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AS THE FALL 1863 ELECTIONS in the crucial states of Ohio and Pennsylvania approached, Lincoln was visibly unsettled. Recalling the disastrous midterm elections of the previous autumn, he confided to Welles in October that his anxiety was greater than during his presidential race in 1860.

If the antiwar Democrats had gained ground since the previous year, it would signal that Northern support for the war was crumbling. Such results would dispirit the army and invigorate rebel morale. While recent battlefield victories augured well for Republican chances, the divisive issues of civil liberties, slavery, and Reconstruction threatened to erode support in many places. Civil liberties was also a divisive issue in the Confederacy, which had suspended habeas corpus, imposed martial law, and instituted conscription. The former Confederate secretary of state Robert Toombs accused “that scoundrel Jeff Davis” of pursuing “an illegal and unconstitutional course” that “outraged justice” and brought a “tide of despotism” upon the South. People in both North and South were becoming increasingly restive.

Lincoln was particularly concerned about Ohio, where Democrats had chosen Copperhead Clement Vallandigham as their gubernatorial candidate against the pro-Union John Brough. Conducting his campaign from exile in Canada, Vallandigham was running on a platform condemning the war as a failure and calling for “peace at any price”—even if slavery was maintained and the Union divided. Lincoln was disheartened that the historic Democratic Party had selected “a man [such] as Vallandigham” for “their representative man.” Whatever votes he received would be “a discredit to the country.”

In Pennsylvania, the Democrats were running George Woodward, an archly conservative judge, against Republican governor Andrew Curtin. Though not as incendiary as Vallandigham’s, Woodward’s opinions were well known. “Slavery,” he had once said, “was intended as a special blessing to the people of the United States.” The contest tightened when the Woodward campaign received a welcome letter of support from George McClellan, written from his residence in New Jersey. If he were voting in Pennsylvania, McClellan wrote, he would “give to Judge Woodward my voice & my vote.”

Lincoln, however, had learned from the bitter election of the previous year and took steps to ensure better results. Any government clerk from Ohio or Pennsylvania who wanted to go home to vote was given a fifteenday leave and provided with a free railroad pass for the trip. Recognizing that the absence of the army vote had been devastating to Republicans in 1862, the president also arranged for soldiers in the field to receive furloughs to return home to vote.

A week before the election, Chase called on Lincoln with a suggestion. If the president granted him a leave of absence from the Treasury, he, like his clerks, would go home to vote the Union ticket. Lincoln had no doubt that Chase would use the campaign trip to bolster his own drive for the presidency. Nevertheless, Chase’s presence in Ohio might well help the Union ticket.

To ensure publicity, Chase invited the journalist Whitelaw Reid to accompany him on the train to Columbus and write regular dispatches for the Cincinnati Gazette and the Associated Press as they traveled around the state. Advance word of the train’s arrival was circulated, and an enormous crowd greeted Chase in Columbus at 2 a.m. The delighted secretary was met with “prolonged cheering, and shouts of ‘Hurrah for our old Governor,’ ‘How are you, old Greenbacks?’ ‘Glad to see you home again.’” Chase indicated his gratitude for this “most unexpected welcome,” and proceeded to give a speech that ostensibly praised the president as a man who “is honestly and earnestly doing his best,” even though the war was not being prosecuted “so fast as it ought.” With a different leader, he hinted, “some mistakes might have been avoided—some misfortunes averted.”

At each stop in his swing through Ohio, Chase encountered huge crowds of supporters. “I come not to speak, but to vote,” he insisted, before launching into a series of self-promoting speeches laced with subtle denigration of Lincoln. Military bands followed him through the streets, creating a festival-like atmosphere. In Cincinnati, a long procession and a military escort accompanied Chase, seated in a carriage drawn by six white horses, to the Burnet House, the site of Lincoln’s unpleasant encounter with Stanton during the Reaper trial. From the balcony of the elegant hotel, he delivered a few words, followed by a lengthy address that evening before a packed audience at Mozart Hall. With slavery and Reconstruction as his themes, he once again covertly criticized the president. He acknowledged that the Emancipation Proclamation was “the great feature of the war,” without which “we could not achieve success,” but hastened to add that “it would have been even more right, had it been earlier, and without exceptions.”

Lincoln had calculated correctly by giving Chase permission for the trip. His tour helped draw record numbers of pro-Union supporters to the polls. In public squares lit by bonfires and torchlights, the former governor called upon his fellow Ohioans to regard the election as “the day of trial for our Country. All eyes turn to Ohio.” On the Monday before the voting, he begged his audiences “to remember that to-morrow is the most important of all the three hundred and sixty-five days in the year.”

On Election Day, Lincoln took up his usual post in the crowded telegraph office. By midnight, everything indicated good results in both Ohio and Pennsylvania. Still, the president refused to retire until he was certain. At 1:20 a.m., a welcome telegram arrived from Chase: “The victory is complete, beyond all hopes.” Chase predicted that Brough’s margin over Vallandigham would be at least 50,000, and would rise higher still when the soldiers’ vote was counted. By 5 a.m., Brough’s margin had widened to 100,000. “Glory to God in the highest,” Lincoln wired to the victorious governor-elect. “Ohio has saved the Nation.” The results from Pennsylvania, where Governor Curtin defeated his antiwar challenger, produced another jubilant outburst in the telegraph office. “All honor to the Keystone State!” Stanton wired to John Forney. In July, he wrote, the state “drove rebel invaders from her soil; and, now, in October, she has again rallied for the Union, and overwhelmed the foe at the ballot-box.”

When Welles called on the president to congratulate him, he found him “in good spirits.” Republicans had crushed Copperheads in the two bellwether states, boding well for the congressional elections the following month. Chase had been instrumental in achieving these signal victories. If his journey home to Ohio had also advanced the secretary’s presidential aspirations, so be it. Lincoln understood Chase’s thirst for the presidency. “No man knows what that gnawing is till he has had it,” he said. Should Chase become president, he told Hay, “all right. I hope we may never have a worse man.”

