoln Vol. 1-7

This was the state of things to be mastered by “honest Abe
Lincoln” when he took his seat in the Presidential chair,–
“honest Abe Lincoln,” who was so good-natured that he could not
say “no”; the greatest achievement in whose life had been a
debate on the slavery question; who had never been in any
position of power; who was without the slightest experience of
high executive duties, and who had only a speaking acquaintance
with the men upon whose counsel and cooperation he was to depend.
Nor was his accession to power under such circumstances greeted
with general confidence even by the members of his party. While
he had indeed won much popularity, many Republicans, especially
among those who had advocated Seward’s nomination for the
Presidency, saw the simple “Illinois lawyer” take the reins of
government with a feeling little short of dismay. The orators
and journals of the opposition were ridiculing and lampooning him
without measure. Many people actually wondered how such a man
could dare to undertake a task which, as he himself had said to
his neighbors in his parting speech, was “more difficult than
that of Washington himself had been.”

But Lincoln brought to that task, aside from other uncommon
qualities, the first requisite,–an intuitive comprehension of
its nature. While he did not indulge in the delusion that the
Union could be maintained or restored without a conflict of arms,
he could indeed not foresee all the problems he would have to
solve. He instinctively understood, however, by what means that
conflict would have to be conducted by the government of a
democracy. He knew that the impending war, whether great or
small, would not be like a foreign war, exciting a united
national enthusiasm, but a civil war, likely to fan to uncommon
heat the animosities of party even in the localities controlled
by the government; that this war would have to be carried on not
by means of a ready-made machinery, ruled by an undisputed,
absolute will, but by means to be furnished by the voluntary
action of the people:–armies to be formed by voluntary
enlistments; large sums of money to be raised by the people,
through representatives, voluntarily taxing themselves; trust of
extraordinary power to be voluntarily granted; and war measures,
not seldom restricting the rights and liberties to which the
citizen was accustomed, to be voluntarily accepted and submitted
to by the people, or at least a large majority of them; and that
this would have to be kept up not merely during a short period of
enthusiastic excitement; but possibly through weary years of
alternating success and disaster, hope and despondency. He knew
that in order to steer this government by public opinion
successfully through all the confusion created by the prejudices
and doubts and differences of sentiment distracting the popular
mind, and so to propitiate, inspire, mould, organize, unite, and
guide the popular will that it might give forth all the means
required for the performance of his great task, he would have to
take into account all the influences strongly affecting the
current of popular thought and feeling, and to direct while
appearing to obey.

This was the kind of leadership he intuitively conceived to be
needed when a free people were to be led forward en masse to
overcome a great common danger under circumstances of appalling
difficulty, the leadership which does not dash ahead with
brilliant daring, no matter who follows, but which is intent upon
rallying all the available forces, gathering in the stragglers,
closing up the column, so that the front may advance well
supported. For this leadership Abraham Lincoln was admirably
fitted, better than any other American statesman of his day; for
he understood the plain people, with all their loves and hates,
their prejudices and their noble impulses, their weaknesses and
their strength, as he understood himself, and his sympathetic
nature was apt to draw their sympathy to him.

His inaugural address foreshadowed his official course in
characteristic manner. Although yielding nothing in point of
principle, it was by no means a flaming antislavery manifesto,
such as would have pleased the more ardent Republicans. It was
rather the entreaty of a sorrowing father speaking to his wayward
children. In the kindliest language he pointed out to the
secessionists how ill advised their attempt at disunion was, and
why, for their own sakes, they should desist. Almost
plaintively, he told them that, while it was not their duty to
destroy the Union, it was his sworn duty to preserve it; that the
least he could do, under the obligations of his oath, was to
possess and hold the property of the United States; that he hoped
to do this peaceably; that he abhorred war for any purpose, and
that they would have none unless they themselves were the
aggressors. It was a masterpiece of persuasiveness, and while
Lincoln had accepted many valuable amendments suggested by
Seward, it was essentially his own. Probably Lincoln himself did
not expect his inaugural address to have any effect upon the
secessionists, for he must have known them to be resolved upon
disunion at any cost. But it was an appeal to the wavering minds
in the North, and upon them it made a profound impression. Every
candid man, however timid and halting, had to admit that the
President was bound by his oath to do his duty; that under that
oath he could do no less than he said he would do; that if the
secessionists resisted such an appeal as the President had made,
they were bent upon mischief, and that the government must be
supported against them. The partisan sympathy with the Southern
insurrection which still existed in the North did indeed not
disappear, but it diminished perceptibly under the influence of
such reasoning. Those who still resisted it did so at the risk
of appearing unpatriotic.

