The "Great Secession Winter of 1860-1861," to use the memorable phrase Henry Adams coined, has often been regarded among professional scholars and ordinary Americans alike as Abraham Lincoln's historical Achilles' heel the vulnerable soft spot, in an otherwise sterling reputation.
Although he has long and almost universally been regarded as America's greatest president, the story persists that in the months leading up to his inauguration, Lincoln not only failed to do all that was required to prevent secession and war, but made his mighty challenge all the more difficult by souring the public he had just been elected to lead.
According to this interpretation, Lincoln remained silent for far too long after his victory, emboldening traitors and dismaying supporters, dithered on the vital issues of slavery and states' rights, all but ignored blatant treachery in the South, and then made his way to Washington offering a series of bumbling, inconsistent speeches that veered toward compromise on the sectional crisis one moment, and toward defiant coercion the next. He chose too few cabinet appointees in a timely fashion, showered too many favors on unqualified job-seekers, told too many unsavory jokes to his cronies, and lavished improbable attention on his own physical appearance and the artists and photographers who recorded it, all the while failing to grasp the peril of the crisis awaiting his attention.
It was almost as if the memory of Lincoln the transformative leader required the legend of the unprepared leader-in-waiting to add to the luster of his later accomplishments. As his first vice president, Hannibal Hamlin, agreed, Lincoln's "extreme eulogists made the mistake of constructing a Lincoln who was as great the day he left Springfield as when he made his earthly exit four years later." In Hamlin's view, Lincoln made countless mistakes during this period. Was he right? Or was Lincoln simply ingenious at diverting attention from dangers over which he still had no control, leaving his record as president-elect understandably overshadowed by his record as president.
The founders did not foresee a lengthy or closely observed interregnum when they established March 4 as inauguration day. Washington, Adams, and Jefferson were each elected just a few weeks prior to his swearing in, limiting the potential for fractiousness and mischief between administrations. Of course, those men had not anticipated the subsequent rise of political parties, much less the introduction of popular voting; they expected that new presidents would be forever chosen by electoral colleges every fourth winter and sworn in shortly thereafter. Later custom shifted elections back to November, but left the inauguration in March, assuming it would take weeks for electors, not to mention future presidents, to travel from their homes to Washington from remote parts of the growing nation. The outdated tradition remained fixed until Franklin D. Roosevelt's second term began on January 20, 1937.
What the framers failed to anticipate was the resulting, and potentially dangerous, void that long transitions might encourage. Webster's defines "interregnum" as "the time during which a throne is vacant between two successive reigns or regimes." So, in a sense, the word does not literally apply to American presidential transition. Yet, in a way, from late 1860 until early 1861, America endured an interregnum of its own, and during this time the country could more accurately be said to have had no president than to have had two. The incumbent was paralyzed, and his successor powerless. Almost from the moment votes are counted, lame-duck chief executives invariably recede into superfluity, but Lincoln's hapless predecessor, James Buchanan, made procrastination into an art form. He could not have excused himself from responsibility at a more portentous moment, or left his successor with graver problems to address once he was constitutionally entitled to do so.
In the void, the public and press invariably turned expectantly to the next leader for reassuring hints of policy and personality, even though the law empowered him to wield absolutely no authority, and political tradition encouraged him to attempt no influence. The scrutiny was no less intense during this age of politically operated broadsheet newspapers than it is in today's world of all-day broadcast news and Internet blogs. However limited his authority between November and March, Lincoln was intensely analyzed. In the eyes of many, he failed the test.
Whatever his subsequent achievements, the reputation of Lincoln as president-elect remained a matter of dispute for generations, even if he seemed wanting only in comparison with his accomplishments once in office. As William O. Stoddard, a White House clerk who later became his biographer, noted as early as 1884, the "majority of those who have written" about this period "have strangely taken it for granted that he was in a manner ignorant of the course of events. They have regarded him as being as much taken by surprise by each development as might be any private citizen who puzzled over the news brought to him, correctly or incorrectly, by his favorite newspaper." To this reigning view, Stoddard would only add: "The difficulties of Mr. Lincoln's position at that time have been but little understood." Time did not improve that understanding. At the very least, as journalist Noah Brooks maintained ten years later, there were those Americans in late 1860 who "hoped...that he would be sent back to Illinois dead or alive, and that 'President [Jefferson] Davis' would come and take his place."
To be sure, Lincoln had his share of defenders, especially in the afterglow of his assassination and martyrdom. The early biographer Phoebe Hanaford, for one, took pains to depict him as the "prepared man," and in her section entitled "Called to the Presidential Chair" called "Abe Lincoln" the "best contribution which America has made to history." Her contemporary L. P. Brockett judged Lincoln's protracted pre- inaugural silence to be "wise," and citing the "enormity" of his challenges, described Lincoln as an oasis of calm in a storm of "feverish apprehension." Isaac N. Arnold, the Illinois congressman-turned biographer, lauded his old friend for demonstrating "clear and positive convictions of his duty" during the transition.
Subsequent writers took a different view. Historian David M. Potter pointed out in 1942 that as president-elect, Lincoln was no more than "simply a lawyer from Springfield, Illinois a man of great undeveloped capacities and narrowly limited background. He was more fit to become President than to be President." Eight years later, Allan Nevins argued similarly that while Lincoln "possessed more qualifications than men dreamed...great public prestige he sadly lacked." As president elect, Nevins maintained, Lincoln's "clumsy attempts at wit were inappropriate to the tension of the hour" and "jarred on anxious citizens." Even when the influential James G. Randall insisted that "few leaders have met such a situation with greater grace," he conceded that the fact that Lincoln managed to hold his party together between his election and inauguration "seems now something of a miracle."
