Lincoln: President-Elect

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In the 220 years since the adoption of our Constitution, the American people have witnessed 33 presidential transitions by election – 34 if you count our present unfolding experience.

Of the 42 men who have served us as president to date, 22 assumed office by election representing a different political party than that of their predecessor (counting John Tyler, the first “accidental president,” who assumed office after the death of William Henry Harrison, as a Whig, and Andrew Johnson, who assumed office upon Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, as a Democrat).

Upon his inauguration in January, Barack Obama will be the twenty-third to represent a party change by election. (Only one president, Grover Cleveland, participated in more than two of these party transitions; with his two non-consecutive terms, he participated in four. A few – James K. Polk, Benjamin Harrison, Woodrow Wilson, Dwight Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush – have participated at both the beginning and the end of their service.)

Many of these presidential-and-party transitions have been reasonably smooth – some almost cordial. Others – 1800, 1876 and 2000 come to mind – have been fraught with difficulties.

But no other presidential transition has been more perilous, traumatic and angst-ridden than that of the long four months between the election of Abraham Lincoln and his inauguration as America’s sixteenth president.

Our greatest president was not merely the first president to be elected as a Republican. He was the only president to be elected with less than forty percent of the popular vote. His name and party had not even appeared on the ballot in most southern states. John C. Breckinridge (the Democrat nominated for the South) had swept the southern states; John Bell (the Constitutional Union candidate) had captured the vote in the border states; and even Lincoln’s home state of Illinois had cast its ballots for Stephen Douglas* (the nominee of the Northern wing of the Democratic party). Lincoln’s grossly incompetent predecessor, James Buchanan, had brought the nation to the brink of civil war through mismanagement, procrastination and inaction. State after state, beginning with South Carolina in December of 1860, seceded from the Union. And Lincoln, powerless until the fourth of March 1861, could not act.

Harold Holzer’s brilliant, insightful masterpiece, Lincoln: President-Elect, is the story of this uniquely dangerous period, and of Lincoln’s navigation of these treacherous shoals. Doris Kearnes Goodwin, herself author of the excellent Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, describes Lincoln: President-Elect as “a stunningly original work that casts completely new light on the most turbulent and critical presidential transition in American history” – an accurate assessment with which I wholeheartedly concur.

The conventional wisdom, largely unexamined since the overrated Henry Adams penned a critical essay entitled The Great Secession Winter in the nineteenth century, has been that a lackadaisical transition was a blot upon Lincoln’s subsequent record of greatness. Holzer obliterates this myth with cogent analysis and definitive evidence, clearly documenting Lincoln’s extraordinary performance under almost insuperable constraints and against great odds. It is difficult to imagine how any other politician of the time, or of any time, could have equaled Lincoln’s careful balancing act.

Holzer’s Lincoln is a strong-willed, resolute, thoughtful and cautious but ultimately decisive statesman of clear vision and shrewd planning. From the immediate aftermath of the 1860 election until the moment of his inauguration, Lincoln’s acts and thoughts are carefully documented and rigorously evaluated in a tour-de-force. For a work focusing upon this vital transitional period in American history, Lincoln: President-Elect is absolutely unparalleled.

Because this volume is focused exclusively upon the ‘interregnum’ between election and inauguration, I cannot recommend it for those seeking a more comprehensive biography of Lincoln’s life. If you will read only one book about Lincoln ever, this would not be your best choice. But for everyone interested in more, Lincoln: President-Elect is an imperative read of exceptional value.

Three Excerpts

Excerpt: Four Long Months

“The founders did not foresee a lengthy or closely observed interregnum when they established March 4 as inauguration day. Washington, Adams , and Jefferson were each elected just a few weeks prior to his swearing in, limiting the potential for fractiousness and mischief between administrations. Of course, those men had not anticipated the subsequent rise of political parties, much less the introduction of popular voting; they expected that new presidents would be forever chosen by electoral colleges every fourth winter and sworn in shortly thereafter. Later custom shifted elections back to November, but left the inauguration in March, assuming it would take weeks for electors, not to mention future presidents, to travel from their homes to Washington from remote parts of the growing nation. The outdated tradition remained fixed until Franklin D. Roosevelt’s second term began on January 20, 1937.

