An Interview with Harold Holzer, Author of Lincoln: President-Elect

An Interview with Harold Holzer, Author of Lincoln: President-Elect

Sara Gabbard:  As we face a new presidency in the United States, it seems an appropriate time to discuss your 2009 book, which focuses on the time between Abraham Lincoln’s election in November 1860 and his inauguration on March 4, 1861.  First of all, did he establish some sort of “transition office” in Springfield?


Harold Holzer:  He not only established a transition office—he had to establish two of them, because the original office had to be abandoned after a few weeks. From the time of his nomination in May 1860, Lincoln and his private secretary, John Nicolay, had occupied the two-room Governor’s suite on the second floor of the Illinois State Capitol building in downtown Springfield—just across the square from Lincoln’s law office, as it happened. The suite featured a reception room as well as a private office, so Lincoln was able to greet visitors in one space, and focus on correspondence in the other. After the election, Governor John Wood—a fellow Republican who was too ill to make use of the space himself—invited Lincoln to continue using the suite as his transition space. There, the visitors began to include office-seekers, important politicians auditioning for influence, admirers bearing gifts, artists painting his portrait, and embedded journalists covering the transition. But by the end of the year, you might say, the lease ended.  The State Legislature was scheduled to go back into session on January 7, and a healthy new Illinois Governor, Richard Yates, was to take over a week later, and Yates intended to lay claim to his assigned space.  So Lincoln was obliged to vacate the suite and find an office elsewhere. For the rest of the transition, he occupied a hastily re-decorated, 20-foot-square space in the nondescript Johnson Building near the Springfield public square. We seldom hear about that second, less ornate transition office, but Lincoln spent more than five weeks there—a third of the entire transition. After January, we begin to see stories about his calling on his visitors at their hotels, like the Chenery House across the street. He poses for a sculpture at the nearby St. Nicholas Hotel. He writes his inaugural address in a storeroom above his brother-in-law’s nearby store. What are we to make of this? Well, I suspect he wasn’t crazy about his second transition office, maybe even a bit embarrassed about it. Aside from reduced splendor, it offered reduced privacy, too.

SG:  Please describe the process during which Lincoln chose his Cabinet.   Did he rely on particular individuals for advice in the matter?  Did potential Cabinet officers lobby for positions?

HH:  His process was both private and public, in this regard, at least, very much like a modern transition: full of feelers, background discussions, lobbying, and calculated leaks to the press. The New York Herald reported “a thousand conflicting rumors.” For sure, Lincoln had his share of advisors on the subject, but as usual, kept most matters to himself. On the private side, Lincoln corresponded confidentially with Georgia Congressman Alexander H. Stephens, whom he had known years earlier as a fellow Whig serving in the House of Representatives.  From their letters we can infer that for a time, Lincoln considered adding an additional Southerner to his Cabinet as a way of halting the momentum for secession, and even reversing it.  Meanwhile, in full view, he welcomed Edward Bates and Salmon Chase to Springfield, both of them Cabinet aspirants, and made sure to be seen in public with them. The press also reported that he met with Republican kingmaker (and William Seward confidant) Thurlow Weed. I was particularly fascinated with the way Lincoln also boldly, if anonymously, used the power of the press to squelch his own idea about increasing the Southern representation in the Cabinet. After floating the notion himself, and perhaps offering a job to his best friend, Joshua Speed of Kentucky, he wrote an editorial for December publication in the Republican Illinois State Journal—unsigned, of course—dismissing the very notion. Now we have Lincoln asking: would a Southern Cabinet officer “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?”  Talk about puncturing a trial balloon! Above all, Lincoln anguished over his political obligation to Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania, who wanted to be Treasury Secretary, but was dogged by rumors of corruption.  Lincoln wrote tortured memos to himself about the pros and cons regarding Cameron before finally offering him the War Department instead. When thinking about how Lincoln ultimately built out his Cabinet, I come to the conclusion he was assembling more than a “team of rivals.” He was building a team of regions, hewing closely to protocols of the day by making sure all areas of the country that had voted for him, especially big states (New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania), were represented.  Then he included the Upper South, hoping its slave states would not follow South Carolina and six others into secession: Edward Bates of Missouri and Montgomery Blair of Maryland. Lincoln made sure to include ex-Democrats and ex-Whigs. It’s not how presidents approach Cabinet-building today; now they strive for ethnic and gender diversity.


SG:  Was Lincoln inundated with requests from people wishing to receive other federal appointments?  Were most of these people known to him in some way?  Were intermediaries frequently used?


