AS THE CONFUSION and turmoil of secession swept Washington, the Lincolns made final preparations for their departure from Springfield. In early January 1861, Mary journeyed to New York, both to spend time with her son Robert, whom she had been “wild to see” since he had left for the East Coast a year earlier, and to shop for a wardrobe befitting a first lady. Staying at the Astor Hotel, she was fêted by merchants eager to sell her fancy bonnets, richly textured shawls, kid gloves, and bolts of the finest antique silk for fashionable dresses. The store owners happily extended her credit, encouraging an extravagant spree, the first of many. After years of making do on a limited budget, this woman who was raised in a wealthy household took great pleasure in acquiring everything she wanted, even to the point of outspending her wealthier sisters.
“Buying was an intoxication with her,” her biographer Ruth Randall writes, “it became an utterly irrational thing, an obsession.” Mary’s desire for elegant clothes reflected more than vanity, however. She was undoubtedly aware of the whispering comments about her plain looks and her husband’s lack of breeding: “Could he, with any honor, fill the Presidential Chair?” one guest at an elegant restaurant was overhead saying. “Would his western gaucherie disgrace the Nation?” Her fighting spirit stimulated, she was determined to show the world that the civility of the West was more than equal to that of the East.
Entranced by her experience in New York, Mary stayed three extra days without notifying her husband, who plunged vainly through sleet and snow three nights running to meet her train. When she did return, Mary was in the best of spirits, as was her handsome, well-dressed son, whose “outward appearance” was said to present “a striking contrast to the loose, careless, awkward rigging of his Presidential father.”
The Lincolns decided to rent out their house on Eighth Street, selling some of the furnishings and putting the rest into storage. Before packing their belongings, however, they held a farewell levee in the twin parlors of their home. Mary was in her element as she graciously welcomed a crowd of seven hundred Springfield friends. It was, Villard commented, “the most brilliant affair of the kind witnessed here in many years.”
Mary was thrilled by the attention and relished the lavish gifts presented by office seekers. Nonetheless, she became increasingly apprehensive about her husband. Shortly before she left for New York, she received an unwelcome present from South Carolina—a painting depicting Lincoln “with a rope around his neck, his feet chained and his body adorned with tar and feathers.” For Mary, terrified of thunderstorms and fearing death with every illness, the gruesome painting undoubtedly left her cold with foreboding.
For Lincoln, the hours of his remaining Springfield days must have seemed too short. The never-ending procession of office seekers and the hard work of packing left little time or space for the most important task of all—the composition of his inaugural address. Unable to concentrate either in his home or in the governor’s office, he sought places to isolate himself and be undisturbed. For several precious hours each morning, he wrote and honed the words that were awaited anxiously by both the conciliators and the non-compromisers alike.
As the time for departure drew near, Lincoln appeared “unusually grave and reflective,” saddened by the prospect of “parting with this scene of joys and sorrows during the last thirty years and the large circle of old and faithful friends.” He journeyed to Farmington for an emotional farewell to his beloved stepmother, Sarah, and to visit his father’s grave. Returning home, he called on Billy Herndon, his law partner for sixteen years. He wanted to assure Herndon that his election would only interrupt their partnership in the firm. “If I live I’m coming back some time, and then we’ll go right on practising law as if nothing had ever happened.”
The day of February 11 was damp and biting as Lincoln, accompanied by family and friends, headed for the Western Railroad Depot. The circuitous twelve-day trip to Washington, D.C., would permit contact with tens of thousands of citizens. He had packed his own trunk, tied it with a rope, and inscribed it simply: “A. Lincoln, White House, Washington, D.C.” His oldest son, Robert, would accompany his father on the entire trip, while Mary and the two younger boys would join them the following day.
Arriving at the train station, Lincoln discovered that more than a thousand people had gathered to bid him farewell. He stood in the waiting room, shaking hands with each of his friends. “His face was pale, and quivered with emotion so deep as to render him almost unable to utter a single word,” a reporter for the New York Herald noted. Just before 8 a.m., Lincoln was escorted to the platform of his private car. He took off his hat, requested silence, and began to speak: “My friends—No one, not in my situation, can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting. To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe every thing. Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man. Here my children have been born, and one is buried. I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington…. I hope in your prayers you will commend me, I bid you an affectionate farewell.”
