Abraham Lincoln knew himself well—something we seldom allow for and perhaps do not want in a great man. It is harder to feel a legitimate pride in our own understanding when the hero has been there first. “My mind,” Lincoln wrote to a friend, “is like a piece of steel, very hard to scratch any thing on it and almost impossible after you get it there to rub it out.” But his self-knowledge was not confined to smaller traits. At a low moment in the mid-1850s, he made an entry in a notebook comparing his apparent fate of obscurity to the fortunes of his rival Stephen Douglas. The two, Lincoln recalled, had started out in politics at the same time:
We were both young then; he a trifle younger than I. Even then, we were both ambitious; I, perhaps, quite as much so as he. With me,the race of ambition has been a failure—a flat failure; with him it has been one of splendid success. His name fills the nation; and is not unknown, even, in foreign lands. I affect no contempt for the high eminence he has reached. So reached, that the oppressed of my species, might have shared with me in the elevation, I would rather stand on that eminence, than wear the richest crown that ever pressed a monarch’s brow.
A shade of the public voice is audible, even here; the intimacy looks beyond itself. His hope of performing some lasting good for “the oppressed of my species” is mixed with his deepest sense of who he is. He consoles himself for the defeat of his ambition with a regret that Douglas achieved his eminence without laying the groundwork for a genuine legacy. Douglas has served only himself—under the banner of “popular sovereignty,” a cause without a principle—so that any good he does will terminate in himself.
A lull in one’s middle years can seem the harbinger of lasting defeat. Probably Lincoln would not have written like this a few years earlier, for his political career, through his twenties and thirties, had been in fact a prodigious success. In 1832, at the age of twenty-three, he made his first run for office to represent New Salem in the Illinois legislature. Though defeated, he proved his popularity in another way by being elected captain of his company in the Black Hawk War. On a second try in 1834, he became one out of four elected from a slate of thirteen. Much of the following year he devoted to the study of law; and when he passed the bar two years later, he moved to Springfield. He was reelected three times to a seat in the state house, in 1836, 1838, and 1840; and he turned down chances to run for governor in 1841 and 1844—a quest he saw as futile in a state that was mainly Democratic.
Lincoln made friends easily and was admired for his energy and political acumen; but though congenial and never fractious, he was by no means a moderate. Holding firm to the Whig policy for internal improvements, a national bank, and a high protective tariff, he also voted against the 77–6 majority in the state legislature that condemned abolition societies and affirmed slaveholding as a sacred American right. Of the six dissenters, Lincoln was one of two to lodge a formal protest: slavery, he said, was “founded on both injustice and bad policy.” In 1843, he ran against John Hardin and Edward Baker for a seat in the United States Congress, and, in the course of being defeated by Hardin, laid up his stores for a future victory by arranging a party resolution that Baker would be their next candidate. The idea of a rotation was thus introduced. When, after Hardin and Baker had served their terms, Hardin decided to run again, Lincoln pressed the reminder of their honorable agreement to such embarrassing effect that Hardin withdrew.
His own term in Congress, starting in 1847—the only national office he would hold before becoming president—spanned the confused middle and the divisive end of the Mexican War. What was remarkable about Lincoln’s service was his full-scale indictment of that war. And this was a portent. His speech in Congress on the war, cited by Richard Carwardine in Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power, revealed a passion against injustice that defied the commoner loyalties of nationalism; it showed a different side from the tactical mastery that would characterize his politics through most of the 1850s. Here, he spoke unmistakably about the sort of republic he thought the United States ought not to become. He believed that President Polk, by means of false reports and rumors, had dragged the country into a war of choice; that it had been provoked and begun by Americans, with the popular panic and bloodthirstiness of a powerful nation hunting a smaller nation it knew it could conquer; that the President and the war party had employed every stratagem of sophistical and lawless argument to justify a corrupt policy.
