For President-elect Abraham Lincoln, part of the process of selecting cabinet members involved the touchy subject of whether southerners should be considered. Lincoln initially thought that the South should have representation, but as the secession movement gained momentum, it was becoming clear that no southerner would want to serve in his administration. This posed such a dilemma that Lincoln decided to submit an editorial to Springfield’s pro-Republican newspaper.
Writing in third person, Lincoln rhetorically asked what it would take for “two or three Southern gentlemen, from the parties opposed to him politically,” to come into his cabinet. Then came the quandary: “Does he surrender to Mr. Lincoln, or Mr. Lincoln to him, on the political difference between them? Or do they enter upon the administration in open opposition to each other?” Other newspapers soon picked up the editorial, and based on northern feedback, Lincoln quietly began edging away from the idea of giving a southerner a cabinet post.
But Lincoln did not rule out Republicans from border states. He met with Congressman Francis P. Blair, Jr., who hailed from Missouri. Blair belonged to one of the most politically influential families in the country; his father had advised President Andrew Jackson but then split with the Democratic Party on the slavery question. Blair made it clear that his family wanted to be part of the new administration, and Lincoln looked to bring Frank’s brother Montgomery into the cabinet. Lincoln wrote to Lyman Trumbull, his “mouthpiece” in the Senate, “I expect to be able to offer Mr. (Montgomery) Blair a place in the cabinet; but I can not, as yet, be committed on the matter, to any extent whatever.”
Also visiting Springfield was Missourian Edward Bates. Like Lincoln, Bates had joined the Republican Party after the Whigs disbanded. Bates had also been one of Lincoln’s rivals for the Republican presidential nomination. Lincoln’s secretary John Nicolay recognized Bates one morning having breakfast at the Chenery House and noted, “He is not of impressive exterior. His hair is gray, his beard quite white, and his face shows all the marks of age quite strongly.” Bates met with Lincoln at the State Capitol and offered “profuse civilities and apologies” for arriving an hour before the 10 a.m. starting time for visitors. The men then scheduled a meeting for noon and had a “very cordial” discussion.
Lincoln told Bates that he was no longer burdened with having to “act with caution,” and could therefore offer him a position in the cabinet. According to Lincoln, Bates’s presence in the administration would be “necessary to its complete success.” Lincoln explained that he had already offered the secretary of state job to William H. Seward, and he did not want to insult Bates by offering “one of the drudgery offices.” He therefore asked Bates to be his attorney general, a job “which he was certainly in every way qualified.”
The president-elect then confided in Bates that Seward’s appointment was a tough one because Seward had made many enemies among southerners, and having him in such a high position in the administration could make “conciliation impossible, because they consider Mr. S. the embodiment of all that they hold odious in the Republican party.” However, Seward held such great influence in the party that it would “rupture” if he was not in the cabinet, even if it would “weaken the administration.”
Bates interpreted this to mean that if Lincoln hadn’t been obligated to give Seward the State Department, he would have offered it to Bates. The Missourian stated, “I am the only man that he desired in the Cabinet, to whom he has yet spoken (or)… written a word, about their own appointment(s).” Bates declared that he “accepted his invitation,” as a “matter of duty.” Lincoln did not tell Bates that he had asked Seward’s political benefactor, Thurlow Weed, to come to Springfield to shore up Seward’s appointment.
After Bates returned to Missouri, he assured Lincoln that he was “fully committed to the work” that would come with the attorney generalship. Bates added that “a good effect might be produced on the public mind—especially in the border Slave States—by letting the people know (substantially) the relations which now subsist between us.”
Lincoln agreed to do this, but indirectly: “Let a little editorial appear in the Missouri Democrat, in about these words. ‘We have the permission of both Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Bates to say that the latter will be offered, and will accept, a place in the new Cabinet, subject of course to the action of the Senate. It is not definitely settled which Department will be assigned to Mr. Bates.’” The pro-Republican Missouri Democrat quickly ran a story headlined, “A Cabinet Appointment—Missouri First on the List.” The newspaper opined that Bates’s appointment would be a triumph of both “conservatism and union.”
For other slots, Lincoln asked if Nathaniel P. Banks would be interested. Banks was a former Democrat and member of the anti-immigrant Know-Nothing movement. The Know-Nothings joined forces with the Republicans in the mid-1850s, and they got Banks elected to Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Banks joined the Republican Party shortly thereafter and became the governor of Massachusetts. A minority of Republicans backed him for the presidential nomination earlier in the year.
The president-elect also considered Pennsylvania Senator Simon Cameron. Like Banks, Cameron had gone from Democrat to Know-Nothing to Republican in the 1850s. Cameron’s delegates had been crucial in securing Lincoln’s nomination, and Pennsylvania had been crucial in securing Lincoln’s election. Although Lincoln had told his managers not to make any deals without his consent, they quietly assured Cameron that he would be offered a cabinet post.
Lincoln thought that Cameron might head the Treasury department, and he got a letter from a group of Pennsylvania congressmen extolling “the fitness of Hon. Simon Cameron for this distinguished, honorable and influential position.” However, Cameron’s enemies pointed out that there were numerous allegations against Cameron for corruption and mismanagement which should disqualify him from any position in the new administration. Lincoln received an anonymous letter indirectly referring to Cameron: “Do not be persuaded to give dishonest Ungodly Men eny (sic) office whatever.”
- Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, (Kindle Edition), 2011.
- Holzer, Harold, Lincoln President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter of 1860-1861. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, Reprint Edition, 2008.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- 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.