Many eyes, including Lincoln’s, were filled with tears as he delivered his short but moving remarks. “As he turned to enter the cars three cheers were given,” the Herald reporter observed, “and a few seconds afterwards the train moved slowly out of the sight of the silent gathering.” Lincoln would never return to Springfield.
Neither the luxurious presidential car, decorated with dark furniture, crimson curtains, and a rich tapestry carpet, nor the colorful flags and streamers swaying from its paneled exterior could lift the solemn mood of the president-elect. For most of the ride to the first major stop in Indianapolis, Villard noted, Lincoln “sat alone and depressed” in his private car, “forsaken by his usual hilarious good spirits.”
Lincoln understood that his country faced a perilous situation, perhaps the most perilous in its history. That same morning, Jefferson Davis was beginning a journey of his own. He had bade farewell to his wife, children, and slaves, heading for the Confederacy’s new capital at Montgomery, Alabama. To the cheers of thousands and the rousing strains of the “Marseillaise,” he would be inaugurated president of the new Confederacy. Alexander Stephens, Lincoln’s old colleague from Congress, would be sworn in as his vice president.
Lincoln’s spirits began to revive somewhat as he witnessed the friendly crowds lined up all along the way, buoyed by “the cheers, the cannon, and the general intensity of welcome.” When he reached Indianapolis, thirty-four guns sounded before he alighted to face a wildly enthusiastic crowd of more than twenty thousand people. They lined the streets, waving flags and banners as he made his way to the Bates House, where he was scheduled to spend the night. Knowing that here in Indianapolis, he was expected to deliver his first public speech since election, he had carefully crafted its language before leaving Springfield.
From the balcony of the Bates House, he delivered a direct, powerful talk, one of the few substantive speeches he would make during the long journey. He began by illustrating the word “coercion.” If an army marched into South Carolina without the prior consent of its people, that would admittedly constitute “coercion.” But would it be coercion, he asked, “if the Government, for instance, but simply insists upon holding its own forts, or retaking those forts which belong to it?” If such acts were considered coercion, he continued, then “the Union, as a family relation, would not be anything like a regular marriage at all, but only as a sort of free-love arrangement.” His words provoked loud cheers, sustained applause, and hearty laughter. The speech was considered a great success.
As the train rolled into Cincinnati the next day, John Hay noted that Lincoln had “shaken off the despondency which was noticed during the first day’s journey, and now, as his friends say, looks and talks like himself. Good humor, wit and geniality are so prominently associated with him in the minds of those who know him familiarly, that to see him in a melancholy frame of mind, is much as seeing Reeve or Liston in high tragedy would have been.” (Reeve and Liston were celebrated comic actors in Shakespeare’s plays.) It is interesting to note that Hay considered Lincoln’s despondency an aberration rather than the rule.
The following day, as Lincoln was fêted in the state Capitol at Columbus, Ohio, he received a telegram that the electors had met in Washington to count the votes and make his election official. For weeks, Seward and Stanton had worried that secessionists would choose this day to besiege the capital and prevent the electors from meeting. The day, Lincoln learned, had passed peacefully. “The votes have been counted,” Seward’s son Fred reported to his wife, Anna, “and the Capital is not attacked. Gen. Scott had his troops all under arms, out of sight but ready, with guns loaded, horses harnessed and matches lighted so that they could take the field at a moments notice. But there was no enemy.”
Seward himself was immensely relieved to “have passed the 13th safely,” believing, he wrote home, that “each day brings the people apparently nearer to the tone and temper, and even to the policy I have indicated…. I am, at last, out of direct responsibility. I have brought the ship off the sands, and am ready to resign the helm into the hands of the Captain whom the people have chosen.” Despite his stated intentions, Seward would make one later effort to resume the helm.