Lincoln might “shut his eyes” to Chase’s stratagems so long as Chase remained a good secretary, but members of his cabinet possessed less tolerance. “I’m afraid Mr. Chase’s head is turned by his eagerness in pursuit of the presidency,” Bates recorded in his diary. “That visit to the west is generally understood as [his] opening campaign.” Perusing newspaper accounts of Chase’s speeches, the Attorney General noted derisively that his colleague had attributed “the salvation of the country to his own admirable financial system”—much as Cicero had sworn, “By the immortal Gods, I have saved my country.” Chase ought to have focused solely on his cabinet position, Bates observed, but “it is of the nature of ambition to grow prurient, and run off with its victim.” Like Bates, Welles believed that Chase’s presidential aspirations had “warped” his judgment, leading him to divisively exploit the Reconstruction issue to consolidate the radical wing of the party behind him. Yet these critiques were moderate compared to the scathing indictments the Blairs poured forth in daily correspondence to their friends.

Chase remained oblivious to the ire of his colleagues. He had found the trip immensely gratifying. “I little imagined the reception that awaited me,” he proudly told a friend. “Such appreciation & such manifestation of warm personal esteem—moved me deeply.” Chase apparently never considered that he owed a good part of his tremendous reception to the president he represented and to the victories of the Union armies at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. All personal praise and flattering letters he accepted as his just due. “The late election in this City & State, to you, more than to any other living man was a personal triumph,” he was told by James Baker, stationed in St. Louis. “I feel hopeful now for you in the contest of ’64.” After a few more fawning remarks, Baker proceeded to request a job as a collector, explaining that months “in the saddle” had produced a bad case of hemorrhoids, leaving him unfit for active duty.

Chase also basked in the extravagant praise from the radical press. “To him, more than any other man in the cabinet,” the Liberator wrote, “are we indebted for the Presidents’ proclamation, and the other executive acts which have struck the diabolical system of slavery.” TheLiberator supposed Chase’s victory over Seward’s influence had finally allowed the proclamation to be issued. “If in any one month of Mr. Seward’s administration, he had chosen strenuously to urge upon Abraham Lincoln the abolition of slavery throughout the country on the ground that the conflict is irrepressible,” the Liberator maintained, then “the war would have ended in our victory within six months thereafter.” The public should carefully consider “whether a vote for old Abe will not choose Seward to be again acting President.”

NO ONE UNDERSTOOD BETTER than Seward the absurdity of the claim that he was the acting president. By the fall of 1863, he had both accepted and respected Lincoln’s consummate control of his cabinet, and the relationship between the two men “had grown very close and unreserved,” Fred Seward observed. “Thrown into daily companionship, they found, not only cordial accord in most of their political opinions but a trait in common not shared by all their contemporaries. That was their disposition to take a genial, philosophical view of human nature, and of national destiny.” Such intimate cooperation benefited not only both men but the country at large.

“As they sat together by the fireside, or in the carriage,” Seward’s son continued, “the conversation between them, however it began, always drifted back into the same channel—the progress of the great national struggle. Both loved humor, and however trite the theme, Lincoln always found some quaint illustration from his western life, and Seward some case in point, in his long public career, that gave it new light.”

Fred Seward recounted the events of one morning in October 1863 when his father called on Lincoln. “They say, Mr. President, that we are stealing away the rights of the States. So I have come to-day to advise you, that there is another State right I think we ought to steal.” Raising his head from his pile of papers, Lincoln asked, “Well, Governor, what do you want to steal now?” Seward replied, “The right to name Thanksgiving Day!” He explained that at present, Thanksgiving was celebrated on different days at the discretion of each state’s governor. Why not make it a national holiday? Lincoln immediately responded that he supposed a president “had as good a right to thank God as a Governor.”

Seward then presented Lincoln with a proclamation that invited citizens “in every part of the United States,” at sea, or abroad, “to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November” to give thanks to “our beneficent Father.” The proclamation also commended to God’s care “all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers,” and called on Him “to heal the wounds of the nation” and restore it to “peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.” These sentiments would reappear in Lincoln’s second inaugural, where once again, as with Seward’s “mystic chords” in his First Inaugural Address, Lincoln would transform Seward’s language into a powerfully resonant poetry.

Their mutual faith in each other helped sustain both Lincoln and Seward through the continuing attacks of radicals and conservatives. Under political fire, both men remained remarkably calm. Lincoln told Nicolay that before his meeting with the Missouri radicals, Seward had asked him to prepare his response without saying “a word to him on the subject,” lest anyone claim he had influenced the president on the controversial matter. Despite their precautions, said Lincoln, Wendell Phillips gave a passionate speech decrying the White House response and stating “that Seward had written the whole of that letter.”

As the November congressional elections approached, both men hoped that the North would overwhelmingly support the administration, the Union, and the war. They knew that these elections would set the stage for the presidential contest the following year. In one of their fireside conversations, Seward assured Lincoln that his own hopes for the presidency were “all past and ended.” He desired only that Lincoln be his “own successor,” for when the rebels “find the people reaffirming their decision to have you President, I think the rebellion will collapse.”

Two days before the November 3 elections, Seward left for Auburn. He had worried for weeks about the condition of his son Will, who had returned home on convalescent leave after contracting typhoid in the army. Will suffered fever and terrible stomach pains. As the illness progressed, he had to be carried from his bed to a chair where he could sit up for only short periods of time. The elections offered Seward a chance to attend to his son and rally support among New York voters as well.

Lincoln, too, was concerned about young Will, whom he had come to like and respect. The previous spring, he had ordered Will, then stationed with the army in Virginia, to report to the White House for a special assignment. As Will later recalled, the road to the capital was “exceedingly muddy” that day. He appeared at the president’s door “covered with mud” and looking “more like a tramp than a soldier.” He was “well known to the old porter at the door,” however, and was quickly ushered into the president’s library. Lincoln greeted him warmly, handing him a secret dispatch for delivery to General Banks in Louisiana. He would have to travel through “hostile” areas, Lincoln warned, so he would “have to take the chances of riding alone.” The dispatch was “of great importance and must not fall into the enemy’s hands,” so he should commit it to memory. Will left that night and delivered his intelligence safely.

Seward arrived at home to find Will in stable condition. On election eve, he delivered a speech to the citizens of Auburn. He began with the sanguine prediction that the rebellion “will perish…and slavery will perish with it.” While his optimism might provoke criticism in some quarters, he explained, “as in religion, so in politics, it is faith, and not despondency, that overcomes mountains and scales the heavens.” His faith, he predicted, would be confirmed by the Unionist triumph in the coming elections. “The object of this election,” he said, “is the object of the war. It is to make Abraham Lincoln President de facto” in the South as he is in the North. “There can be no peace and quiet, until Abraham Lincoln is President of the whole United States.” Then, arousing the wrath of radicals, Seward extended his hand to the South, saying, “I am willing that the prodigal son shall return. The doors, as far as I am concerned, shall always be open to him.”

