The Incoming Lincoln Administration

December 5, 1860 – President-elect Abraham Lincoln expressed great dissatisfaction with President Buchanan’s message released yesterday. Lincoln disagreed with Buchanan placing responsibility for the sectional crisis on the northern free states.

Abraham Lincoln in 1860 | Image Credit:
Abraham Lincoln in 1860 | Image Credit:

Lincoln spent this month considering cabinet appointments and political patronage, and clarifying his position on the sectional crisis. But he offered no specifics on what he planned to do once he would become president in March of next year. Lincoln explained to his private secretary that the very existence of government “implies the legal power, right, and duty… of a President to execute the laws and maintain the existing government.”

On December 8, President-elect Lincoln offered a political rival, Senator William H. Seward of New York, the post of secretary of state. Lincoln later met with another rival, Edward Bates, in Springfield and told him that his presence in Lincoln’s administration was “necessary to its complete success.” Lincoln offered Bates the post of attorney general, explaining he had to offer Seward the secretary of state job for political reasons. Lincoln intimated a hope that Seward would decline; in the meantime, Bates accepted the attorney general spot.

Near month’s end, Seward accepted Lincoln’s offer “after due reflection and much self distrust.” Some speculated that Lincoln’s slowness in offering the post to Seward indicated a reluctance to bring such a powerful rival into his cabinet. Lincoln had explained this to Seward, who took it into consideration before accepting. Seward took the job mainly because he believed Lincoln to be “incompetent,” especially on foreign affairs, and he needed an experienced politician such as Seward to be his de facto “prime minister.”

Lincoln expressed his views in a letter to Senator Lyman Trumbull of Illinois on the 10th: “Let there be no compromise on the question of extending slavery. If there be, all our labor is lost, and, ere long, must be done again… The tug has to come & better now, than any time hereafter.” Lincoln wrote several letters this month urging a rejection of any compromise on extending slavery beyond where it already existed.

On the 15th, President-elect Lincoln wrote a confidential letter to Congressman John A. Gilmer of North Carolina, repeating his reluctance to make any public statements out of fear they would be misinterpreted. Lincoln wrote, “I never have been, am not now, and probably never shall be, in a mood of harassing the people, either North or South.” But regarding slavery, Lincoln asserted, “You think slavery is right and ought to be extended; we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted. For this, neither has any just occasion to be angry with the other.”

Lincoln also wrote to Congressman Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia, attempting assurances that his administration would not interfere with slavery in any way where it already existed: “The South would be in no more danger in this respect, than it was in the days of Washington. I suppose, however, this does not meet the case. You think slavery is right and ought to be extended; while we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted. That I suppose is the rub.”

Lincoln offered on opinion on the dispute taking place in Charleston Harbor between South Carolina officials and the Federal troops garrisoning the forts. He wrote to influential Democrat Francis P. Blair, Sr on the 21st.: “According to my present view if the forts (at Charleston) shall be given up before the inaugeration (sic), then General (Winfield Scott) must retake them afterwards.” Lincoln wrote a similar letter to Congressman Elihu B. Washburne of Illinois.

Lincoln met with Senator Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania in Cameron’s hotel room at Springfield on the 28th. The men had a friendly meeting, but Lincoln was still unsure whether to offer Cameron a cabinet post due to charges of corruption, fraud, and influence peddling against him. Nevertheless, Lincoln leaned more toward appointing Cameron because of this meeting and the many letters of recommendation from Cameron’s colleagues.

The next day, President-elect Lincoln wrote to Cameron, promising to nominate him for either secretary of war or the treasury. However, Cameron’s political enemy, A.K. McClure, met with Lincoln at Springfield and revealed documentation showing that Cameron’s moral deficiencies made him unfit for a cabinet post.

Lincoln conferred with Cameron again in Springfield on the 30th. Cameron alleged that Lincoln’s campaign managers had assured him control of the treasury, but critics objected to Lincoln putting such a corrupt man in that post. Cameron had been nicknamed “Winnebago Chief” for allegedly swindling Native Americans years ago, and opponents called him “a man destitute of honor and integrity.” Criticism prompted Lincoln to drop Cameron from consideration, but Cameron’s backers continued pushing to get him into the cabinet.



  • Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 5491, 5525-35, 5557-68
  • Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 4-6
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 9-11, 14, 17
  • McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 246-49, 259-60


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