The Very Rich Hours of the Lambrights

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Lincoln: President-Elect

July 20th, 2011 · No Comments

After reading up on President Jackson in my last Civil War reading project book, I returned to the start of the war with Lincoln: President-Elect by Harold Holzer.  At just under 500 pages, it’s a big book with a very narrow focus:  Lincoln’s activities during the four months between his election in November 1860 and March 4, 1861, when he actually assumed the office of President.  During this time, twice as long as we make Presidents wait nowadays, Lincoln had no constitutional authority to do anything about the political crisis that was sweeping the nation.

NOTE:  See Year of Meteors for a look at the events just before this book starts.

Traditionally, the President-Elect spent this pre-inaugural time as a chance to pick his cabinet, organize his staff, plan for how offices would be handed out to pay off political debts and reward loyal friends, and other mundane but important tasks.  And Lincoln did all of these things over the winter of 1860-61.  But he also spent a great deal time fielding letters, telegrams, and visitors demanding to know what he planned to do about the Southern states that had begun seceding from the Union.  Without the authority to do anything specific, Lincoln decided that public silence was his best option.  Anyone who cared to read his speeches and letters published before the election already knew his opinions, he argued.  Anything he said now would only inflame the situation or be distorted by one side or the other.  After awhile, he grew visibly irritated with the flood of inquiries, saying to a confidant that repeating his long-held views for those who have refused to listen would be wanting of self-respect, and would have an appearance of sycophancy and timidity which would excite the contempt of good men, and
encourage bad ones to clamor the more loudly.

Historians, who tend to give the Lincoln the benefit of the doubt on most controversies, traditionally view this as one of his weakest moments.  His silence is seen as evidence of confusion or indecision.  Others cite optimistic statements made privately that war would be averted as evidence he didn’t understand the gravity of the situation. Holzer makes a strong argument that, far from being indecisive or insensitive to his situation, Lincoln’s masterly inactivity (Holzer’s words) were a deliberate political strategy which took considerable emotional discipline to maintain.  In fact, Lincoln gave in to crowds twice while traveling to Washington DC (toward the end of this period when he was getting tired of the grind) and gave short speeches.  In both cases, his words were distorted and probably made things worse.  I think Holzer has made a pretty strong argument for his thesis.

Besides a desire to respect the Constitution and avoid making things worse, Holzer makes a good case that Lincoln’s silence was evidence of a strong stand on his principles.  In those days before TV and the internet, party political platforms were important means of communicating what a candidate stood for and were taken more seriously as binding statements of principle.  In the campaign, Lincoln ran on a platform of leaving slavery alone where it existed but preventing it from speading anywhere else in the US.  Calls for him placate the South by publicly backing off of this pledge before he had even taken office offended him deeply.  What was the point of having democratic elections, he asked, if Presidents didn’t stand by the principles that convinced voters to elect him in the first place?  Or if a section of the country could invalidate a legal election by threatening to leave the Union when someone they disapprove of wins?  Holzer cites numerous examples of Lincoln articulating this principle throughout the book.  One of the more startling came not long before the inauguration when he told a visitor he would rather be hung by the neck till he was dead on the steps of the Capitol before he would buy or beg a peaceful inauguration (his visitor’s words).

One of the reasons for the pressure on Lincoln to diffuse the situation before he had even taken office was that the outgoing president, James Buchanan, was doing such a poor job of dealing with the crisis.  Simultaneously stating his opposition to secession while also lamenting that he had no power to actually do anything about it, Buchanan dithered and tried to find a way to make everyone see reason without offending anyone.  In a widely-anticipated State of the Union address that was supposed to provide a solution to the crisis, Buchanan seemed to blame both North and South equally and, in effect, told them both to knock it off without providing any real solutions.  After the speech, William Seward (who would soon become Lincoln’s Secretary of State) wryly summarized it: No state has the right to secede unless it wishes to, and it is the president’s duty to enforce the laws, unless somebody opposes him.

As the book rolls along, we see Lincoln trying to construct his cabinet, a delicate task that involved balancing representation for different factions of the Republican party as well as regions of the country while alternately placating, cajoling, and manipulating a herd of egomaniacs, many of whom felt they should have been elected in Lincoln’s place, until the puzzle pieces finally fell into place and all the slots were filled.  He meets thousands of office-seekers, who descended on Springfield, IL like a horde of hungry locusts looking for a job or other payoff from the government coffers.  He oversees the moving process, selling his house and wrapping up outstanding business with his law partner.  And he writes his inaugural address, one of the most critical tasks he faced.  The address was his one and only chance to speak directly to the nation and make the case for peace.  The speech was masterful but we know how that turned out.

I’ve read several of Holzer’s Lincoln books, many of which are as focused on a single facet of Lincoln’s life as this one is.  They’re not for readers who don’t already know the big picture.  But if you’ve already read one or two of the excellent Lincoln biographies out there and want to drill down into the details, Holzer is a good place to start.

Tags: The Civil War

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