In Columbus, a great celebration followed news of the official counting of the votes. In the late afternoon, Lincoln was presented at a “full evening dress” reception at Governor Dennison’s home for members of the legislature; following dinner, he attended a lavish military ball, where it was said that he danced with Chase’s lovely daughter, Kate, much to the irritation of Mary. The image of Lincoln dancing with the twenty-year-old beauty, tall, slim, and captivating, was spoken of in hushed tones for many years afterward. In fact, the charismatic young belle could not have danced with Lincoln that evening, for she was absent from the city when the Lincolns arrived. In an interview with a reporter more than three decades later, Kate maintained that “Mrs. Lincoln was piqued that I did not remain at Columbus to see her, and I have always felt that this was the chief reason why she did not like me at Washington.”
For the rest of the trip, as the train wended its way through Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey, Lincoln said little to elaborate his position. Never comfortable with extemporaneous speech, he was forced to speak at dozens of stops along the way. He was determined not to foreshadow his inaugural address or to disturb the tenuous calm that seemed to have descended upon the country. He chose, therefore, to say little or nothing, projecting an optimistic tone that belied the seriousness of the situation. Lincoln repeatedly ignored conflicting statements in both his own “House Divided” speech and Seward’s “Irrepressible Conflict” speech, assuring his audiences that “there is really no crisis except an artificial one!… I repeat it, then—there is no crisis excepting such a one as may be gotten up at any time by designing politicians. My advice, then, under such circumstances, is to keep cool. If the great American people will only keep their temper, on both sides of the line, the troubles will come to an end.”
Throughout his journey, Lincoln endeavored to avoid any suggestion that might inflame or be used to destabilize the country before he could assume power. He simply acknowledged the cheers of the crowds, relying upon his good humor to divert attention from serious political discussion. In Ashtabula, Ohio, he playfully answered calls for Mrs. Lincoln by suggesting that “he should hardly hope to induce her to appear, as he had always found it very difficult to make her do what she did not want to.” In Westfield, New York, he kissed Grace Bedell, the little girl who had encouraged him to grow a beard.
For Mary and the boys, the trip was “a continuous carnival,” with “rounds of cheers, salvos of artillery, flags, banners, handkerchiefs, enthusiastic gatherings—in short, all the accessories of a grand popular ovation.” Every glimpse of Mary or the children through the windows drew wild applause, as did the image of her smoothing her husband’s ruffled hair and giving him a kiss before they disembarked in New York City.
To those who listened attentively for any revelation of the incoming administration’s intentions, the speeches were a great disappointment. In his diary, Charles Francis Adams lamented that Lincoln’s remarks on his journey toward Washington “are rapidly reducing the estimate put upon him. I am much afraid that in this lottery we may have drawn a blank…. They betray a person unconscious of his own position as well as of the nature of the contest around him. Good natured, kindly, honest, but frivolous and uncertain.”
In fact, Lincoln was not oblivious to the abyss that could easily open beneath his feet. While he “observed the utmost caution of utterance and reticence of declaration,” John Nicolay noted, “the shades of meaning in his carefully chosen sentences were enough to show how alive he was to the trials and dangers confronting his administration.” In Trenton, for example, while he asserted that “the man does not live who is more devoted to peace than I am,” he recognized that it might “be necessary to put the foot down firmly.” At this point, Hay noted, he “lifted his foot lightly, and pressed it with a quick, but not violent, gesture upon the floor.” The audience erupted with such sustained applause that for several minutes Lincoln was unable to continue his remarks.
Lincoln again revealed his strength of will in his short address at the Astor Hotel in New York City. While he opened with a conciliatory tone, promising that he would never of his own volition “consent to the destruction of this Union,” he qualified his promise with “unless it were to be that thing for which the Union itself was made.” Two days later, speaking in Independence Hall in Philadelphia, he clarified what he meant by those portentous words. Moved by a keen awareness that he was speaking in the hall where the Declaration of Independence was adopted, he asserted that he had “never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration…. It was not the mere matter of the separation of the colonies from the mother land; but something in that Declaration” that provided “hope to the world for all future time. It was that which gave promise that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance.” If the Union could “be saved upon that basis,” he would be among “the happiest men in the world”; but if it “cannot be saved without giving up that principle,” he maintained, he “would rather be assassinated on this spot than to surrender it.”