As the voters went to the polls on Tuesday, Lincoln telegraphed Seward. “How is your son?” he inquired. “Thanks. William is better,” Seward replied. “Our friends reckon on (25,000) majority in the state.” New York did even better than that, reversing the losses of the previous year to give a 30,000 majority to the administration. In every state with the exception of New Jersey, Seward reported, “the Copperhead spirit is crushed and humbled.”

A FESTIVE ATMOSPHERE enveloped the nation’s capital after the elections as official Washington prepared for the social event of the decade: the wedding of Kate Chase and William Sprague. Fifty guests, including the president, the entire cabinet, and selected congressmen, senators, and generals, were invited to the wedding ceremony on Thursday evening, November 12, in the parlor of the Chase mansion. Five hundred additional invitations had been delivered for the reception immediately following the exchange of vows.

For weeks, the newspapers were filled with gossip about the wedding. It was said that Sprague had given Kate a diamond tiara worth $50,000. Women readers relished details “about the bridal trousseau—the robes, the pearls, the diamonds, the lace, the silver, and all the magnificent gifts of this Millionaire Wedding.” Curiosity seekers noted the arrival of eminent guests at the Willard Hotel. The spectacle offered a brief respite from the endless sorrows of the war—the casualty reports, the scenes of suffering in the hospitals, the rumors of impending military engagements.

For Salmon Chase, the imminent marriage brought a welter of conflicting emotions. Writing frankly to Sprague thirteen days before the wedding, he acknowledged that he was beginning “to realize how changed every thing will be when she is gone.” His life had long been occupied with “the solicitous care” of his beloved daughter, who had “constantly become more thoughtful, more affectionate, more loving; and, at this hour, is dearer than ever.” Though they would share the same Washington household, Chase understood that he would no longer enjoy Kate’s undivided attention. By return mail, Sprague reassured Chase that he fully appreciated their “high & holy relation” and would “never be happier than when contributing to continue the same relations between father & daughter—that has heretofore existed.” Referring most likely to his drinking problem, Sprague admitted that in the past he had “neglected both mind & body,” but promised henceforth to take care of himself, and “with good health and a proper exercise of the talent God has been pleased to give me, I hope to do something usefull for my day and generation.”

Those close to Kate remarked that her emotions ran high as the marriage drew near. John Hay recounted that she cried “like a baby” just weeks before the wedding when he took her to see Maggie Mitchell in The Pearl of Savoy. The play revolves around the romantic travails of Marie, a peasant girl whose innocent love for a peasant boy is thwarted by a lecherous aristocrat determined to possess the lovely young girl. Through the wealthy suitor’s machinations, Marie’s family stand to lose their farm unless she gives herself to him. Torn between her devotion to her noble father and her love for the young peasant boy, Marie goes mad. Perhaps Kate shed so many tears over the melodrama because she identified with the tormented heroine’s devotion to her father.

Over the years, as the Cinderella match would culminate in tragedy and poverty for Kate, journalists and historians have subjected Kate’s feelings for Sprague to considerable analysis. Many have speculated that her decision to marry “was a coldly calculated plan to secure the Sprague millions,” thereby to advance the “two great passions in her life—her father and politics.” It was said that “in her eyes all other men sank into insignificance when compared with her father,” and that no one else had “even the remotest hold upon her affections.” Her marriage to Sprague would relieve her father from further financial worries and provide abundant means for an all-out presidential campaign in 1864.

Even journalists at the time noted that outside of his fortune, Sprague possessed few attractive qualities. Having left school early for the cotton mill, he was “wholly innocent of even an approximate understanding of the arts or sciences, polite or vulgar literature.” Furthermore, he was “small, thin and unprepossessing in appearance.” Still, if he was not physically attractive, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle noted, “pecuniarily, he is—several millions.” And, as Gideon Welles recorded in his diary, “Miss Kate has talents and ambition sufficient for both.”

Henry Adams was among those who deemed Kate’s marriage a sacrifice for her father. He spoke of her as Jephthah’s daughter, referring to the biblical warrior who promised God that if he gained success in battle, “whatsoever” greeted him at his victorious return would be sacrificed as “a burnt offering.” Jephthah arrived home triumphant and was greeted at his door by his daughter, his only child. As the anguished father prepared the sacrificial pyre, his daughter comforted him with assurances that she accepted her fate, for a promise made to God could not be broken.

The sacrificial nature of this scenario is belied by Kate’s own words, later confided to her diary as the fifth anniversary of her wedding approached. Thinking back to the night before her marriage, she wrote: “Memory has been busy with the hopes and dreams on a calm moonlight night five years ago of a woman, then in the full flush of social influence and triumph whose career had been curiously independent and successful, surrounded by some kind friends and many more ready to flatter and do her homage, accustomed to command and be obeyed, to wish and be anticipated, successful beyond any right or dessert of her own to claim, and yet stood ready, without a sigh of regret, to lay all these and more upon the altar of her love in exchange for a more earnest and truer life: one long dream of happiness and love.”

She remembered spending that evening praying that she might fill her role of loving wife “to completeness,” that she “might become, his companion, friend and advocate, that he might be in a word—a husband satisfied. All there is of love and beauty, nobleness & gentleness were woven with this fair dream & I believed no future brighter than that our united lives spread open before us.” When folded in William’s “loving arms,” she continued, “oh the sense of ineffable rest, joy & completeness.” She felt like “a child, in security and trust. A lover won, a protector found, a husband to be cherished…. Not a reserve in my heart, not a hidden corner he might not scan, the first, the only man that had found a lodgment there.”

In the hours before the nuptials began, “a large crowd of all sexes, ages and conditions” gathered around the Chase mansion to watch the procession of guests. The eager crowd was “very good-natured,” the Washington Daily Chronicle reported, exchanging congenial remarks as the occupants of the long line of carriages stepped down and proceeded inside. One by one the cabinet secretaries arrived; all but Monty Blair, who refused to attend, though his eighty-year-old father thoroughly enjoyed himself and was “quite the belle of the occasion.” The entrance of Lord Lyons and the French minister Count Henri Mercier attracted attention, as did the arrivals of Generals Halleck, McDowell, and Robert C. Schenck.