HH:  For sure, many office-seekers were already well known to Lincoln. These included newspaper supporters who had backed him for years, politicians from neighboring Western states, and German-American leaders. But there were strangers, too, among those who lined up for the spoils, and quite a few got well-rewarded for their loyalty. I’ve read all the original sources—among them the on-the-scene reports of New York Herald correspondent Henry Villard, which attest sympathetically that the overburdened president-elect had to devote far too much of his time and energy to the flood of office-seekers. Well, I have a somewhat different take. Lincoln was slated to become the first-ever Republican president, and an essential part of his job was unmaking the entrenched, Democratic federal bureaucracy and rewarding members of his own party.  Howell Cobb of Georgia understood this “threat” from the start—nothing could protect the slaveocracy from “the patronage power of President Lincoln.” So let’s remember it was Lincoln’s obligation—and I suspect, his great pleasure—to practice the long-traditional, and politically essential task of patronage.  Time-consuming? Yes.  Essential? Absolutely. Of course, some would-be patronage dispensers were far too audacious. An Indiana politician put it rather colorfully when he observed of a visit to Springfield that everyone who “Hurra[h]s strong for Old Abe expects a teat at the crib.”

SG:  What was the role of James Buchanan during this period?  Did he offer any help at all?  Did he and the President-Elect have any contact?

HH:  Lincoln and Buchanan exchanged no meaningful communication during the transition. And while Lincoln hoped his predecessor’s final annual message to Congress in December 1860 would condemn secessionists and stress union-saving, the document disappointed the president-elect.  Lincoln was angry that while Buchanan condemned disunion, he claimed that Northern extremists had fomented it, and insisted he had no power to stop it. There was no tradition at the time that obligated outgoing presidents to brief their replacements before they took office. So when he arrived in Washington, Lincoln, accompanied by Seward, simply walked up to the White House, knocked on the door, and asked to be announced to Buchanan. I will say that Buchanan very generously invited Lincoln to head upstairs to his office, where a Cabinet meeting was in session, and he invited the new chief executive to sit in and observe.  It was probably a very useful experience; how else would Lincoln have known how to run Cabinet meetings of his own?  Mary Lincoln soon made her own way to the mansion, and called on the exiting White House hostess, the unmarried Buchanan’s niece, Harriet Lane, who ungenerously recalled that Mary seemed “awfully western, loud & unrefined.” On March 4, Buchanan arrived in his carriage to pick Lincoln up at his hotel for the drive to the Capitol for the inaugural. Reportedly, Buchanan said something like, “My dear sir, if you are as happy in entering the White House as I feel in leaving it, you are a happy man indeed.” Lincoln replied that he hoped he would “maintain the high standards set by my illustrious predecessors”—plural.  Not the friendliest of replies, but considering that a Doughface Democrat was yielding to an anti-slavery Republican, let us praise both men for getting through inauguration day with dignity and honor intact—despite the looming threat of disruption and violence. To his credit, Buchanan never thought of skipping the inauguration.

SG:  During the transition period, did Lincoln make any public statements about policies he planned to pursue? 

HH: He tried his best not to do so. He vowed to say nothing that might either coerce or conciliate the secessionists. So he practiced a policy described at the time as “Masterly Inactivity.” Even when influential editors called on Lincoln to restate his pledge not to interfere with slavery where it already existed—as he had stated at Cooper Union a year earlier—Lincoln declined. He urged such correspondents to study and rely on what he had previously said and written. To say anything further, he told one journalist, would not only be cowardly, but would encourage further questions. Reportedly, when visitors to his transition offices asked him for clarification on one policy point or another, Lincoln would present them with copies of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, whose publication in book form he had arranged. Lincoln even held his silence when a bevy of elder statesmen gathered in Washington for a so-called “Peace Convention,” determined to forge compromises that would bind Lincoln’s hands before he got to the capital. Later, during his trip east to his inauguration, he did begin speaking out, but mostly to express his faith in majority rule and Union. When he tried saying, at one stop, that there was no crisis that should worry anyone, he quickly got hammered by the pro-Democratic press. So except for a banal speech on tariffs in Pennsylvania—hardly newsworthy at the time, but reassuring to the Republican base—he steered clear of discussing evolving events.  Meanwhile he was privately advising—maybe warning would be a better word—that his allies in Washington cede nothing on the issue of slavery expansion. “Hold fast,” he told one of them, “as with a chain of steel.” It must have been hard for such a gifted orator to remain silent for a year. Maybe that’s why he gave more than 100 talks and speeches during his inaugural journey, some of them, in Trenton and Philadelphia, quite extraordinarily beautiful.

 SG:  Did the national press assume a role during the transition period?