James M. McPherson spoke for a later generation of scholars when he asserted in 1988 that Lincoln's entire, public inaugural journey might have been a "mistake," because in his effort to avoid "a careless remark or slip of the tongue" that might "inflame the crisis further," the president-elect "indulged in platitudes and trivia," producing "an unfavorable impression on those who were already disposed to regard the ungainly president-elect as a commonplace prairie lawyer." Mark E. Neely, Jr., has similarly noted that Lincoln's remarks en route to Washington were "widely quoted in the press to show that Lincoln was insensitive and unequipped to cope with the secession crisis." And Richard Carwardine spoke of "Lincoln's larger misreading of the southern surge toward secession," arguing: "Lincoln may also have misjudged things in not doing more to reassure anxious southerners that he would not use his patronage powers to place hard-line Republicans in federal appointments in the slave states."
On the other hand, Phillip Shaw Paludan has credited Lincoln with using this period of his career "to bring to life the political philosophy his party espoused" it being a new political organization "that needed unity as desperately as the Union did." And Doris Kearns Goodwin has pointed out that President-elect Lincoln, "not oblivious to the abyss that could easily open beneath his feet," demonstrated admirable "strength of will." The professional historical debate continues, as it should.
Significantly, not a single scholar among all those cited above ever minimized the desperate challenges Lincoln faced, or questioned that his was the most dangerous transition period in history. While attending to the customary tasks of assembling a cabinet, rewarding political loyalists with federal appointments, and drafting an inaugural address alone he employed no speechwriters Lincoln was uniquely forced to confront the collapse of the country itself, with no power to prevent its disintegration. Bound to loyalty to the Republican party platform on which he had run and won, he could yield little to the majority that had in fact voted against him.
During the four months a full third of a year between his election and inauguration, seven Southern states seceded from the Union, set up their own independent government, chose their own president, seized federal property, and dared Lincoln to resist their defiant independence. Within thirty days of the November 1860 popular vote in which, notably, he failed to amass even 40 percent of the total cast, and earned none at all in much of the South the minority president-elect could not even be certain that he would have a nation to lead. At a minimum, he faced the very real possibility that the Electoral College obligated to certify his victory might not be able to assemble safely, and that the formal inaugural pageant might be difficult to stage without both interference and considerable personal risk. Certainly no president ever faced such audacious impediments to taking lawful office.
Some critics then and now still indict Lincoln for remaining uncharacteristically aloof as the country began breaking apart, either unable or unwilling out of deference to both political tradition and his own rigid party platform to take a stand as the crisis widened. Torn by conflicting advice, they maintain, he showed too much hesitancy in assembling his ministerial family, unable to make final decisions in one case, making one choice, retracting it, and then making it again. He not only fumbled badly in his attempts at impromptu oratory en route to the capital, but worst of all, ended his journey in the dead of night, embarrassingly fearful for his safety, after encouraging unseemly partisan demonstrations in friendly Northern cities. He was too conspicuous. He was too sequestered. He was too careless. He was too calculating. He was too conciliatory. He was too coercive. He was too sloppy. He was too preening. Either way, he ultimately, tragically, bungled his last, best hope of preventing a war that cost America 600,000 of her sons. In the anti- Lincoln tradition most recently renewed improbably by gadfly 2008 R epublican presidential candidate Ron Paul Lincoln could easily have achieved freedom for the slaves without resorting to military force.
This book is an attempt to reexamine and thoroughly illuminate this complex record by exploring Lincoln's and America's own experience at the time. It will show how seriously Lincoln regarded the transition, not resting whiggishly in preparation for his presidency, but working tirelessly to unite his party, assemble a cabinet, fill hundreds of patronage jobs, assess the constitutional and military threats to the Union, open communications with Southerners, keep an eye on America's role in the world and, most of all, draw a line in the sand to prevent the spread of human slavery. Lincoln later told Congress that it and he could not "escape history." But every monument needs a pedestal. And Lincoln's monumental place in American history could not have been secured without the pedestal he built as president-elect. Making full use of period recollections by the people around him, along with newspaper and magazine accounts and rarely analyzed material culture, it offers a week-by-week exploration of Lincoln's own evolving thoughts, declarations, and actions as he prepared to introduce himself to the American people (having never campaigned for the presidency, he needed to do so after his election). It will examine what he said, what he wrote, and what he declined to say and do; how he dextrously, often covertly, manipulated individuals and factions, resisted flattery, faced down disloyalty, and endured criticism and hatred along with almost unimaginable personal discomfort along the road to his inauguration; how he relaxed, what he read, and, when possible, what he thought; how contemporaries reacted to him, and how he responded in turn, maintaining public silence while somehow gathering the intelligence and momentum needed to arm himself for the brutal challenge awaiting him.
In so doing, the book aims to paint the most accurate and detailed picture yet offered of America's gravest crisis through the eyes of this altogether original leader "inexperienced in wielding great power" yet astonishingly intuitive and gifted with remarkable instincts for communication whom Americans chose to confront that crisis, then by tradition compelled to wait so long before doing so.
One fact remains inarguable. Abraham Lincoln faced obstacles, challenges, citizen apprehension, disloyalty, even threats greater than that which confronted any president-elect before or since. He said so himself rather immodestly at the time, and history has generated no convincing rebuttal since. He would somehow survive all of them and go on to preserve the country and substantially remake it by validating majority rule and eradicating the stain of human slavery. But first came the extraordinary transition that might easily have tainted or even doomed all that followed.
This book aims to show how ingeniously Abraham Lincoln worked within the constraints of reigning political tradition to make certain that he had that opportunity, and how close he came to losing it.
Rye, New York
February 12, 2008
Copyright © 2008 by Harold Holzer