Lincoln’s ominous mention of assassination may have been prompted by the previous day’s report of a plot to kill him during his scheduled stop in Baltimore, a city rampant with Southern sympathizers. Lincoln first received word of the plot through the detective Allan Pinkerton, responsible for guarding him on the trip, who advised him to leave Philadelphia at once and pass through Baltimore on a night train ahead of schedule to confound the conspirators. “This,” according to Ward Lamon, who accompanied Lincoln on the trip, “he flatly refused to do. He had engagements with the people, he said, to raise a flag over Independence Hall in the morning, and to exhibit himself at Harrisburg in the afternoon.”
That same afternoon, Seward’s son Fred was in the Senate gallery when a page summoned him to speak with his father at once. Meeting in the lobby, Seward handed Fred a note from General Winfield Scott carrying a similar warning of trouble in Baltimore. “I want you to go by the first train,” Seward directed his son. “Find Mr. Lincoln, wherever he is. Let no one else know your errand.” Fred immediately boarded a train and arrived at the Continental Hotel in Philadelphia, where Lincoln was staying, after ten that night.
“I found Chestnut street crowded with people, gay with lights, and echoing with music and hurrahs,” Fred recalled. Lincoln was encircled by people, and Fred was forced to wait several hours to deliver his message. “After a few words of friendly greeting with inquiries about my father and matters in Washington,” Fred remembered, “he sat down by the table under the gas-light to peruse the letter I had brought.” After a few moments, Lincoln spoke: “If different persons, not knowing of each other’s work, have been pursuing separate clews that led to the same result, why then it shows there may be something in it. But if this is only the same story, filtered through two channels, and reaching me in two ways, then that don’t make it any stronger. Don’t you see?” Then, Fred related, “noticing that I looked disappointed at his reluctance to regard the warning, he said kindly: ‘You need not think I will not consider it well. I shall think it over carefully, and try to decide it right; and I will let you know in the morning.’”
The next morning, Lincoln agreed to leave Philadelphia for Washington on the night train as soon as his engagement in Harrisburg was completed. Pinkerton insisted, against Mary’s judgment, that she and the boys should remain behind and travel to Washington in the afternoon as scheduled. Wearing a felt hat in place of his familiar stovepipe, Lincoln secretly boarded a special car on the night train, accompanied by Ward Lamon and Detective Pinkerton. All other trains were to be “side-tracked” until Lincoln’s had passed. All the telegraph wires were to be cut between Harrisburg and Washington until it was clear that Lincoln had arrived in the capital. At 3:30 a.m., the train passed through Baltimore without mishap and proceeded straight to Washington. “At six o’clock,” a relieved Lamon recalled, “the dome of the Capitol came in sight.”
It was an inauspicious beginning for the new president. Though he arrived safely, critics, including Edwin Stanton, spoke maliciously of the manner in which Lincoln had “crept into Washington.” A scurrilous rumor spread that he had entered the train in a Scotch plaid cap, Scottish kilts, and a long military cloak. “It’s to be hoped that the conspiracy can be proved beyond cavil,” wrote George Templeton Strong in his diary. “If it cannot be made manifest and indisputable, this surreptitious nocturnal dodging or sneaking of the President-elect into his capital city, under cloud of night, will be used to damage his moral position and throw ridicule on his Administration.” Lincoln regretted ever heeding General Scott and Detective Pinkerton.
The question of Lincoln’s accommodations in Washington for the ten days until his inauguration had been debated for weeks. In early December, Montgomery Blair had issued the Lincolns an invitation to stay at the Blair House on Pennsylvania Avenue, offering the very room “Genl Jackson intended to occupy after leaving the White house,” and insisting that the Blairs “would be delighted for you to begin where he left.” In the meantime, Senator Trumbull and Congressman Washburne had rented a private house for the Lincolns several blocks from the White House. When Lincoln had passed through Albany on his roundabout tour, however, Weed strongly objected. He advised Lincoln that he was “now public property, and ought to be where he can be reached by the people until he is inaugurated.”
