President-elect Abraham Lincoln spent much of the beginning of March finalizing his cabinet choices before his inauguration on the 4th. According to the Washington Evening Star: “The struggle for Cabinet portfolios waxes warmer hourly.” Lincoln had already made William H. Seward his secretary of state and Edward Bates of Missouri his attorney general. He had not announced any further picks yet, but he privately intended to appoint Gideon Welles of Connecticut as navy secretary, Caleb B. Smith of Indiana as his interior secretary, and Montgomery Blair as his postmaster general. This left two final positions: secretaries of the treasury and war.
Simon Cameron, political boss of Pennsylvania, had his handlers lobbying hard to get him the Treasury Department slot. Lincoln had been reluctant to appoint him because his political enemies alleged that he was scandalously corrupt. Cameron and Lincoln met at Willard’s Hotel to discuss the matter further, and Lincoln finally agreed to appoint him, not to Treasury, but to the War Department. Cameron’s enemies withdrew their objections to him at the last minute, thus making Lincoln’s decision easier. He needed a Pennsylvanian in his cabinet, and now he had one.
For Treasury, Lincoln turned to former Ohio Governor Salmon P. Chase. Chase belonged to the “iron-back” faction of the Republican Party that refused any concessions to bring the southern states back into the Union. Chase had coined a motto: “Inauguration first—adjustment afterwards.” This unwillingness to negotiate offended some in Lincoln’s cabinet, most importantly Seward. The fact that Chase and Seward had been bitter rivals in the past did not help matters either.
Seward threatened to upend Lincoln’s entire cabinet selection process by submitting his resignation on the 2nd. Despite Lincoln’s kindness toward him, Seward wrote: “Circumstances which have occurred since I expressed… my willingness to accept the office of Secretary of State seem to me to render it my duty to ask leave to withdraw that consent.”
Lincoln saw Seward’s request as a ploy to get him to oust Chase, and told his secretaries, “I can’t afford to let Seward take the first trick.” When Seward’s New York backers came to Willard’s to demand that Lincoln remove Chase, Lincoln told them he intended to take Seward out of his cabinet and make him minister to Great Britain instead. Sure enough, Seward withdrew his resignation, ostensibly so he could serve as a counterbalance to Chase’s influence over Lincoln.
Lincoln chose no southerners for his cabinet, mainly because he could not find one willing to serve in a Republican administration. But Lincoln did choose two men–Blair and Bates–from border states that had not yet seceded. Seward, Cameron, Chase, and Bates had sought the presidential nomination that Lincoln won. Most cabinet members had more executive experience than Lincoln, and several privately believed that they could do a better job than Lincoln. Thus, Lincoln would enter office under heavy scrutiny from not only the press and the public, but from his own cabinet as well.
Besides filling his cabinet, the president-elect spent much time finalizing his inaugural address. Seward had helped him with it more than any other cabinet member, and he was most responsible for Lincoln making it more conciliatory toward the South. Even during the time that Seward had supposedly resigned from Lincoln’s cabinet, he consulted with the president-elect in making last-minute adjustments to the text. Seward expressed confidence that the address would “give general satisfaction.”
Meanwhile, travelers streamed into Washington by the thousands to witness the inaugural ceremony. A guest at Willard’s Hotel wrote on the 2nd: “Mr. Willard told me today that he had 1,500 guests booked. I asked him how many rooms he had in the house. He answered, about five hundred. Thus you see he averages three to a room, which is just the number I have in my room—a gent. from Jamestown, N.Y., one from Fort Wayne, Ind., and myself.” Another visitor wrote: “The numbers here since the arrival of Mr. Lincoln is unprecedented. The avenues and passages in Willards Hotel are so crowded that it is difficult to enter.”
As the capital filled with visitors, more people began expressing concern that there could be violence or even an assassination attempt at Lincoln’s inauguration. This did not seem to bother the president-elect, who rode conspicuously through Washington in a maroon carriage provided to him by New York manufacturers and valued at $1,600. Nevertheless, Brevet Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, general-in-chief of the U.S. Army, arranged for Federal troops to be on guard for any attempt to disrupt the proceedings.
Scott also consulted with Seward on the secession crisis. Scott wrote him that once Lincoln became president, he could follow one of four courses:
- Support one of the compromise measures that had been rejected by Congress, “& my life upon it, we shall have no more secession.” Without such a concession, the remaining slave states still in the Union “will, probably, join the Montgomery confederacy in less than sixty days.” But this would make the incoming administration look weak because it meant Lincoln would have to turn around and support concessions he had consistently opposed in the past.
- Continue collecting tariffs at southern ports, and if the southern states refused to give them up, blockade the ports until the southern economy dissolved to the point that they would come back into the Union.
- Raise armies to invade and conquer the South. Scott estimated that it would take 300,000 men and up to three years to do this. The result would be “fifteen devastated provinces—not to be brought into harmony with their conquerors; but to be held, for generations, by heavy garrisons.”
- “Say to the seceded States—wayward sisters, depart in peace!”
Lincoln would have to decide which course to take once he became president.
- 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.
- Sears, Stephen W., Lincoln’s Lieutenants: The High Command of the Army of the Potomac. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books, (Kindle Edition), 2017.