The heart of this speech of January 12, 1848, is a series of questions about the causes of the war. Lincoln asks the President to answer
fully, fairly, and candidly. Let him answer with facts, and not with arguments. Let him remember he sits where Washington sat, and so remembering, let him answer, as Washington would answer…. And if, so answering, he can show that the soil was ours, where the first blood of the war was shed—that it was not within an inhabited country, or, if within such, that the inhabitants had submitted themselves to the civil authority of Texas, or of the United States…then I am with him for his justification….
But if he can not, or will not do this—if on any pretence, or no pretence, he shall refuse or omit it, then I shall be fully convinced, of what I more than suspect already, that he is deeply conscious of being in the wrong…that originally having some strong motive—what, I will not stop now to give my opinion concerning—to involve the two countries in a war, and trusting to escape scrutiny, by fixing the public gaze upon the exceeding brightness of military glory…he plunged into it, and has swept, on and on, till, disappointed in his calculation of the ease with which Mexico might be subdued, he now finds himself, he knows not where.
Little has been made of this speech because it does not fit the usual story. Lincoln holds his place in history and fable as the American president who guided the country through our Civil War; and, secondarily, as the man who took a stand on a principle—a consistent idea with vote-getting power—in order to associate his party with a simple policy: no expansion of slavery. It is unsettling to find that he was also a political thinker who warned his country against a change of character from republic to empire.
The early 1850s are comparatively hidden years for Lincoln, a time in which he established himself in a prosperous Illinois law practice. He gave a well-formed eulogy on Henry Clay and a solid speech against Stephen Douglas, but the public moments in this period have dwindled to a thread. “I was losing interest in politics,” he said in the personal sketch he wrote in 1859, “when the repeal of the Missouri Compromise aroused me again. What I have done since then is pretty well known.” The Missouri Compromise of 1820 would have barred slavery in both Kansas and Nebraska and other northern territories. Its repeal was part of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, engineered by Douglas, which allowed people in those two territories to decide whether to allow slavery or not, thus opening the West to slave owners. Douglas’s success sealed his reputation for short-term maneuvering, but it brought Lincoln into the field against him. That much certainly was “well known”; but one other circumstance has never been sufficiently noticed. Lincoln had his eye on a run for the Senate as early as 1854, and in 1855 he fell just shy of the numbers needed to gain the Whig nomination. With a magnanimity that would not be forgotten, he ceded his large plurality of votes to Lyman Trumbull, who had begun with only a handful. Trumbull went on to be elected, and from 1860 he would be a valuable ally of Lincoln’s.
The major speeches leading to his run for the presidency dealt with the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Dred Scott decision, and the events of “Bleeding Kansas” in 1856 and 1857 that followed from the legislative and the judicial disaster. Kansas was the chosen ground for a savage contest between slavery and antislavery forces. It climaxed in the Pottawatomie massacre by John Brown, and closed farcically with the rigged passage of a pro-slavery state constitution that brought discredit on President James Buchanan when he endorsed it. The shortest and most controversial of Lincoln’s speeches in this crisis, the House Divided speech of 1858, came close to defining the platform of the Republican Party. Then, in February 1860, as Carwardine reminds us, he added the Cooper Union speech—a work of constitutional scholarship as well as a political declaration, on which he had labored for weeks to clarify the views of the American founders on slavery. The last of these addresses served as Lincoln’s audition for the eastern grandees of the party; his power of utterance and self-command gave the proof they wanted of a politician of national stature.
He came to be known by shorter speeches, too, given at Columbus, Kalamazoo, Cincinnati, Chicago, and Edwardsville, where he expounded the limits of popular sovereignty and the ideas of the founders on liberty and equality. A famous lost speech, as Carwardine points out, was an extemporaneous “stem-winder” made on request, to conclude the state convention at Bloomington, Illinois, in May 1856, which marked the founding of the Republican Party of that state. William Herndon, Lincoln’s friend and law partner, said in his Life that the Bloomington speech conveyed in a single pulse of thought “justice, equity, truth, and right set ablaze by the divine fires of a soul maddened by the wrong.” Lincoln here offered a direct and principled indictment of slavery in the course of explaining the purpose of a free republic. To judge by other descriptions, it was the connecting link between his protest against the Mexican War and the Special Message to Congress of July 4, 1861, where he would say of the war against the slave power: “This is essentially a People’s contest.”