Lincoln agreed. “The truth is, I suppose I am now public property; and a public inn is the place where people can have access to me.” A suite of rooms was reserved at the celebrated Willard Hotel, which stood at the corner of 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, within sight of the White House.
SEWARD AND ILLINOIS CONGRESSMAN WASHBURNE were appointed to greet Lincoln and escort him to the Willard. Accounts vary, however, as to whether Seward was actually there to meet the train. He wrote his wife that “the President-elect arrived incog. at six this morning. I met him at the depot.” Nevertheless, Washburne later claimed that Seward had overslept and arrived at the Willard two minutes after Lincoln, “much out of breath and somewhat chagrined to think he had not been up in season to be at the depot on the arrival of the train.”
What is certain is that Seward greeted the president-elect with “a virtuoso performance,” attempting to control his every movement and make himself indispensable to the relative newcomer. The two men breakfasted together that morning in the Willard, choosing from an elaborate menu of “fried oysters, steak and onions, blanc mange and pâté de foie gras.” Then, after breakfast, Seward escorted Lincoln to the White House to meet with President Buchanan and his cabinet. Lincoln’s surprise call disconcerted Harriet Lane, Buchanan’s niece, who had brilliantly performed the role of hostess for her bachelor uncle. The appearance of Buchanan’s successor signaled the end of her days in the White House. Afterward, she had few kind words to say about the new couple who would occupy her former home. She likened Lincoln to the “tall awkward Irishman who waits on the door,” but insisted that the doorman was “the best looking.” About Mary, Harriet claimed, she had heard only that she “is awfully western, loud & unrefined.”
From the White House, Seward shepherded Lincoln to see General Scott. An inch taller than Lincoln and twice his weight, the old hero of the Mexican War was now scarcely able to walk. After the conversation with Scott, Seward and Lincoln drove together for an hour through the streets of Washington. Pressing issues, particularly the still-unfinished cabinet, required immediate attention. Months earlier, Lincoln had promised Weed and Seward that if John Gilmer of North Carolina would accept a seat, he would offer him a position. Seward considered the inclusion of a Unionist Southerner vital in retaining the border states, and Lincoln also considered Gilmer the best choice due to his “living position in the South.” Gilmer had failed to respond to Lincoln’s invitation to visit him in Springfield, however, and Seward had been unable to secure a positive reply.
Simon Cameron remained a candidate whom Seward considered a necessary ingredient in the cabinet. Five weeks earlier, Seward had warned Lincoln that “to grieve as well as disrespect [Cameron] would produce great embarrassment…. I should dread exceedingly the army of Cameron’s friends in hostility.” In fact, after much painful deliberation, Lincoln had decided to offer Cameron a place. During his train trip through Pennsylvania, he had met with a delegation of Cameron supporters who assured him they were authorized to speak for Governor Curtin and Alexander McClure. All the charges against Cameron had been withdrawn, they told Lincoln; the state now stood strongly behind him. Apparently the fear that Pennsylvania might have no representation in the administration had brought warring factions to agree on Cameron. Telling the delegation that “the information relieved him greatly,” Lincoln remained unwilling to make his decision until he reached Washington. The problem was that Cameron still insisted on the Treasury position, which Lincoln had resolved to give to Chase. Only when Cameron realized he was not in a position to dictate what he wanted did he grudgingly accept the War Department.
When his carriage ride with Seward ended, Lincoln rested for an hour in his suite before receiving his old adversary Stephen Douglas at two-thirty. Then, while Seward went to the train station to greet Mary, he welcomed the Blairs, Francis Senior and Montgomery. “The Blairs,” Hay wrote in his diary, “have to an unusual degree the spirit of a clan. Their family is a close corporation…. They have a way of going with a rush for anything they undertake.” Lincoln understood all this, but he liked and trusted the old man and knew that he needed former Democrats and hard-liners to counterbalance Seward.