“Much anxiety was manifested for the appearance of President Lincoln,” the Chronicle reported. At 8:30 p.m., minutes before the ceremony was scheduled to start, Lincoln pulled up in his carriage, unescorted, and without Mrs. Lincoln by his side. As Mary later said, she refused to “bow in reverence” to the twin “Gods, Chase & daughter.” Predictably, Mary’s absence at the wedding was noticed by the press. Noah Brooks later reported that Lincoln “stayed two and half hours ‘to take the cuss off’ the meagerness of the presidential party.”

All eyes were on Kate, however, as she descended the staircase in “a gorgeous white velvet dress, with an extended train, and upon her head wore a rich lace veil,” encircled by her new pearl and diamond tiara. As the wedding party approached the Episcopal bishop of Rhode Island, the Marine Band played a march composed specifically for the occasion. When the vows were completed, “Chase was the first to kiss the newly made wife.” A lavish meal was served, followed by dancing in the dining room, which lasted until midnight.

John Hay thought it “a very brilliant” affair, noting that Kate “had lost all her old severity & formal stiffness of manner, & seemed to think she had arrived.” The young couple left the next morning for New York, where their presence at the Fifth Avenue Hotel drew crowds of women eager to see the young bride in person, having followed all the details of her wedding in the papers.

Marriage did not diminish the regular flow of letters between father and daughter. “Your letter—so full of sweet words and good thoughts—came yesterday,” Chase wrote Kate less than a week after the wedding, “and I need not tell you how welcome it was.” His new son-in-law, to Chase’s delight, also proved to be a good correspondent. “My heart is full of love for you both,” Chase replied to Sprague, “and I rejoice as I never expected to rejoice in the prospects of happiness opening before both of you. I feared some inequalities of temper—some too great love of the world, either of its possessions or its shows—something I hardly know about. But I find that you each trust the other fully…and above all that you both look to God for his blessing & guidance.”

Chase expressed but a single qualm: “I fear that Katie may be a little too anxious about my political future. She must not be so.” He insisted to Sprague that nothing could be “so uncertain as the political future of any man: and especially as the future which must be determined by popular preferences founded quite as much on sentiment as on reason.” While he suggested to his new son-in-law that the country needed a leader other than Lincoln, Chase ingenuously asserted that he would never allow himself “to be drawn into any hostile or unfriendly position as to Mr. Lincoln. His course towards me has always been so fair & kind; his progress towards entire agreement with me on the great question of slavery has been so constant, though rather slower than I wished for; and his general character is so marked by traits which command respect & affection; that I can never consent to anything, which he himself could or should consider as incompatible with perfect honor & good faith.”

AT A TUESDAY CABINET MEETING shortly after Kate’s wedding, Lincoln informed his colleagues that he would leave for Gettysburg that Thursday, November 19, 1863. He had been asked to say a few words to consecrate the cemetery grounds set aside so that the Union soldiers who had been interred near the battlefield and hospitals the previous July could be “properly buried.” Edward Everett, the noted orator and former president of Harvard, was scheduled to give the main address, after which the president would speak. Lincoln told his cabinet that he hoped they would accompany him to the dedication. Seward, Blair, and John Usher readily agreed, but the other members feared they could not spare the time from their duties, particularly since their annual reports to Congress were due in a couple of weeks.

Lincoln was uneasy about the trip. He had been “extremely busy,” he told Ward Lamon, and had not been able to carve out the solitary time he needed to compose his address. He “greatly feared he would not be able to acquit himself with credit, much less to fill the measure of public expectation.” Stanton had arranged a special train for the presidential party to depart on the morning of the dedication and return home around midnight that same day. Lincoln, however, rescheduled it to leave on Wednesday. “I do not wish to so go that by the slightest accident we fail entirely,” he explained, “and, at the best, the whole to be a mere breathless running of the gauntlet.” Perhaps he also hoped that an early departure from the White House would allow him more time to work on his address.

The day before setting out, Lincoln told a friend he had “found time to write about half of his speech.” Various accounts suggest that he labored over the speech during the four-hour trip. One young man, peering through the window when the train was temporarily stopped at Hanover Junction, distinctly recalled the president at work on some document, “the top of his high hat serving as a makeshift desk.” Others swear that he jotted notes on an envelope as the train roared along. Nicolay, who was there, insists that he wrote nothing during the trip, choosing instead to relax and engage his fellow riders with good conversation and humorous stories.

When Lincoln arrived at Gettysburg, he was escorted to the home of David Wills, the event organizer, where he would spend the night along with Governor Andrew Curtin and Edward Everett. “All the hotels as well as the private houses were filled to overflowing,” the New York Times reported. “People from all parts of the country seem to have taken this opportunity to pay a visit to the battle-fields which are hereafter to make the name of Gettysburgh immortal.”

After supper, while Lincoln settled himself in his room to complete his draft, a crowd gathered in front of the house to serenade him. He came to the door to thank them, but said he would make no remarks for the simple reason that “I have no speech to make. In my position it is somewhat important that I should not say any foolish things.” His reluctance elicited the snide comment from a member of the audience: “If you can help it.” Lincoln’s swift rejoinder delighted the crowd. “It very often happens that the only way to help it is to say nothing at all.”

Returning to his room, Lincoln sent a servant downstairs to fetch a few additional sheets of paper. A telegram arrived from Stanton with welcome news. Tad had been ill when Lincoln left that morning. The boy’s condition had frightened Mary, but now the report that Tad was better eased Lincoln’s mind, allowing him to focus on his speech. He went over each line, revising the ending, which was not yet satisfactory.

Meanwhile, the crowd surged over to Robert Harper’s house on the public square, where Seward was staying. Seward responded to the serenade with a heartfelt speech, concluding with thanks to the Almighty “for the hope that this is the last fratricidal war which will fall upon this country—the richest, the broadest, the most beautiful, and capable of a great destiny, that has ever been given to any part of the human race.” Afterward, inside the house, the convivial secretary held sway for hours in such a lucid manner that Benjamin French, a fellow boarder, averred he had “seldom, if ever, met with a man whose mind is under such perfect discipline, and is so full of original and striking matter as Secretary Seward’s. His conversation, no matter on what subject, is worthy of being written down and preserved, and if he had a Boswell to write, as Boswell did of Johnson, one of the most interesting and useful books of the age might be produced from the conversations and sayings of William H. Seward. He is one of the greatest men of this generation.”

