By late December, President-elect Abraham Lincoln had all but abandoned his original policy of keeping quiet on the sectional crisis until his inauguration. Part of the reason for this was that influential people wanted to know what his policies would be, especially regarding the dispute between South Carolina and the Federals in Charleston Harbor. Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, general-in-chief of the U.S. Army, feared that President James Buchanan might surrender the forts in the harbor, so he went through Francis P. Blair, Sr., patriarch of the powerful Blair family, and Illinois Congressman Elihu B. Washburne, strong Lincoln ally, to see what Lincoln would do about it.
To Blair, Lincoln wrote: “Yours giving an account of an interview with Gen. Scott, is received, and for which I thank you. According to my present view, if the forts shall be given up before the inaugeration, the General must retake them afterwards.” Lincoln sent a similar response to Washburne: “Last night I received your letter giving an account of your interview with Gen. Scott, and for which I thank you. Please present my respects to the General, and tell him, confidentially, I shall be obliged to him to be as well prepared as he can to either hold, or retake, the forts, as the case may require, at and after the inaugeration.”
Lincoln put this more forcefully in a letter to Illinois Senator Lyman Trumbull:
“Despatches have come here two days in succession, that the Forts in South Carolina, will be surrendered by the order, or consent at least, of the President. I can scarcely believe this; but if it prove true I will, if our friends at Washington concur, announce publicly at once that they are to be retaken after the inaugeration. This will give the Union men a rallying cry, and preparation will proceed somewhat on their side as well as on the other.”
Lincoln privately told his secretary, John Nicolay, that if Buchanan gave up the forts, “they ought to hang him.”
The president-elect reiterated his position in more detail in a letter to James W. Webb:
“Yours kindly seeking my view as to the proper mode of dealing with secession was received several days ago, but, for want of time, I could not answer it till now. I think we should hold the forts, or retake them, as the case may be, and collect the revenue. We shall have to forego the use of the Federal courts, and they that of the mails, for a while. We cannot fight them into holding courts, or receiving the mails. This is an outline of my view; and perhaps suggests sufficiently, the whole of it.”
Meanwhile, Lincoln continued receiving the steady stream of visitors and well-wishers, including a St. Louis delegation that he hosted on Christmas Day. Prominent former Congressman David Wilmot checked into Springfield’s St. Nicholas Hotel and requested to meet with Lincoln “any hour of the day or evening that will suit your convenience.” Wilmot had been one of the founders of the Republican Party and author of the controversial Wilmot Proviso, which had stipulated that slavery should not be permitted on any land obtained during the Mexican War (it failed to pass).
Lincoln had a five-hour meeting with Wilmot, during which the former congressman was “the recipient of the flattering offer of a place among Mr. Lincoln’s Constitutional advisors.” Also present was Lincoln’s old friend Edward D. Baker. Baker had been involved in Illinois politics with Lincoln before moving out west and becoming a U.S. senator for the new state of Oregon. The Lincolns thought so much of Baker that they named one of their sons after him (he died at age three). Even so, Baker was not considered for a cabinet post because Lincoln thought he would be more effective as a political ally in the Senate.
Turning back to potential cabinet members, Lincoln asked his vice president-elect, Hannibal Hamlin, to recommend someone who might be willing to serve from Hamlin’s native New England. Hamlin wrote, “In reply to your enquiry, I have no hesitation in saying, that in my judgment, Mr. Wells (sic) is the better man for New England, and I feel confident it will give better satisfaction that either of the others named—That is my opinion.”
Hamlin’s recommendation was Gideon Welles, a former Democrat from Connecticut who had joined the Republicans over the slavery issue. Welles had founded a pro-Republican newspaper, the Hartford Evening Press, and he had strongly supported Lincoln in the presidential election. Welles’s experience as chief of the Bureau of Provisions and Clothing for the Navy made him a possible choice for navy secretary.
Near month’s end, “after due reflection and with much self-distrust,” Senator William H. Seward of New York formally accepted Lincoln’s offer to become secretary of state. Seward had been the Republican favorite for president before Lincoln won the nomination, and some thought that Lincoln would be reluctant to bring such a powerful rival with so many political enemies into his cabinet. For his part, Seward thought little of Lincoln; he took the job mainly because he thought Lincoln was “incompetent,” especially on foreign affairs, and he would need an experienced politician such as Seward to be his de facto “prime minister.”
Next came the dilemma surrounding Pennsylvania Senator Simon Cameron. Lincoln’s handlers had promised Cameron a cabinet post for his support in securing Lincoln’s nomination, and Cameron fully expected to be given one. Lincoln needed a Pennsylvanian among his top advisors, but he was troubled by the many allegations of Cameron’s corruption. Cameron had been nicknamed “Winnebago Chief” for allegedly swindling Native Americans years ago, and opponents called him “a man destitute of honor and integrity.” Nevertheless, Lincoln’s ally Leonard Swett secretly persuaded Cameron to come to Springfield and meet with Lincoln.
Cameron checked into Springfield’s Chenery House with his attorney, or “side-door man” as critics called him, John P. Sanderson, and sent Lincoln a message: “Shall I have the honor of waiting on you,–or will you do me the favor to call here?” Lincoln asked Cameron to come to his house, and he invited Edward Bates of Missouri to join them as well. Lincoln had previously offered Bates the attorney generalship after explaining he could not offer the secretary of state post because it had been promised to Seward.
The three men met at 8:30 p.m. on the 30th. Lincoln told Bates that Seward had accepted his offer, and Bates replied that was “unfortunate” because it “will complicate Mr. L’s difficulties” with Seward’s bitter enemies in the South. Bates offered to withdraw his name from consideration, in fact it “would be a relief rather than a disappointment.” Lincoln refused but said that if Bates wanted to be in the cabinet, he would have to take the attorney general slot: “I cant do better than that. State cant be pulled up.”
As for Cameron, Lincoln wrote out a list of pros and cons regarding Cameron, and the next day he handed the Pennsylvanian a letter before he left town: “I think it fit to notify you now, that by your permission, I shall, at the proper time, nominate you to the U.S. Senate, for confirmation as Secretary of the Treasury, or as Secretary of War—which of the two, I have not yet definitely decided. Please answer at your own earliest convenience.”
As the year ended, Lincoln extended an invitation to one more candidate for the cabinet, Governor Salmon P. Chase of Ohio. Chase led the Liberty Party in his home state and helped form the Republican Party in the 1850s. He, along with Seward, Bates, and Cameron, had been among Lincoln’s rivals for the Republican presidential nomination. Lincoln wrote, “My dear Sir—In these troublous times, I would like a conference with you. Please visit me here at once.” The two men would meet next month.
- Catton, Bruce and Long, E.B. (ed.), The Coming Fury. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. (Kindle Edition), 1961.
- 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.