What Lincoln Could Teach The New York Times

(September 7, 2018) Two days ago the The New York Times published an Op-Ed critical of President Trump, authored by an anonymous White House insider. The source portrayed herself as a political elite and courageous whistle-blower who put the interests of the country ahead of her loyalty to the President. Yesterday The Times elaborated that the newspaper has previously published anonymous articles when identity disclosure might put the author in danger. But that’s hardly an excuse this time because the applicable source is in no physical danger. To be sure, she would likely only lose her job, but all appointments within a presidential administration are temporary.

History reveals that the Republican Party elite had a similar reaction after Abraham Lincoln was elected President in November 1860. In fact, Lincoln was not the frontrunner at the Party’s May 1860 nominating convention. Alongside such prominent Republicans as William H. Seward of New York, Salmon P. Chase of Ohio, Edward Bates of Missouri, and Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania, Lincoln was comparatively unknown. Initially most observers expected Senator Seward to win the nomination. He did, in fact, out-poll Lincoln on the first two ballots.

As a result, to appease Party leaders after the general elections President-elect Lincoln announced Seward as his choice for Secretary of State. Seward saw the new President as a well-meaning incompetent, a prairie lawyer fumbling toward disaster, and himself as the Administration’s one hope to forestall civil war. He believed that if he could reduce the section tension the neutral states would remain loyal, and in time even the seceded states would return to the fold. Therefore, he did not believe that the federal force at Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina should be reinforced or resupplied, since this would be the sort of incident likely to increase the tension to the snapping point.

In this he was initially supported by most of his fellow cabinet members, for when Lincoln polled them, they voted five-to-two to abandon the fort. Lincoln himself, in spite of his inaugural statement that he would “hold, occupy and possess the property and places belonging to the government,” seemed undecided or anyhow did not announce his decision. Seward believed he would come around in time, especially in the light of the odds among his counselors. Meanwhile he, Seward, would do what he could to spare the Southerners any additional provocation.

Three of them arrived in Washington from the Confederate capital at Montgomery, Alabama as commissioners to accomplish “the speedy adjustment of all questions growing out of separation, as the respective interests, geographical contiguity, and future welfare of the two nations may render necessary.” They had much to offer and much to ask. The Confederate Congress having opened the navigation of the lower Mississippi to the northern states, they expected to secure in return the evacuation of Sumter and forts in Florida.

Lincoln, however, would not see them. Being also an official person, Seward could not see them either, no matter how much good he thought would proceed from a face-to-face conciliatory talk. Yet he found a way at least to show them the extent to which he believed the government would go in proving it meant no harm in their direction.

On 15 March 1861, the day Lincoln first polled his cabinet for its views on Sumter, U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Campbell of Alabama, who had not yet gone South, came into Seward’s office to urge him to receive the Southern commissioners. The Secretary regretfully declined, then added: “If Jefferson Davis had known the state of things here, he would not have sent those commissioners. The evacuation of Sumter is as much as the Administration can bear.”

Justice Campbell was alert at once. Here was Seward, guaranteeing for the government, whose Secretary of State he was, the main concession the commissioners were seeking. To make this even more definite, Campbell remarked that he would write to Davis at once. “And what shall I say to him on the subject of Fort Sumter?”

“You may say to him that before that letter reaches him, the telegraph will have informed him that Sumter will have been evacuated.”

At the end of March, however, Lincoln’s cabinet was polled a second time and voted in favor of resupplying Fort Sumter.  Seward by now began to see that he might well have gone too far in his guarantees to the Confederate commissioners. When Justice Campbell returned on 1 April to ask why his promise of two weeks before had not been carried out, Seward replied with the straight-faced solemnity of a man delivering an April Fool pronouncement: “I am satisfied the government will not undertake to supply Fort Sumter without giving notice to [South Carolina] Governor Pickens.”

“What does this mean?” Campbell asked, taken aback. This was something quite different from the Secretary’s former assurances. “Does the President design to supply Sumter?”

“No, I think not,” Seward said. “It is a very irksome thing to him to surrender it. His ears are open to everyone, and they fill his head with schemes for its supply. I do not think he will adopt any of them. There is no design to reinforce it.”

Campbell reported these developments to the Confederate commissioners, who saw them in a clearer light than Seward himself had done. Restating them in sterner terms, the following day they telegraphed their government in Montgomery, Alabama: “The war wing presses on the President; he vibrates to that side. . . Their form of notice to us may be that of a coward, who gives it when he strikes.”

This, or something like this, was what followed; for though Lincoln himself had practiced no deception (at least not toward the Confederates) Seward’s well-meant misrepresentations had led exactly to that effect. By now Lincoln was ready. On 6 April he signed an order dispatching the naval expedition to Fort Sumter.

Yet Seward was still not quite through. The following day, when Justice Campbell asked him to confirm or deny rumors that such a fleet was about to sail, Seward replied by note: “Faith as to Sumter fully kept. Wait and see.” Campbell thought that this applied to the original guarantee, whereas Seward only meant to repeat that there would be no action without warning; and this, too, was taken for deception on the part of the Federal government. For on the day after that, 8 April, a Lincoln envoy notified Governor Pickens that a relief expedition was en route to Fort Sumter.

In sum, during the Sumter crisis Seward pretentiously assumed the role of the President Lincoln, which ultimately only made a bad situation worse.

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