Sometime after 11 p.m., Lincoln came downstairs, the pages of his speech in his hands. He wanted to talk with Seward, perhaps to share his draft with the colleague whose judgment he most respected and trusted. He walked over to the Harper house and remained there with Seward for about an hour before returning to his room and retiring. The huge, boisterous crowd on the public square, however, did not retire so easily. “They sang, & hallooed, and cheered,” French recalled. Listening from his window, he heard a full chorus of the popular refrain “We are coming Father Abraham, three hundred thousand more.”

After breakfast the next morning, Lincoln made his final revisions, carefully folded the speech, and placed it in his coat pocket. Mounting a chestnut horse, he joined the procession to the cemetery. He was accompanied by nine governors, members of Congress, foreign ministers, military officials, and the three cabinet officers. Marine lieutenant Henry Clay Cochrane recalled that Seward, riding to Lincoln’s right, was “entirely unconscious” that his trousers had pulled up above his shoes, revealing “homemade gray socks” unbefitting the occasion.

An audience of roughly nine thousand stretched away from the platform in a half circle. Lincoln was seated in the front row between Everett and Seward. For two hours, Everett delivered his memorized address, superbly recounting the various battles that had taken place over the three dramatic days. Lincoln reportedly “leaned from one side to the other and crossed his legs, turning his eyes full upon the speaker. Somewhat later he again shifted his position and rested his chin in the palm of his right hand.” Another member of the audience remembered Lincoln removing his speech and glancing over it before returning it to his pocket.

French lauded Everett’s speech, believing it “could not be surpassed by mortal man.” Several correspondents were less enthusiastic. “Seldom has a man talked so long and said so little,” wrote the editor of the Philadelphia Age. “He gave us plenty of words, but no heart…. He talked like a historian, or an encyclopaedist, or an essayist, but not like an orator.”

As Everett started back to his seat, Lincoln stood to clasp his hand and warmly congratulate him. George Gitt, a fifteen-year-old who had stationed himself beneath the speaker’s stand, later remembered that the “flutter and motion of the crowd ceased the moment the President was on his feet. Such was the quiet that his footfalls, I remember very distinctly, woke echoes, and with the creaking of the boards, it was as if some one were walking through the hallways of an empty house.”

Lincoln put on his steel-rimmed spectacles and glanced down at his pages. Though he had had but a brief time to prepare the address, he had devoted intense thought to his chosen theme for nearly a decade. As Garry Wills observes in his classic study of the address: “He had spent a good part of the 1850s repeatedly relating all the most sensitive issues of the day to the Declaration’s supreme principle.” During the debates with Stephen Douglas, Lincoln had frequently reminded his audiences of the far-reaching promises contained in the Declaration of Independence. Someday, he said, “all this quibbling about…this race and that race and the other race being inferior” would be eliminated, giving truth to the phrase “all men are created equal.”

Twenty months before the Emancipation Proclamation, the president had told Hay that “the central idea pervading this struggle is the necessity that is upon us, of proving that popular government is not an absurdity,” predicting that “if we fail it will go far to prove the incapability of the people to govern themselves.” Now tens of thousands had died in pursuit of that purpose. At Gettysburg, he would express that same conviction in far more concise and eloquent terms.

“Four score and seven years ago,” he began,

our fathers brought forth upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

    Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives, that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

    But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here, have, thus far, so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that, government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

When Lincoln finished, “the assemblage stood motionless and silent,” according to the awestruck George Gitt. “The extreme brevity of the address together with its abrupt close had so astonished the hearers that they stood transfixed. Had not Lincoln turned and moved toward his chair, the audience would very likely have remained voiceless for several moments more. Finally there came applause.” Lincoln may have initially interpreted the audience’s surprise as disapproval. As soon as he finished, he turned to Ward Lamon. “Lamon, that speech won’t scour! It is a flat failure, and the people are disappointed.” Edward Everett knew better, and expressed his wonder and respect the following day. “I should be glad,” he wrote Lincoln, “if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

Lincoln had translated the story of his country and the meaning of the war into words and ideas accessible to every American. The child who would sleeplessly rework his father’s yarns into tales comprehensible to any boy had forged for his country an ideal of its past, present, and future that would be recited and memorized by students forever.

LINCOLN RETURNED FROM GETTYSBURG to find a vexing letter from Zachariah Chandler, the radical Michigan senator who had made a fortune in dry goods and real estate before entering politics. Chandler had been a thorn in Lincoln’s side, constantly criticizing his conduct of the war, his reliance on overly cautious, conservative generals, and his tardiness on emancipation. “Your president is unstable as water,” Chandler had warned Trumbull the previous September. “For God & country’s sake, send someone to stay with [him] who will controll & hold him.”

Now, without having seen a word of the president’s upcoming message to Congress, which Lincoln had only begun drafting, Chandler was anticipating a disaster. Having read in the press that Thurlow Weed and New York governor Edwin Morgan had come to the White House to urge a “bold conservative” stance in the message, Chandler warned the president that if he acquiesced, he would jeopardize all the gains made in the fall elections. The president must realize that in each of the victorious states, radical platforms had carried the day. He could be the “master of the Situation,” Chandler patronizingly suggested, only if he could “Stand firm” against the influences of men like Weed, Seward, and Blair. “They are a millstone about Your neck.” If he dropped them, “they are politically ended for ever.” The success of the radical canvass proved that. “Conservatives and Traitors are buried together, for Gods sake dont exhume their remains in Your Message. They will smell worse than Lazarus did after he had been buried three days.”

Ordinarily, Lincoln would have shelved Chandler’s arrogant letter until his temper cooled. This time, however, he did not stifle his anger. Apparently, Chandler had struck a nerve by insinuating that Lincoln did not know his own mind. Although the president listened to the opinions of many, he took pride in arriving at his own decisions in his own way. Nor would he countenance Chandler’s slanderous assertion that men like Seward, Weed, and Blair deserved the dishonorable grave of traitors.

“My dear Sir,” Lincoln began his cold reply. “I have seen Gov. [Edwin D.] Morgan and Thurlow Weed, separately, but not together, within the last ten days; but neither of them mentioned the forthcoming message, or said anything, so far as I can remember, which brought the thought of the Message to my mind. I am very glad the elections this autumn have gone favorably, and that I have not, by native depravity, or under evil influences, done anything bad enough to prevent the good result. I hope to ‘stand firm’ enough not to go backward, and yet not go forward fast enough to wreck the country’s cause.”