Yet these separate performances, for all their unexampled skill and force, contributed less to Lincoln’s national reputation than the seven debates with Douglas in the 1858 Senate contest in Illinois. There the candidates sounded the issues of the day with an intensity that had no precursor in American politics and that has had no successor thus far. Sixty speeches were made by each and ten thousand miles traversed between them, Carwardine reckons, “by rail, river, and road” in Illinois. Lincoln lost the election but, most surprisingly, won the popular vote against the man who made “popular sovereignty” his theme and slogan. The earlier speeches of the 1850s had now paid off in a larger theater. They formed a basis for the retorts and interrogatories that turned Lincoln’s side of the argument into a continuous display of a political mind in action. But as Doris Kearns Goodwin observes in Team of Rivals, her comprehensive history of Lincoln and his war cabinet, it was his argument in the Kansas-Nebraska speech that gave the clue to his subsequent thinking. Read the debates with Douglas and the Cooper Union speech and even the longer speeches of his presidency, and what you encounter again and again are variations on an argument he first broached in Peoria in 1854.
Lincoln saw the repeal of the Missouri Compromise and the opening of northern territories to slavery as a calamity that would reawaken a dormant conflict: a spur to an endless scrimmage of greed and concession on an issue that had settled into agreeable neglect since 1820. This was the political accusation; but it came with a summons of conscience. Douglas, pleading the exclusive right of the local populace to decide whether slavery should be voted in, had, Lincoln perceived, confused the judgment of the people with the standard of right and wrong. As elaborated by Lincoln, this intuition becomes a complex argument with political, historical, and moral dimensions; and without ever reducing its complexity, he was able to explain it to a large audience who sat or stood for three hours. The Peoria speech was a root-and-branch attack on the brutalization of manners, morals, and laws and the degraded idea of liberty which Americans had begun to accept from the same misjudged hope of security that guided the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The speech testifies to “the monstrous injustice of slavery itself,” and intimates that all the deepest violence in American history is traceable to that source.
Yet Lincoln’s condemnation of slavery from this high ground went with a refusal to support the radical abolitionists. Could he be so politic and still be quite sincere? The objection was raised by almost no one in the nineteenth century; but it has come from many later scholars and common readers. What can be said with certainty is that there is scarcely any divergence between the public and the private record. We have the evidence of his cousin John Hanks about a flatboat trip to New Orleans in 1831, where Lincoln was accompanied by his friend Joshua Speed, and where the sight of “negroes chained maltreated whipt & scourged ran its iron in him then & there.” In a letter of 1855 to Speed, Lincoln recalled the same journey. Speed, a close friend but also a Kentucky slave owner, had lately said that he would rather see the Union dissolved than give up his slaves; and Lincoln rebuked him gently:
In 1841 you and I had together a tedious low-water trip, on a Steam Boat from Louisville to St. Louis. You may remember, as I well do, that from Louisville to the mouth of the Ohio there were, on board, ten or a dozen slaves, shackled together with irons. That sight was a continual torment to me; and I see something like it every time I touch the Ohio, or any other slave-border.
He did not speak in this way in 1860 or early 1861, when to do so would have been an incitement to war.
Slavery never marked the sole concern of his politics. From the 1840s, Lincoln was among the Whigs opposed to manifest destiny, as it came to be called: the idea of an endless expansion of the United States. The two forms of national self-restraint went together in his mind. He preferred, like Washington and John Quincy Adams, to foster the ideal of American democracy as an exemplary achievement and not an evangelical export. The nation could stand as a hope to the world in the degree that we presented a shining example. The wisest policy was to make the most of what we had. The duty, he believed, of the free states was to do nothing either directly, by a change of laws, or indirectly by war and annexation, to prevent slavery “from dying a natural death.” The extinction of slavery was natural because industry and enlightenment pointed to the right of men to labor for their own sustenance. “As a good thing,” Lincoln said, “slavery is strikingly peculiar, in this, that it is the only good thing which no man ever seeks the good of, for himself.”