The Blairs had been appalled by Seward’s conciliatory speech. Old Man Blair warned Lincoln that Seward’s compromises resembled Mr. Buchanan’s approach and would only invite more aggression from the South. Indeed, the Blairs so violently championed their hard-line position that they effectively advocated war. Monty contended that so long as the Southerners continued to believe “that one Southern man is equal to half a dozen Yankees,” they would never submit to anything without a “decisive defeat” on the field. “It will show the Southern people that they wholly mistake the quality of the men they are taught by demagogues to despise.” Only as magnanimous victors could Northerners afford to conciliate. Beyond Seward’s premature willingness to compromise, Francis Blair, Sr., cautioned that the New Yorker would prove a perpetual thorn in Lincoln’s side. “In your cabinet his restless vanity & ambition would do nothing but mischief. He would set himself up as a rival…& make an influence to supplant all aspirants for the succession.”
While Lincoln generally respected the opinions of Old Man Blair, he had long since determined that he needed Seward for the premier post in his administration. He also hoped, however, to include Monty Blair in his cabinet. While the availability of a true Southerner would have left no room for the border-state Blair, the attempt to enlist Gilmer had apparently failed. Lincoln was prepared to offer Monty a position, most likely as U.S. Postmaster General.
As Lincoln was conversing with the Blairs, Seward made his way through the large crowd at the train depot. Unaware that Lincoln had arrived earlier that day, the throng had gathered to welcome him on the special four o’clock train. When the train finally arrived, one reporter noted, “four carriages were driven up to the rear car, from which Mr. Seward soon emerged with Mrs. Lincoln” and her sons. Once it became clear that the president-elect was not aboard, the assembled citizens began to voice their dismay. “The rain was pouring down in torrents, there was no escape, and the crowd indulged in one or two jokes, a little whistling, and considerable swearing.” This was not the welcome Mary had expected. Leaning upon Seward’s arm as she alighted at the Willard, she was anxious. She had distrusted Seward from the start, fearing that he would be a continuing rival to her husband; now she was forced to depend on him during her less than triumphant entry into the city that would be her new home.
That evening Lincoln visited Seward’s home for a dinner hosted by Fred’s wife, Anna, who served as mistress of the household while Frances remained in Auburn to complete some ongoing work on her home. Although Frances would visit several times a year, she never made Washington her home, leaving all the social duties to her husband, son, and daughter-in-law.
Lincoln returned to the Willard for a nine o’clock reception with the members of the Peace Convention, called by Virginia to attempt a compromise before Congress adjourned on March 4. As the convention members from both South and North assembled, one of the delegates, Lucius Chittenden, representing Vermont, called upon Lincoln in his suite to brief him on the workings of the convention. Chittenden knew that many of the Southern delegates had come simply “to scoff” or “to nourish their contempt for the ‘rail-splitter.’” He could not imagine how Lincoln, who had traveled for ten days and “just escaped a conspiracy against his life,” could face a gathering in which so many were openly hostile. Yet Lincoln’s “wonderful vivacity surprised every spectator,” Chittenden marveled. “He spoke apparently without premeditation, with a singular ease of manner and facility of expression.”
Representing Ohio was Salmon Chase, whom Lincoln had not seen since their meeting in Springfield. Still uncertain whether he would have a place in the cabinet, Chase stiffly assumed the responsibility of introducing Lincoln to the members of the delegation. Lincoln, Chittenden recalled, “had some apt observation for each person ready the moment he heard his name.” The introductions complete, a lively discussion ensued.
In the end, the Peace Convention produced no proposal that could command a majority in Congress, indicating that the time for compromise had passed. That evening at the Willard, however, the delegates had gotten a revelatory glimpse of the president-elect. “He has been both misjudged and misunderstood by the Southern people,” William Rives of Virginia said. “They have looked upon him as 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, and he will do his own thinking.” Judge Thomas Ruffin of North Carolina considered Lincoln’s unwillingness to make concessions on the territorial issue a great “misfortune,” but was relieved to hear of his hearty support of the Constitution.