Lincoln’s impatience with Chandler may have been aggravated by the fact that he was coming down with a mild case of smallpox. The illness would last for several weeks and fray his self-restraint, yet it left his humor intact. “Yes, it is a bad disease, but it has its advantages,” he told some visitors. “For the first time since I have been in office, I have something now to give to everybody that calls.” The enforced bedrest that attended his sickness allowed Lincoln the quiet he needed to complete his message to Congress. The pause in his frenetic life proved helpful as he laid out his own views on the knotty problem of Reconstruction, which he considered “the greatest question ever presented to practical statesmanship.”

Most everyone assumed, Noah Brooks wrote, “that the President would either ignore reconstruction altogether,” as the conservatives suggested, or follow the radicals’ advice and “give an elaborate and decisive program.” No one predicted “such an original message,” which cleverly mollified both wings of his divided party. John Hay was present when the message was read. “I never have seen such an effect produced by a public document,” he recorded in his diary that night. “Chandler was delighted, Sumner was beaming, while at the other political pole [James] Dixon and Reverdy Johnson said it was highly satisfactory.”

Radicals were thrilled with the stipulation that before the president would pardon any rebel or restore the rights of property, he must not only swear allegiance to the Union but also accept emancipation. To abandon the laws and proclamations promising freedom to the slaves would be “a cruel and an astounding breach of faith,” Lincoln said, adding that “while I remain in my present position I shall not attempt to retract or modify the emancipation proclamation; nor shall I return to slavery any person who is free by the terms of that proclamation, or by any of the acts of Congress.” By this statement, Sumner enthused, “He makes Emancipation the corner-stone of reconstruction.” The Missouri radical Henry Blow agreed. Though he recently had castigated Lincoln, he now lauded him. “God bless Old Abe,” he said. “I am one of the Radicals who have always believed in the President.”

Once again the radicals’ doubts about Lincoln’s firmness on slavery had proved unfounded. Early in August, he had written a letter to Nathaniel Banks, the general in charge of occupied Louisiana, delineating his thoughts on Reconstruction and emancipation. While not desiring to dictate to the Creole state, Lincoln “would be glad for her to make a new Constitution recognizing the emancipation proclamation, and adopting emancipation in those parts of the state to which the proclamation does not apply. And while she is at it, I think it would not be objectionable for her to adopt some practical system by which the two races could gradually live themselves out of their old relation to each other, and both come out better prepared for the new. Education for young blacks should be included in the plan.”

Agreeing that no rebellious state could be reconstructed without emancipation, Lincoln still refused to tolerate the radicals’ desire to punish the South. He offered full pardons to all those who took the oath, excepting those who had served at high levels in the Confederate government or the army. When the number of loyal men taking the oath reached 10 percent of the votes cast in the 1860 election, they could “re-establish a State government” recognized by the United States. The names and boundaries of the states would remain as they were.

Conservatives hailed the 10 percent plan, believing it effectively destroyed Sumner’s scheme to consider the defeated states as territories that Congress could rename and reorganize as it wished. Nevertheless, Sumner told a fellow radical that Lincoln’s “theory is identical with ours,” for he, too, required Reconstruction before the “subverted” rebel states could rejoin the Union, “although he adopts a different nomenclature.”

In presenting his 10 percent plan, Lincoln assured members of Congress that it was not fixed in stone. He would listen to their ideas as the process evolved. He hoped simply to give the Southern states “a rallying point,” bringing them “to act sooner than they otherwise would.” He recognized that it would devastate Confederate morale to see Southern citizens declare their fealty to the Union and their support for emancipation.

Though the happy accord would not last long, Lincoln had succeeded for the moment in uniting the Republican Party. When the Blairs, Sumner, and the Missouri radicals “are alike agreed to accept” the president’s message, Brooks observed, “we may well conclude that the political millennium has well-nigh come, or that the author of the message is one of the most sagacious men of modern times.” The president, announced Congressman Francis Kellogg of Michigan, “is the great man of the century. There is none like him in the world. He sees more widely and more clearly than anybody.”

Lincoln’s old friend Norman Judd called on the president the evening of the annual address. He speculated that, given the radical tone of the document, Blair and Bates “must walk the plank.” On the contrary, Lincoln assured him, both “acquiesced in it without objection. The only member of the Cabinet who objected to it was Mr. Chase.”

Chase had obstinately demanded a requirement for states to prove their “sincerity” by changing their constitutions to perpetuate emancipation. This legitimate objection had the felicitous effect of allowing Chase to stay in front of Lincoln on Reconstruction in order to cement his standing in radical circles. While Republicans of all stripes praised the message, Chase expressed disappointment. Writing to the abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher, he said he had tried but failed to get Lincoln to make it “more positive and less qualified…. But I suppose I must use Touchstone’s philosophy & be thankful for skim milk when cream is not to be had.”

LINCOLN APPROACHED the Christmas season in high spirits. As he said in his annual message, he detected a more hopeful mood in the country after the “dark and doubtful days” following the Emancipation Proclamation. The fall elections had been “highly encouraging”; the rebels had been defeated in a series of recent battles; and the opening round in the debate over Reconstruction had gone surprisingly well.

Early in December, Lincoln translated his rhetoric about forgiveness and reconciliation into action when he invited his sister-in-law, Emilie Helm, to stay at the White House. Emilie’s husband, Ben, had disappointed Lincoln in the early days of the war by taking a commission in the Confederate Army instead of Lincoln’s offer of the Union Army paymaster’s position. Helm was fatally wounded in Tennessee at the Battle of Chickamauga, where he commanded the First Kentucky Brigade. Judge Davis saw Lincoln shortly after he received the news of Helm’s death. “I never saw Mr. Lincoln more moved than when he heard that his young brother-in-law, Ben Hardin Helm, scarcely thirty-two years of age, had been killed,” Davis said. “I saw how grief-stricken he was…so I closed the door and left him alone.”

Emilie had been living with her young daughter in Selma, Alabama, when she learned that her wounded husband had been taken to Atlanta. She reached the hospital minutes too late. Alone in Atlanta, she had no desire to return to Selma, where she had moved only for its proximity to her husband’s post. Now she desperately wanted to see her mother in Kentucky. Confederate general Braxton Bragg unsuccessfully sought through Grant to secure a pass for her through Union lines. Helm’s father then wrote to Betsy Todd, Mary’s stepmother, in Lexington, Kentucky. “I am totally at a loss to know how to begin. Could you or one of your daughters write to Mrs. Lincoln and through her secure a pass?”