Such were his constitutional and libertarian premises. He denied that the force of the proposition “all men are created equal” could be confined, as Stephen Douglas asserted, to “white men and their posterity forever.” Lincoln came back most often to the meaning of liberty and illustrated its sense by local cases and characters. Speeches, however, were not his only medium. He had judged from the newspaper transcripts that the debates with Douglas offered a favorable impression of himself; and to widen his fame, he published them as a book in spring 1859; it sold 30,000 copies in the first few weeks, and quickly ran to a third edition.
The decision to come east and speak at Cooper Union was part of the same larger interim strategy. On the brink of that event, he had his photograph taken by Mathew Brady—the most natural and stately of Lincoln portraits and the one that would be most in demand for the rest of his career. He went on to unify the warring factions of the Republican Party in Illinois, and so to achieve his “initial objective,” as Carwardine puts it: “a state party united behind his candidacy.” He advised his supporters to give no offense but leave the opposing delegates “in a mood to come to us” if their own candidate should fail.
One thinks of the first Republicans as professional men, civic leaders, the ex-Whigs of New England. Carwardine reminds us that the Republican Party of the late 1850s also included many skilled workers and “market-oriented farmers,” so that the platform of free labor was hardly an accidental part of Lincoln’s program. His speech in Milwaukee in September 1859 was careful to say why Republicans did not believe in the “mud-sill” theory of a bottom class that stayed at the bottom. The natural progress of labor moves from working for an employer to working for yourself to employing others to work for you. The economic meanness of slavery is a concomitant of its oppressiveness. It drives down the price of labor to zero, and squeezes out the opportunities of paid labor by free men. Lincoln’s version of free labor thus contained a germ of a doctrine the Chartist movement of England had announced in the 1830s: the dignity of work.
Practically, this meant that the rewards of work should never be a question of mere dollars and cents in profit. Lincoln’s contempt for selfish reliance on the profit motive caused him to speak of pure “self-interest” as the “miner and sapper” of democracy—a view that emerges vividly in a letter he wrote in lieu of attending a birthday celebration for Thomas Jefferson in 1859. Democrats, he said, might claim to be the successors of Jefferson, but the Democratic Party of Polk and Buchanan had not earned that title, for they “hold the liberty of one man to be absolutely nothing, when in conflict with another man’s right of property. Republicans, on the contrary, are for both the man and the dollar; but in cases of conflict, the man before the dollar.” The Republican Party at its founding took particular pride in setting the man before the dollar.
Two of the members of Lincoln’s team of rivals interest Doris Goodwin above the rest: William Seward, the senator from New York who would become his secretary of state; and Salmon Chase, the governor of Ohio who would become his secretary of the treasury. Edward Bates, a senior lawmaker from Missouri whom Lincoln would choose as attorney general, comes in for almost equal treatment, along with the Blair family (Montgomery, Frank, and Frank Sr.), who helped to keep Missouri out of the secession. But Seward and Chase belong to a fascinating separate story, for they remained Lincoln’s rivals even after 1860, when Seward had expected to win the nomination and Chase was sure he deserved it. Each believed he would dominate Lincoln. Each was given to witness Lincoln’s unmatched political and human knowledge: qualities of a good politician that are compatible with being a good man only under the rule of the most rigid conscience.
Chase, at six foot two, was as hard to intimidate in person as in politics. Once by himself he defied a pro-slavery mob, bracing his shoulders in the door frame of Franklin House in Cincinnati, where the abolitionist editor James Birney was thought to be staying. He had begun as a Whig and had joined the Liberty Party and become in time an espouser of the Free Soil doctrine, which opposed the extension of slavery into the territories, before being elected as an independent Democrat and then emerging as the first Republican governor of a major state. These changes of name betray in fact smaller differences than meet the ear. All along, Chase had been one of the leading anti-slavery voices in the country, and, with the collapse of the Whig Party in the mid-1850s, the passage from Whig to Republican came to be almost routine.