The next morning, a “clear and blustering” day with “a wind that sweeps over this city with mighty power,” Seward escorted Lincoln to St. John’s Episcopal Church; then, returning to Seward’s house, they conferred for two hours. “Governor Seward, there is one part of my work that I shall have to leave largely to you,” Lincoln said. “I shall have to depend upon you for taking care of these matters of foreign affairs, of which I know so little, and with which I reckon you are familiar.” At some point that morning, Lincoln handed Seward a draft of his inaugural address and asked for his suggestions.
The following day, Seward and Lincoln made an informal visit to the House and the Senate. Senators from all parties congregated to greet Lincoln. Even firebrand Southerners who refused to acknowledge his presence were consumed with curiosity. Virginia’s James Mason, one reporter noted, “affected nonchalance and pretended to be writing, but for the life of him he could not help looking askance, from time to time; and it may be doubted if what he wrote could be translated into plain English.”
One reporter commented that Lincoln’s “face has not yet become familiar enough to be popularly recognized here,” so “he passed to and from the Capitol yesterday without catching the attention of the multitude.” His informal visit, the New York Times noted, was “without a precedent. His illustrious predecessors…deemed it incompatible with the stately dignity of the Executive of the Union, to visit the coordinate departments of the Government. Clearly, the Railsplitter has, in following the dictates of his own feelings, rightly interpreted the proprieties of his position.”
In the days ahead, Lincoln confirmed two more positions for his cabinet. He chose Caleb Smith, his old Whig colleague, over Schuyler Colfax for the Department of the Interior, despite widespread support for Colfax. In a gracious letter to Colfax, he explained: “I had partly made up my mind in favor of Mr. Smith—not conclusively of course—before your name was mentioned in that connection. When you were brought forward I said ‘Colfax is a young man—is already in position—is running a brilliant career, and is sure of a bright future in any event. With Smith, it is now or never.’ I considered either abundantly competent, and decided on the ground I have stated.” Mentioning that Colfax had not supported him during his Senate campaign against Douglas, Lincoln begged him to “not do me the injustice to suppose, for a moment, that I remembered any thing against you in malice.”
At one point, Norman Judd had been in consideration for a cabinet appointment, but the opposition to him in Illinois from Lincoln’s campaign manager, David Davis, and a host of others was very strong. Mary Lincoln herself had written to Davis as an ally in the cause against Judd, charging that “Judd would cause trouble & dissatisfaction, & if Wall Street testifies correctly, his business transactions, have not always borne inspection.” Mary, unlike her husband, was unable to forgive Judd’s role in Trumbull’s victory over Lincoln in 1855. In the end, Lincoln decided he alone would provide sufficient representation for his state of Illinois. Instead, he offered Judd a ministry post in Berlin, which was more agreeable to Judd’s wife, Adeline.
For weeks, the newspapers had been reporting that Gideon Welles was the most likely candidate from New England. Though bitterly opposed by Seward and Weed, Welles had the full confidence of the more hard-line members of the party. Nonetheless, Welles was “in an agony of suspense during that last week in February,” as he waited in Hartford for positive word. When his son Edgar eagerly wrote from Yale that he would love to accompany his father to Washington for the inauguration, Welles replied: “It is by no means certain, my son, that I shall go myself…if not invited [by Lincoln] I shall not go at all.”
Finally, on March 1, Welles received a telegram from Vice President–elect Hannibal Hamlin in Washington: “I desire to see you here forthwith.” In his hurry to catch the train the next day, he discovered he had left his toiletries behind. More disconcerting, he arrived at the Willard to find the corridors so crowded that his trunks were temporarily mislaid, forcing him to remain in his rumpled clothes. Fortunately, Lincoln was dining elsewhere that evening, and a meeting was called for the following day. Lincoln offered him the navy portfolio.
With hard-liners Blair and Welles on board to balance Cameron and Bates, Lincoln still faced a difficult problem. He had resolved from the start to bring both Seward and Chase into his cabinet, but as the inauguration approached, each man’s supporters violently opposed the appointment of the other. “The struggle for Cabinet portfolios waxes warmer, hourly,” the Evening Star reported on March 1. Seward’s delegation met with Lincoln on March 2, claiming that Chase would make the cabinet untenable for Seward. Hoping Lincoln would agree to forsake Chase, they were dismayed when, instead, Lincoln countered that although he still preferred a cabinet with both men, he might consider offering State to William Dayton and giving Seward the ministry to Great Britain.