Four days later, Lincoln personally issued a pass allowing Mrs. Todd “to go south and bring her daughter…with her children, North to Kentucky.” When Emilie arrived at Fort Monroe, however, the officials demanded that she take the oath of allegiance to the United States. Unable to contemplate such a momentous step so soon after her husband’s death in the Confederate cause, she refused. The officials sent a telegram to the president, explaining the dilemma. They received a prompt directive: “Send her to me.”

After weeks of uncertainty, the young widow was received at the White House by the president and first lady “with the warmest affection.” The three of them, Emilie wrote in her diary, were “all too grief-stricken at first for speech.” The Lincolns had lost Willie, Emilie had lost her husband, and the two sisters had lost three brothers in the Confederate Army—Sam Todd at Shiloh, David Todd from wounds at Vicksburg, and little Alexander, Mary’s favorite baby brother, at Baton Rouge.

Families rent apart by the Civil War abounded in border states such as Missouri or Kentucky, the ancestral home of the Todds. The reality of “brother fighting brother” lent an intimate horror to the idea of a nation divided. “Often the boundaries separating people of opposing loyalties,” the historian John Shaffer writes, “were nothing more than the property line between two farms, or a table over which members of the same family argued and ultimately chose sides.”

That night, as Mary and Emilie dined alone, they carefully avoided mention of the war, which “comes between us,” Emilie acknowledged, “like a barrier of granite closing our lips.” They talked instead of old times and of old friends. Emilie marveled at Mary’s “fine tact,” which allowed her to “so quickly turn a dangerous subject into other channels.” In the days that followed, Mary did her utmost to deflect her sister’s mind from her sorrow. She gave her the Prince of Wales guest room, took her for long carriage rides, made sure Emilie’s little daughter was entertained, and sat with her at night in the drawing room before the light and warmth of a blazing fire.

Emilie’s visit provided solace for both sisters. One night after Emilie had gone to her room, Mary knocked on the door, intending to share an experience that she could not readily discuss with others. She wanted Emilie to know that in her own grief over Willie’s death, she now was comforted by the belief that his spirit was still present. “He comes to me every night,” she told Emilie, “with the same sweet, adorable smile he has always had; he does not always come alone; little Eddie is sometimes with him and twice he has come with our brother Alec, he tells me he loves his Uncle Alec and is with him most of the time.”

The vision of spiritual harmony between Willie and Alec seemed to promise a day when the Todd family would again be united, and the devastating divisions between North and South would be dissolved by history. Then Mary herself would no longer be “the scape-goat” for both sides. “You cannot dream of the comfort this gives me,” she told her sister, speaking “with a thrill in her voice” that Emilie would long remember.

Sadly for Mary, her reconciliation with her Confederate sister had some troubling consequences. Lincoln had tried to keep Emilie’s visit a secret, knowing that it would give rise to intense criticism at a time when Northerners were still punished for fraternizing with the enemy. On December 14, he confided her presence to Browning but cautioned that “he did not wish it known.” When two of Mary’s friends, General Daniel Sickles and Senator Ira Harris, called on her one night, however, Mary let down her guard and invited Emilie to join them. Both men were loyal to Lincoln and had been regulars at Mary’s drawing room salons. Lincoln had personally attended Sickles when Sickles returned to Washington after losing a leg at Gettysburg. Sickles had been in severe pain at the time, but Lincoln’s cheerful presence at his bedside had helped to restore his spirits. Mary also considered Harris a special friend, recalling years later how he invariably brightened her drawing room with his merriment.

Still, neither Sickles nor Harris could tolerate the presence of a traitor in the home of the commander in chief. Emilie recorded the events in her diary. No sooner had she entered the room than Senator Harris turned to her, a triumphant tone in his voice. “Well, we have whipped the rebels at Chattanooga and I hear, madam, that the scoundrels ran like scared rabbits.” Emilie replied, “It was the example, Senator Harris, that you set them at Bull Run and Manassas.”

The conversation degenerated rapidly. Mary’s face “turned white as death” when Senator Harris asked why Robert Lincoln had not joined the army. “If fault there be, it is mine,” Mary replied. “I have insisted that he should stay in college a little longer.” She did not state her underlying terror that she would lose another son. “I have only one son and he is fighting for his country,” Harris countered. “And, Madam,” he said, turning to Emilie, “If I had twenty sons they should all be fighting the rebels.”

“And if I had twenty sons,” Emilie coldly replied, “they should all be opposing yours.” This brought the evening to an abrupt close. Emilie fled the room with Mary close behind. The sisters threw their arms around each other and wept. The hot-tempered General Sickles insisted on reporting directly to Lincoln on what had happened. John Stuart, who was present, recalled that after Lincoln heard the tale, his “eyes twinkled,” and he told the general, “The child has a tongue like the rest of the Todds.”

Lincoln’s remark apparently infuriated Sickles, who said “in a loud, dictatorial voice, slapping the table with his hand, ‘You should not have that rebel in your house.’”

“Excuse me, General Sickles,” Lincoln replied, “my wife and I are in the habit of choosing our own guests. We do not need from our friends either advice or assistance in the matter.”

The nasty confrontation in the Red Room prompted Emilie to leave, despite the protestations of Lincoln and Mary. “Oh, Emilie,” Mary lamented, “will we ever awake from this hideous nightmare?”

LINCOLN REFUSED TO LET the unpleasant experience destroy his good humor. As Emilie and Mary said their goodbyes, he took Nicolay and Hay to Ford’s Theatre to see James Hackett play Falstaff in Henry IV. Afterward, he engaged his aides in a lively conversation about the play. The next day, at the regular Tuesday cabinet meeting, Welles found him “in fine spirits.” Eager for distraction, Lincoln returned to Ford’s Theatre two days later for The Merry Wives of Windsor. The following evening, he “was greeted with loud applause” at Willard’s Hall as he arrived for a lecture on Russia by the diplomat Bayard Taylor.

The next week, Lincoln related a peculiarly pleasant dream. He was at a party, he told Hay, and overheard one of the guests say of him, “He is a very common-looking man.” In the dream, he relished his reply: “The Lord prefers Common-looking people that is the reason he makes so many of them.” His dreamed response still amused him as he recalled it the next day.