Compared to these associates, Lincoln may appear to have taken a cautious line against slavery. Both Seward and Chase did much to remove the discriminatory Black Laws that barred Negroes in the nonslave states from giving testimony in court, from serving on juries, from voting, and from holding political office. Lincoln’s stand on free labor might be identified with such reforms at a prudent distance, but he had deliberately stopped short. For Lincoln, only in the right to possess the fruits of their labor were all men assuredly equal. A gradual ascent to political equality was more than he could envisage before 1864; and unlike Seward and Chase, he declined to endorse any form of civic equality that would entail radically new laws. He favored, in a phrase he used again and again, putting slavery “in the course of ultimate extinction”—gradual abolition, with some compensation to owners who would agree to surrender their profit from injustice.
Yet in reading Doris Goodwin’s group portrait, one comes to feel that Seward and Chase were politicians of large vision and larger appetites who lacked the forethought and the canniness that made Lincoln so impressive a battler over the long haul. It is typical of Seward that after committing himself to an unhappily unforgettable phrase about the “irrepressible conflict” between North and South, he could still churn out (as late as 1860) a patented mush of conciliatory claptrap about the Union being held together by “millions of fibers of millions of contented, happy human hearts.” Chase was a political preacher with a wide sanctimonious streak, innocent of irony and prone to strange lapses of enterprise: Goodwin notices that he passed up a chance to speak at Cooper Union in the spring of 1860, in the same series that did so much to advance Lincoln’s fortunes.
Lincoln showed enormous craft in his method of enlisting Seward and Chase to campaign for him in 1860. A first request had gone out to Chase on a printed circular that wounded the governor’s vanity and elicited a perfunctory reply. Lincoln followed with a personal letter that took Chase’s formal congratulations as a pledge of loyalty and rejoiced in his support: “Holding myself the humblest of all whose names were before the convention, I feel in especial need of the assistance of all; and I am glad—very glad—of the indication that you stand ready.” Lincoln showed an unmistakable trust of both Seward’s judgment and his popularity by asking him to be an equal participant in the campaign; and in the fall of 1860, Seward became a favorite of audiences throughout the North. To the New York Republican boss, Thurlow Weed, Seward commented on this phase of his career: “I am content to quit with the political world, when it proposes to quit with me. But I am not insensible to the claims of a million of friends, nor indifferent to the opinion of mankind.” Lincoln had allowed his most formidable rival to recover his pride in a way that assisted the purpose of their party.
Goodwin’s subtitle makes a point that is easily missed. The political genius of Lincoln appears most sharply in the collective talents of his cabinet. We may thus be reminded of two sorts of biography she has the wit not to attempt: the portrait of a solitary genius in politics, and the sequence of facts about a man who was president when important things happened around him. Both of those stories have been told about Lincoln, and both are misleading, but the second is the more pernicious and more apt to be taken seriously today. When Lincoln said in a late letter to Albert Hodges, “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me,” he was employing a stock formula of humility whose sense was evasive and concessive. Yet the statement has given deterministic historians, from his time to ours, all the evidence they need to convict him of playing a subordinate role in the inexorable march of events.
Goodwin asks us to regard Lincoln not as an isolated hero, and not as a patient absorber of the shocks of impersonal forces, but as the first among peers who led the country through its most dangerous emergency. What is a cabinet? In a constitutional system, it should represent neither the elite of a party nor the unmodified will of the people. Where persons of honor and competence are brought together and managed by a presiding intelligence—if the president knows who those people are and if the president is one who can lead and not just speak and sign—the cabinet becomes a well-adapted instrument for the public good, a body more coherent than a legislature and taking longer views than a king. To make it work, however, the president must have certain qualities. He must cherish an impartial curiosity about all the shades of opinion in the country he governs. He must want to hear bad news.