HH: I would say the newspapers continued in their longstanding roles as partisan advocates.  The press of the day remained strictly aligned with the political parties, so little that Lincoln said or did during the interregnum was cheered by Democratic editors, or criticized by Republican ones. Lincoln was of course accustomed to this disparity in coverage; he had faced it throughout his political career in Illinois. It was the norm. The one new role the Republican press assumed after Lincoln’s election was that of power broker. As mentioned, the editors of the two leading pro-Republican dailies from New York, the Times and the Tribune, lined up to secure political rewards for their friends. Henry Raymond and Horace Greeley each expected to be the chief patronage dispenser in the Empire State.  Greeley showed up in both Springfield and on Lincoln’s inaugural journey to press his case. I give some special credit to the anti-Lincoln editor James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald, himself a disappointed office-seeker during the Jacksonian era. Bennett sent correspondent Henry Villard to spend weeks in Springfield filing stories about the president-elect, and to journey with him toward Washington. Not one of Villard’s dispatches was politically biased; in fact, they represent the best account of the transition as it was occurring. For not interfering with these reports, Bennett deserves much praise.

SG:  Please describe the process during which Inauguration Day was eventually changed from March 4 to January 20.

HH: The four-month-long transition had been designed in the infancy of the Republic to accommodate the challenges of travel, not only for the incoming chief executive, but for the Congressmen who had to get to Washington to certify the electoral vote. Lincoln required “only” 13 days to travel from Springfield to Washington, still a long haul, to be sure, but he did make many stops along the way for speeches and receptions. The tradition was long overdue for modernization and reform—if anything, what Henry Adams called “The Great Secession Winter” of 1860-61 lasted too long, and encouraged too much mischief.  Yet not until 1932 was the 20th amendment (shifting the date) circulated to the states. It was ratified on January 23, 1933—ironically, just three days after Franklin D., Roosevelt would have been sworn in under the new rules (instead he had to wait until March 4, while the Depression worsened and the banking crisis almost ruined us). Not for four more years, in 1937, did FDR get to be the first president inaugurated on January 20.  After living through the 2020-2021 transition, which seemed endless yet saw so little cooperation between outgoing and incoming administrations, we may want to consider shortening the interregnum even further.  Maybe something closer to the British system, under which a new prime minister is chosen and the old one vacates 10 Downing Street within hours! Well, not really, but I wonder whether we shouldn’t swear in our new presidents right after Congress reconvenes—say the first few days of the year?


SG:  Please comment on Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address. What was his goal? Did he solicit help when he wrote it? Did he comment on its reception later?


HH: I’ve long argued that the First Inaugural deserves to be ranked as one of Lincoln’s all-time greatest speeches, and, along with his own second and John Kennedy’s one and only, as one of the greatest inaugural addresses ever delivered. Think of the pressure and suspense: Lincoln had said nothing new on policy issues for a full year (ever since Cooper Union). Seven states had now seceded. A new, rogue nation had been organized, and an alternate President sworn in. No president ever faced such a momentous crisis. Lincoln desperately needed to calm extremists on both sides—abolitionists as well as secessionists—to show he represented no real threat to slaveholders while reaffirming his insistence that slavery could not spread; to promise he would not menace the South militarily, but wouldn’t abandon federal installations there, either; that husbands and wives could be divorced, but not states, not within a union that was even older than the Constitution. Talk about threading the needle! Lincoln drafted the speech entirely on his own, then had his manuscript set in type at the Illinois Journal, so he could carry copies with him on his journey to Washington. And once underway, he started showing the draft to others, soliciting advice. I am convinced he even shared it with his lifetime rival, Stephen A. Douglas, once he arrived in Washington. But most memorably, he invited input from Secretary of State-designate William Seward, who made dozens of suggestions in red pen, almost all of them calculated to tone down any hints of bellicosity. Lincoln made nearly all the alternations Seward suggested, most famously adopting the New Yorker’s proposal for an inspiring finish. Lincoln had planned to end his speech by darkly warning: “With you, and not with me, is the solemn question of ‘Shall it be peace or a sword?’” Seward suggested something clever but cumbersome about relying instead on “the better angels of the nation.” As we know, Lincoln massaged that suggestion into “the better angels of our nature,” showing he was not only a great writer, but a great editor; not only a master of prose, but of prose so sublime it approached poetry. Predictably, reaction to the speech broke along party lines. Senator Charles Sumner detected “a hand of iron in a velvet glove.” But a Democratic paper in South Carolina denounced it as an example of “impotence and perversity of thought.” And Frederick Douglass lambasted Lincoln for including a “revolting” vow to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act. No one was completely satisfied, though I suspect Lincoln thought he’d done all he could—we don’t know for sure; he left no self-assessment, as he did for the second inaugural four years later. But the New York Times reported that his final passage had “broke the watering pot”—made people cry—and I suspect Lincoln was very pleased. That ending is still being quoted today by people on both sides of the party divide. They’re right: we must not be enemies. But I would recommend that partisans of all stripes pay attention as well to one of the greatest, but most neglected, passages in the speech: “Why should there not be a patient confidence in the ultimate justice of the people? Is there any better, or equal, hope in the world?”


Harold Holzer is the Jonathan F. Fanton Director of Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College.