The holiday season found most of the cabinet in cheerful spirits as well. Seward entertained the members of the visiting Russian fleet in his usual lavish style: a four-course meal, served with an unlimited supply of the best wine. As the ladies took tea in the parlor, the men adjourned to the sitting room, where Fred Seward recalled that “the conversation would often be continued for two or three hours in a cloud of smoke.”

Edward Bates, too, had reason to be gladdened. Though he remained despondent over the defection of his son Fleming to the Confederate Army, the rest of his large brood were doing well. Coalter had fought at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, and remained on General Meade’s staff. Woodson would soon graduate from West Point. Barton and Julian were both in Missouri, where Barton was a judge of the state Supreme Court and Julian a surgeon in the Missouri militia. His two daughters lived with the family at home. Even Dick, his troubled eighth child, who had struggled with alcoholism, seemed to be improving.

Of all the causes for holiday thanksgiving, Bates was most grateful for his wife’s complete return to health after her stroke. After forty years of marriage, he still believed that “no man has been more blessed.” He was proud to make the rare claim that “in all that time,” Julia had never committed “an unkind act” toward him, nor spoken a disparaging word against him. On Christmas Day, he attended a funeral for the wife of one of his closest friends. The couple had been married for more than half a century. “I know not how he can bear the loss of such a companion,” he wrote, speaking for himself as well as for his friend. “I am prepared to see him sink rapidly and die soon.”

Christmas Day found Welles rejoicing at his son Edgar’s return from Kenyon College, though holiday festivities immediately brought back memories of the children he had lost. “The glad faces and loving childish voices that cheered our household with ‘Merry Christmas’ in years gone by are silent on earth forever.” His mood was lightened, however, by the situation in the country. “The year closes more satisfactorily than it commenced,” he wrote; “the heart of the nation is sounder and its hopes brighter.” Although the president still faced “trying circumstances,” Welles predicted that his leadership would “be better appreciated in the future than now.”

The Stantons’ domestic life had brightened with the birth of a new baby girl, Bessie, eleven months after the death of their infant son, James. As Ellen prepared for the baptismal celebration, Stanton spent Christmas visiting wounded soldiers. He shared with the men his renewed faith that “when the next anniversary of the day you are now celebrating occurs, this war will be ended, and you will have returned to your homes and your firesides. When you shall have so returned, you will be considered as honored guests of the nation.”

Lincoln invited Stanton to accompany him “down the river” to visit the Union prison camp at Point Lookout, Maryland. He had heard that a significant number of the rebel prisoners had expressed willingness to take the oath of allegiance to the United States, and swear acceptance of emancipation in return for a full presidential pardon. The general in charge of the prison confirmed this hopeful intelligence when Lincoln and Stanton arrived, prompting Stanton to make plans for carrying Lincoln’s “10% plan” into the Deep South, where it might spur further disaffection in Confederate strongholds.

As 1863 drew to a close, even the carping Count Gurowski had to admit that the Union’s position had improved. “Oh! dying year! you will record that the American people increased its sacrifices in proportion to its dangers; that blood, time, and money were cheerfully thrown into the balance against treason—inside and outside. And brighter hopes dawn.” The surly count remained unwilling to acknowledge the president’s role in the improved situation, but other former critics revealed a new appreciation of Lincoln. Charles Francis Adams, the American minister to Britain, had been unimpressed by his first encounter with Lincoln in 1861, describing him as “a tall, illfavored man, with little grace of manner or polish of appearance.” After several awkward meetings, the haughty Adams had concluded that Lincoln did not belong to the same “sphere of civilization” as the rest of official Washington. The first six months of the administration further confirmed this low estimation. Adams saw in Lincoln no “heroic qualities” whatsoever and was convinced that he was “not equal to the gravity of his position.” But by the end of 1863, Adams had drastically altered his assessment.

At a festive dinner for loyal Americans in St. James’s Hall in London, Adams delivered an eloquent speech praising Lincoln’s leadership. He reminded his listeners of the dire situation the new president had faced arriving in Washington when “the edifice of Government seemed crumbling around him.” Treachery reigned in every department. Traitors at Treasury had undermined the country’s credit, the foreign service was replete with secessionists, and both the army and the navy had to be completely rebuilt. Few believed that this novice, who “came to his post with less of practical experience in the Government than any individual,” was equal to the task. Nevertheless, the past three years had seen treason excised from the government; European nations had come to look upon the North with respect; the Treasury was flush with funds to support the armed forces; the army had grown to “half a million men,” and the navy was now “respected upon every sea in all parts of the globe.” All this had been accomplished, Adams acknowledged, with a remnant tinge of condescension, not because Lincoln possessed “any superior genius” but because he, “from the beginning to the end, impressed upon the people the conviction of his honesty and fidelity to one great purpose.”

James Russell Lowell, a Harvard professor considered the “foremost American man of letters in his time,” revealed a more incisive view of Lincoln’s qualities. In a long article for the North American Review, which Lincoln read with pleasure, Lowell traced the progress of the Lincoln administration. “Never did a President enter upon office with less means at his command,” he began. “All that was known of him was that he was a good stump-speaker, nominated for his availability,—that is, because he had no history.” For many months, Lowell observed, the untried president seemed too hesitant—on military engagements, on emancipation, on recruiting black troops. Increasingly, it was becoming evident that this Abraham Lincoln was “a character of marked individuality and capacity for affairs.” In a democratic nation, Lowell added, “where the rough and ready understanding of the people is sure at last to be the controlling power, a profound common-sense is the best genius for statesmanship.” Lincoln had demonstrated a perfectly calibrated touch for public sentiment and impeccable timing in his introduction of new measures. While some thought he had delayed his decision on emancipation too long, he undoubtedly had a “sure-footed understanding” of the American people. Similarly, when the first black regiments were formed, many feared that “something terrible” would happen, “but the earth stood firm.”

“Mr. Lincoln’s perilous task has been to carry a rather shackly raft through the rapids, making fast the unrulier logs as he could snatch opportunity,” concluded Lowell, “and the country is to be congratulated that he did not think it his duty to run straight at all hazards, but cautiously to assure himself with his setting-pole where the main current was, and keep steadily to that.”

Despite the remarkable transformations of the previous three years, Lowell understood that the raft was “still in wild water.” So, of course, did Lincoln. The president recommended the Lowell piece to Gideon Welles, telling him it presented a “very excellent” discussion of the administration’s policy, but that it “gave him over-much credit.”

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