It must not be supposed, however, that Lincoln at once succeeded
in pleasing everybody, even among his friends,–even among those
nearest to him. In selecting his cabinet, which he did
substantially before he left Springfield for Washington, he
thought it wise to call to his assistance the strong men of his
party, especially those who had given evidence of the support
they commanded as his competitors in the Chicago convention. In
them he found at the same time representatives of the different
shades of opinion within the party, and of the different
elements–former Whigs and former Democrats–from which the party
had recruited itself. This was sound policy under the
circumstances. It might indeed have been foreseen that among the
members of a cabinet so composed, troublesome disagreements and
rivalries would break out. But it was better for the President
to have these strong and ambitious men near him as his co-
operators than to have them as his critics in Congress, where
their differences might have been composed in a common opposition
to him. As members of his cabinet he could hope to control them,
and to keep them busily employed in the service of a common
purpose, if he had the strength to do so. Whether he did possess
this strength was soon tested by a singularly rude trial.

There can be no doubt that the foremost members of his cabinet,
Seward and Chase, the most eminent Republican statesmen, had felt
themselves wronged by their party when in its national convention
it preferred to them for the Presidency a man whom, not
unnaturally, they thought greatly their inferior in ability and
experience as well as in service. The soreness of that
disappointment was intensified when they saw this Western man in
the White House, with so much of rustic manner and speech as
still clung to him, meeting his fellow-citizens, high and low, on
a footing of equality, with the simplicity of his good nature
unburdened by any conventional dignity of deportment, and dealing
with the great business of state in an easy-going, unmethodical,
and apparently somewhat irreverent way. They did not understand
such a man. Especially Seward, who, as Secretary of State,
considered himself next to the Chief Executive, and who quickly
accustomed himself to giving orders and making arrangements upon
his own motion, thought it necessary that he should rescue the
direction of public affairs from hands so unskilled, and take
full charge of them himself. At the end of the first month of
the administration he submitted a “memorandum” to President
Lincoln, which has been first brought to light by Nicolay and
Hay, and is one of their most valuable contributions to the
history of those days. In that paper Seward actually told the
President that at the end of a month’s administration the
government was still without a policy, either domestic or
foreign; that the slavery question should be eliminated from the
struggle about the Union; that the matter of the maintenance of
the forts and other possessions in the South should be decided
with that view; that explanations should be demanded
categorically from the governments of Spain and France, which
were then preparing, one for the annexation of San Domingo, and
both for the invasion of Mexico; that if no satisfactory
explanations were received war should be declared against Spain
and France by the United States; that explanations should also be
sought from Russia and Great Britain, and a vigorous continental
spirit of independence against European intervention be aroused
all over the American continent; that this policy should be
incessantly pursued and directed by somebody; that either the
President should devote himself entirely to it, or devolve the
direction on some member of his cabinet, whereupon all debate on
this policy must end.