“What the framers failed to anticipate was the resulting, and potentially dangerous, void that long transitions might encourage. Webster’s defines ‘interregnum’ as ‘the time during which a throne is vacant between two successive reigns or regimes.’ So, in a sense, the word does not literally apply to American presidential transitions. Yet, in a way, from late 1860 until early 1861, America endured an interregnum of its own, and during this time the country could more accurately be said to have had no president than to have had two. The incumbent was paralyzed, and his successor powerless. Almost from the moment votes are counted, lame-duck chief executives invariably recede into superfluity, but Lincoln’s hapless predecessor, James Buchanan, made procrastination into an art form. He could not have excused himself from responsibility at a more portentous moment, or left his successor with graver problems to address once he was constitutionally entitled to do so.”

Excerpt: Narrow Victory

“Abraham Lincoln won election as the sixteenth president of the United States by carrying every Northern state save New Jersey. No candidate had ever taken the presidency with such an exclusively regional vote. (Even the Jefferson-Adams contests of 1796 and 1800 had featured exceptions to lopsided regional voting, with Pennsylvania going to Jefferson in their first contest, and New York in their second.) In the end, Lincoln would amass 180 electoral votes in all – comfortably more than the 152 required for an absolute majority. In the raw count, Lincoln could take comfort from the fact that the rapidly growing nation awarded him more popular votes than any man who had ever run for president – 1,866,452 in all, 28,000 more votes than Democrat James Buchanan had earned in winning the presidency four years earlier. But Lincoln’s votes amounted to only a shade under 40 percent of the total cast, the smallest share ever collected by a victor. And the national tally alone did not tell the full story.

“Testifying alarmingly to the deep rift cleaving North from South, and presaging the challenges soon to face his administration, was the anemic support Lincoln garnered in the few Southern states where his name was allowed to appear on the ballot. In Virginia, the Lincoln ticket received just 1,929 votes out of 167,223 statewide – barely one percent. The result was even worse in his native Kentucky, where only 1,364 out of 146,216 voters cast their ballots for the Republicans, in this case amounting to less than one percent. Lincoln could find some solace in the fact that both of these Upper South states, along with Missouri, at least went for the moderate John Bell, rather than the Southern choice, John C. Breckinridge. When news of the Virginia result reached him, Lincoln greeted it with the hope that it ‘represented a sentiment of love for the Union which would destroy the hopes of the ultra secessionists.

“Yet as the ominously divided vote confirmed, just as Southern foes had warned, Lincoln’s victory proved entirely sectional – an outcome all but guaranteed when most southern states refused to list Lincoln’s name on ballots. Analyzed geographically, the total result gave Lincoln a decisive 54 percent in the North and West, but only 2 percent in the South – the most lopsided vote in American history. Moreover, most of the 26,000 votes Lincoln carried in all five slaveholding states where he was allowed to compete came from a single state – Missouri, whose biggest city, St. Louis, included many German-born Republicans.”

Excerpt: Double Image

“Soon thereafter, Lincoln glimpsed another ‘mysterious’ and, he feared, ‘ominous’ vision in his own bedroom mirror. While reclining on a lounge, he glanced up to notice a ‘double-image of himself in the looking-glass,’ one clear, the other pallid. For a moment, it was vivid; then it vanished – at first, two Lincolns side by side, then none at all. As he recounted the eerie vision to his friend Ward Hill Lamon: ‘There was Abraham Lincoln’s face reflecting the full glow of health and hopeful life; and in the same mirror, at the same moment of time, was the face of Abraham Lincoln showing a ghostly paleness.’ Then it melted away, and in the excitement of the hour [I] forgot all about it,’ Lincoln later told another friend, ‘– nearly, but not quite, for the thing would once in a while come up, and give me a little pang as if something uncomfortable had happened.’

“In Lincoln’s mind, at least as Lamon interpreted the story, ‘the illusion was a sign.’ Both the president-elect and his wife believed it meant that he would not only survive his term in office, but four years later win re-election to a second one, only to die before it ended.”

* Error Correction Update: Whatever possessed me to say that Douglas carried Illinois, I can’t imagine. Douglas carried Missouri’s 9 electoral votes and 3 of New Jersey’s 7 electoral votes. Lincoln captured the 11 electoral votes of Illinois and 4 of New Jersey’s.

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Published in: on December 7, 2008 at 11:24 pm  Leave a Comment