Lincoln determined from the first to make Seward his secretary of state—for the respect he commanded, for his worldly wisdom, and to reward all he had done to deliver a Republican victory in New York. Yet Seward differed with Lincoln immediately on the makeup of the cabinet. Lincoln believed it should exhibit the whole range of the party; Seward preferred to include nobody except former Whigs. Accordingly, he opposed the appointment of Chase, of Gideon Welles, and of Montgomery Blair, former Democrats whom he rightly saw as hostile to his interests. His New York ally Thurlow Weed backed this exclusionist plan, and told Lincoln that by taking on Chase at Treasury, Simon Cameron as secretary of war, Welles for the Navy, and Blair for postmaster general, he was building up a cabinet that threatened to overwhelm Seward at State, Bates as attorney general, and Caleb Smith in the Department of the Interior. It would simply make for a Democratic majority. “You seem to forget,” said Lincoln, “that I expect to be there.”
Contentious as Seward was, and eager for power, half his stratagems misfired. He alienated many Republican friends before the new administration took office, by an emollient two-hour speech in the Senate on January 12, 1861, which argued that the Union was worth preserving at almost any cost. Among those who deplored the suggestion of fresh compromises were Thaddeus Stevens, Salmon Chase, Charles Sumner, and Seward’s own wife Frances: “You are in danger,” she warned, “of taking the path which led Daniel Webster to an unhonored grave.” Seward doubtless was expecting Lincoln himself to adopt a tone of compromise, but in this he was deeply mistaken. A delegate from Virginia, William Rives, who attended a meeting between Lincoln and the Virginia Peace Convention just before the inauguration, concluded that the new president “has been both misjudged and misunderstood by the Southern people”: they supposed him “an ignorant, self-willed man, incapable of independent judgment, full of prejudices, willing to be used as a tool by more able men. This is all wrong. He will be the head of his administration.”
Seward tried early to dominate by feint and thrust—withdrawing from consideration for secretary of state, even as he advised against the appointment of Chase. For two days, Lincoln let this maneuver dangle without a reply, saying to his secretary John Nicolay, “I can’t afford to let Seward take the first trick.” Seward had plenty of time to wonder whether the government could not get along without him. Lincoln then asked him not to withdraw; and Seward decided to stay in.
By inauguration day, March 4, 1861, Seward felt confident enough to offer Lincoln an impressive draft of the concluding paragraph of the inaugural address. Here is Seward’s early version of a sentence that now stands among the most famous in American oratory:
The mystic chords which proceeding from so many battle fields and so many patriot graves pass through all the hearts and all the hearths in this broad continent of ours will yet again harmonize in their ancient music when breathed upon by the guardian angel of the nation.
A sweeping cadence, a touch orotund and front-heavy, but efficient in every detail and tipping toward poesy only at the end. Lincoln revised it to say:
The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
The mystic chords are translated into something human by Lincoln’s use of “memory,” which adds a pressure of alliteration and marks a natural pause. Instead of “proceeding,” he adopts the colloquial “stretching”; and the half-rhyme of “hearts” and “hearths” is freed from a hint of jingle and given dignity by “every living heart and hearthstone.” The purest American stroke by Lincoln is “all over this broad land”—a lyric line that would echo through many songs of the Popular Front. But the greatest change is a small one that transforms the sense. “The guardian angel of the nation” was a cliché of patriotic feeling. “The better angels of our nature,” by contrast, appeals to a power of admonition and charity that is broadly human.
The collaboration was real, and yet the battle of wills continued. When Lincoln sought advice on the attempt to provision Fort Sumter in South Carolina, in 1861, Seward proposed that the Union declare war on Spain and France, against whom it could unite with the South to renew the national compact. This spasmodic bright idea, heated by opportunism and panic, Seward introduced in a memorandum full of haughty knowingness about the President’s want of a foreign policy in the first few weeks of governing. In answer to Seward’s stricture that their policy “must be somebody’s business to pursue and direct,” Lincoln once again called his bluff. “If this must be done, I must do it.”
