Lincoln: President-Elect — A Postscript

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On December 7th, we reviewed Harold Holzer’s excellent work Lincoln: President-Elect. Herewith a further pair of illuminating excerpts from this perceptive volume:

On the Politics of the Time (and our anachronistic perspective):

“The long-accepted notion that Lincoln detested the burdensome process of filling minor jobs and granting favors to lower-level Republican loyalists deserves serious reappraisal. Likely invented to bolster the notion that he rose above petty politics during the interregnum, and afterward in the White House, the durable legend suggests that Lincoln loathed the patronage process and wished he could have avoided it entirely.

“To say the least, this is an exaggeration. As surprised and oppressed as he was by the volume of requests and the persistence of undeserving applicants, Lincoln had no reason to want to avoid office-seekers or abrogate the right of making federal appointments. Quite the contrary this was precisely the privilege he had hoped (and Republicans had campaigned for him) to enjoy. Democrats had controlled the federal bureaucracy without interruption for eight years – ever since Pierce’s inauguration in 1853 – and, for that matter, for much of the century. The Republicans, a new political organization, had waged two national election contests before electing its first president, and now had every reason to expect their full share of loaves and fishes.

“A consummate politician who believed in the concept of out with the old and in with the new, Lincoln understood that he now had the opportunity – indeed, the obligation – to reward supporters and thus guarantee the loyalty of the federal bureaucracy during the difficult years sure to come. In the bargain he was also expected to purge Democrats – some of them not only political foes but perhaps treacherously sympathetic to secession – from the federal payroll. Lincoln demonstrated his political and public relations genius by fulfilling this role diligently, while making himself appear, to both neighbors and the press, overwhelmed to the point of exhaustion by the sordid exercise of power.”

On ‘Helpful’ Predecessors:

“No previous chief executive ever came to office with more ex-presidents alive, well, and seemingly unwilling to grant their successor the chance to lead without their advice. There were five hearty survivors on the scene in all: Van Buren, Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Pierce, and soon, Buchanan. Their admirable survival rate, Lincoln soon learned, was a prescription for trouble. None of these former White House occupants seemed ready to assume the mantle of silent elder statesman. Instead, revived by the disunion crisis, most attempted to exert new influence over policy. The most obvious culprit, incumbent chief executive Buchanan, continued to argue virtually until Inauguration Eve that the best way to save a country he had done so little to keep united was to shackle the incoming administration with legislative compromise, even if it included the extension of slavery.

“But older ex-presidents proved no less vexing. After supporting fellow Northern Democrat Stephen A. Douglas for the White House, the seventy-eight-year-old Van Buren, though bowed down by gout and constant colds, still summoned the nergy to vigorously support the Crittenden Compromise and to propose a constitutional convention to address the slavery issue. Lincoln could take some solace when he learned that ‘the Sage of Kinderhook’ had drafted a resolution for the New York state legislature asserting that secession ‘receives no countenance from the Federal Constitution and is founded neither on reason or justice . . . .

“Fillmore, who in 1856 had won 21 percent of the popular vote in a vain, third-party attempt at a comeback four years after leaving the White House, inexplicably began emphasizing the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, a highly unpopular position in his native Buffalo (a mere boat ride away from the safe shores of Canada), not to mention an issue that Lincoln preferred to keep in the recesses of the national debate over compromise. Still open to conciliation, Fillmore nonetheless refused to attend the Peace Convention, and predicted it would fail.

“Democrat Pierce made no secret of his own disdain for Lincoln’s Republicans, and in 1860 had briefly entertained hopes that the splintered Democrats would turn to him as a compromise candidate for the presidency. More recent, he had sent a message to the Alabama secession convention urging patience, but concluding: ‘If we cannot live together in peace, then in peace and on just terms, let us separate.’ Lincoln could not be pleased that a New England-born former president, even a Democrat, was so openly willing to countenance secession.

“But no former president did more to undermine the transition than John Tyler. As an accidental president two decades earlier, the pro-slavery Virginian could count few accomplishments save for validating the law of succession on the death of a chief executive. Now seventy, with two wives and fourteen children his most notable achievements, he reemerged onto the national stage in late 1860, praising Buchanan’s dodgy leadership as a ‘wise and statesmanlike course’ and supporting compromise even after Lower South states began declaring their independence from the Union.

“Tyler’s efforts to shift the national conversation were just beginning . . . .”

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Published in: on December 16, 2008 at 5:53 pm  Comments (3)