This could be understood only as a formal demand that the
President should acknowledge his own incompetency to perform his
duties, content himself with the amusement of distributing post-
offices, and resign his power as to all important affairs into
the hands of his Secretary of State. It seems to-day
incomprehensible how a statesman of Seward’s calibre could at
that period conceive a plan of policy in which the slavery
question had no place; a policy which rested upon the utterly
delusive assumption that the secessionists, who had already
formed their Southern Confederacy and were with stern resolution
preparing to fight for its independence, could be hoodwinked back
into the Union by some sentimental demonstration against European
interference; a policy which, at that critical moment, would have
involved the Union in a foreign war, thus inviting foreign
intervention in favor of the Southern Confederacy, and increasing
tenfold its chances in the struggle for independence. But it is
equally incomprehensible how Seward could fail to see that this
demand of an unconditional surrender was a mortal insult to the
head of the government, and that by putting his proposition on
paper he delivered himself into the hands of the very man he had
insulted; for, had Lincoln, as most Presidents would have done,
instantly dismissed Seward, and published the true reason for
that dismissal, it would inevitably have been the end of Seward’s
career. But Lincoln did what not many of the noblest and
greatest men in history would have been noble and great enough to
do. He considered that Seward was still capable of rendering
great service to his country in the place in which he was, if
rightly controlled. He ignored the insult, but firmly
established his superiority. In his reply, which he forthwith
despatched, he told Seward that the administration had a domestic
policy as laid down in the inaugural address with Seward’s
approval; that it had a foreign policy as traced in Seward’s
despatches with the President’s approval; that if any policy was
to be maintained or changed, he, the President, was to direct
that on his responsibility; and that in performing that duty the
President had a right to the advice of his secretaries. Seward’s
fantastic schemes of foreign war and continental policies Lincoln
brushed aside by passing them over in silence. Nothing more was
said. Seward must have felt that he was at the mercy of a
superior man; that his offensive proposition had been generously
pardoned as a temporary aberration of a great mind, and that he
could atone for it only by devoted personal loyalty. This he
did. He was thoroughly subdued, and thenceforth submitted to
Lincoln his despatches for revision and amendment without a
murmur. The war with European nations was no longer thought of;
the slavery question found in due time its proper place in the
struggle for the Union; and when, at a later period, the
dismissal of Seward was demanded by dissatisfied senators, who
attributed to him the shortcomings of the administration, Lincoln
stood stoutly by his faithful Secretary of State.

Chase, the Secretary of the Treasury, a man of superb presence,
of eminent ability and ardent patriotism, of great natural
dignity and a certain outward coldness of manner, which made him
appear more difficult of approach than he really was, did not
permit his disappointment to burst out in such extravagant
demonstrations. But Lincoln’s ways were so essentially different
from his that they never became quite intelligible, and certainly
not congenial to him. It might, perhaps, have been better had
there been, at the beginning of the administration, some decided
clash between Lincoln and Chase, as there was between Lincoln and
Seward, to bring on a full mutual explanation, and to make Chase
appreciate the real seriousness of Lincoln’s nature. But, as it
was, their relations always remained somewhat formal, and Chase
never felt quite at ease under a chief whom he could not
understand, and whose character and powers he never learned to
esteem at their true value. At the same time, he devoted himself
zealously to the duties of his department, and did the country
arduous service under circumstances of extreme difficulty.
Nobody recognized this more heartily than Lincoln himself, and
they managed to work together until near the end of Lincoln’s
first Presidential term, when Chase, after some disagreements
concerning appointments to office, resigned from the treasury;
and, after Taney’s death, the President made him Chief Justice.

The rest of the cabinet consisted of men of less eminence, who
subordinated themselves more easily. In January, 1862, Lincoln
found it necessary to bow Cameron out of the war office, and to
put in his place Edwin M. Stanton, a man of intensely practical
mind, vehement impulses, fierce positiveness, ruthless energy,
immense working power, lofty patriotism, and severest devotion to
duty. He accepted the war office not as a partisan, for he had
never been a Republican, but only to do all he could in “helping
to save the country.” The manner in which Lincoln succeeded in
taming this lion to his will, by frankly recognizing his great
qualities, by giving him the most generous confidence, by aiding
him in his work to the full of his power, by kindly concession or
affectionate persuasiveness in cases of differing opinions, or,
when it was necessary, by firm assertions of superior authority,
bears the highest testimony to his skill in the management of
men. Stanton, who had entered the service with rather a mean
opinion of Lincoln’s character and capacity, became one of his
warmest, most devoted, and most admiring friends, and with none
of his secretaries was Lincoln’s intercourse more intimate. To
take advice with candid readiness, and to weigh it without any
pride of his own opinion, was one of Lincoln’s preeminent
virtues; but he had not long presided over his cabinet council
when his was felt by all its members to be the ruling mind.

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