Through much of the war, the rivalry between Seward and Chase was barely repressed; Seward enjoyed a closer friendship with Lincoln, while Chase exploited his contacts in the radical wing of the party—often for the purpose of undermining Seward. When rumors of Seward’s domineering influence grew so virulent as to obstruct the sober discussion of policy, Seward felt that he ought to sacrifice himself, if necessary, for the good of the administration. Lincoln met with the outraged Committee on the Conduct of the War—composed of reliable congressional partisans of Chase—and reported their discontents to the secretary of state. But he pocketed Seward’s resignation without a comment.
He then asked the committee to visit him again. This time, he brought along the members of the cabinet, without Seward, and asked them to volunteer their impressions. To a man, they defended Seward’s integrity and gave a persuasive demonstration of unity. Chase, sitting now among his cabinet peers and faced by formal questions from his Senate allies, squirmed and said little. After the meeting, he understandably offered to resign, having betrayed at once his public and his behind-the-scenes constituency. Lincoln at this point held two letters of resignation. He wanted to use neither, as yet. He told the committee that if Seward resigned, Chase would resign also. He took a mischievous pleasure in the symmetry with which the abject offers canceled each other—confiding to Senator Ira Harris, “Yes, Judge, I can ride on now, I’ve got a pumpkin in each end of my bag.”
Seward would last to the end of the war. Goodwin recounts in detail how Chase, the more unstable of the two, overreached when he ignored the complaints of Thurlow Weed and Senator Edwin Morgan against his padding of the Treasury appointments list with the names of personal patrons. He requested a formal interview with Lincoln. “I cannot help feeling,” wrote Chase, “that my position here is not altogether agreeable to you.” Lincoln stunned the officious and self-important Chase by choosing now to accept his resignation. “Of all I have said in commendation of your ability and fidelity,” he wrote back, “I have nothing to unsay; and yet you and I have reached a point of mutual embarrassment in our official relation which it seems cannot be overcome.”
Lincoln told Chase’s friend the Treasury registrar Lucius Chittenden that the trouble with Chase was that he had “fallen into two bad habits.” He had grown used to thinking himself “indispensable to the country,” and “he also thinks he ought to be President; he has no doubt whatever about that.” Under the sway of these thoughts, Chase was now so “irritable” and “uncomfortable” that “he is never perfectly happy unless he is thoroughly miserable.” At the same time, Lincoln added that he believed Chase would make a good chief justice—an opinion he confirmed in action when the time came.
Lincoln preached and practiced a tolerance for mixed motives. Suppose Chase needed the presidential ambition “to make him go.” Lincoln would not interfere with his small self-serving actions until they became incompatible with the public good. This cabinet, with its institutional checks against rule by a single man, worked because the President had the mind to make it work. His sociability and his austerity alike were part of the reason, but his command of the issues should never be underrated. He knew what was happening in the war and in the country better than any of the team. He also took a lead in ventures that showed the marks of extraordinary attentiveness.
Goodwin recounts a twenty-seven-hour boat trip in May 1862 to Fort Monroe in Virginia, when Lincoln, on his way to oversee the retaking of Norfolk by Union soldiers, kept the company “engrossed for hours.” At the journey’s end, Edwin Stanton, who had replaced Cameron as secretary of war, stood watch alongside Lincoln and Chase; and soon after the shelling began, the rebel troops withdrew without a contest. That seems an exceptional moment, and yet it belongs to the usual pattern of Lincoln’s presence of mind. He exerted a daily control over the years of difficult meetings, with cross-questioning of his cabinet on the budget, the draft, the mood of the border states, and the relation between the Union’s progress in battle and the possibility of emancipation. The last of these questions will be taken up in the second part of this review.
October 19, 2006