After receiving the report of his friends, and beleaguered by the strength of the opposition to him, Seward sent a note to Lincoln asking to withdraw his earlier acceptance of the State portfolio. Lincoln waited two days to answer. “I can’t afford to let Seward take the first trick,” he told Nicolay. Nonetheless, his gracious manner again soothed a troubled situation. In his reply to Seward’s withdrawal note, he wrote: “It is the subject of most painful solicitude with me; and I feel constrained to beg that you will countermand the withdrawal. The public interest, I think, demands that you should; and my personal feelings are deeply inlisted in the same direction.”
Never genuinely desiring to withdraw, but hoping to pressure Lincoln to drop Chase, Seward rescinded his decision and accepted. In a letter to Frances, the New Yorker portrayed his waffling reversals in the most honorable light: “The President is determined that he will have a compound Cabinet; and that it shall be peaceful, and even permanent. I was at one time on the point of refusing—nay, I did refuse, for a time to hazard myself in the experiment. But a distracted country appeared before me; and I withdrew from that position. I believe I can endure as much as any one; and may be that I can endure enough to make the experiment successful. At all events I did not dare to go home, or to England, and leave the country to chance.”
All that remained was for Lincoln to secure Chase’s acceptance. He had not exchanged a single word with Chase about the appointment since his arrival in Washington. Now, without consulting the proud Ohioan, Lincoln sent Chase’s nomination as treasury secretary to the Senate. Chase was on the Senate floor when a number of his colleagues came over to congratulate him. “Ever conscious of his own importance and overly sensitive to matters of protocol,” he promptly called on the president to express his anger and his decision to decline the appointment. In the course of their ensuing conversation, Chase later recalled, Lincoln “referred to the embarrassment my declination would occasion him.” Chase promised to consider the matter further, and, as Lincoln hoped, he “finally yielded.”
In the end, Lincoln had unerringly read the character of Chase and slyly called Seward’s bluff. Through all the countervailing pressures, he had achieved the cabinet he wanted from the outset—a mixture of former Whigs and Democrats, a combination of conciliators and hard-liners. He would be the head of his own administration, the master of the most unusual cabinet in the history of the country.
His opponents had been certain that Lincoln would fail in this first test of leadership. “The construction of a Cabinet,” one editorial advised, “like the courting of a shrewd girl, belongs to a branch of the fine arts with which the new Executive is not acquainted. There are certain little tricks which go far beyond the arts familiar to the stump, and the cross-road tavern, whose comprehension requires a delicacy of thought and subtlety of perception, secured only by experience.”
In fact, as John Nicolay later wrote, Lincoln’s “first decision was one of great courage and self-reliance.” Each of his rivals was “sure to feel that the wrong man had been nominated.” A less confident man might have surrounded himself with personal supporters who would never question his authority. James Buchanan, for example, had deliberately chosen men who thought as he did. Buchanan believed, Allan Nevins writes, that a president “who tried to conciliate opposing elements by placing determined agents of each in his official family would find that he had simply strengthened discord, and had deepened party divisions.” While it was possible that his team of rivals would devour one another, Lincoln determined that “he must risk the dangers of faction to overcome the dangers of rebellion.”
Later, Joseph Medill of the Chicago Tribune asked Lincoln why he had chosen a cabinet comprised of enemies and opponents. He particularly questioned the president’s selection of the three men who had been his chief rivals for the Republican nomination, each of whom was still smarting from the loss.
Lincoln’s answer was simple, straightforward, and shrewd. “We needed the strongest men of the party in the Cabinet. We needed to hold our own people together. I had looked the party over and concluded that these were the very strongest men. Then I had no right to deprive the country of their services.”
Seward, Chase, Bates—they were indeed strong men. But in the end, it was the prairie lawyer from Springfield who would emerge as the strongest of them all.