Lincoln's Personal Life by Nathaniel Wright Stephenson - HTML preview

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President And Premier


The brilliant Secretary, who so promptly began to influence the President had very sure foundations for that influence. He was inured to the role of great man; he had a rich experience of public life; while Lincoln, painfully conscious of his inexperience, was perhaps the humblest-minded ruler that ever took the helm of a ship of state in perilous times. Furthermore, Seward had some priceless qualities which, for Lincoln, were still to seek. First of all, he had audacity--personally, artistically, politically. Seward's instantaneous gift to Lincoln was by way of throwing wide the door of his gathering literary audacity. There is every reason to think that Seward's personal audacity went to Lincoln's heart at once. To be sure, he was not yet capable of going along with it. The basal contrast of the first month of his administration lies between the President's caution and the boldness of the Secretary. Nevertheless, to a sensitive mind, seeking guidance, surrounded by less original types of politicians, the splendid fearlessness of Seward, whether wise or foolish, must have rung like a trumpet peal soaring over the heads of a crowd whose teeth were chattering. While the rest of the Cabinet pressed their ears to the ground, Seward thought out a policy, made a forecast of the future, and offered to stake his head on the correctness of his reasoning. This may have been rashness; it may have been folly; but, intellectually at least, it was valor. Among Lincoln's other advisers, valor at that moment was lacking. Contrast, however, was not the sole, nor the surest basis of Seward's appeal to Lincoln. Their characters had a common factor. For all their immeasurable difference in externals, both at bottom were void of malice. It was this characteristic above all others that gave them spiritually common ground. In Seward, this quality had been under fire for a long while. The political furies of "that iron time" had failed to rouse echoes in his serene and smiling soul. Therefore, many men who accepted him as leader because, indeed, they could not do without him--because none other in their camp had his genius for management, for the glorification of political intrigue--these same men followed him doubtfully, with bad grace, willing to shift to some other leader whenever he might arise. The clue to their distrust was Seward's amusement at the furious. Could a man who laughed when you preached on the beauty of the hewing of Agag, could such a man be sincere? And that Seward in some respects was not sincere, history generally admits. He loved to poke fun at his opponents by appearing to sneer at himself, by ridiculing the idea that he was ever serious. His scale of political values was different from that of most of his followers. Nineteen times out of twenty, he would treat what they termed "principles" as mere political counters, as legitimate subjects of bargain. If by any deal he could trade off any or all of these nineteen in order to secure the twentieth, which for him was the only vital one, he never scrupled to do so. Against a lurid background of political ferocity, this amused, ironic figure came to be rated by the extremists, both in his own and in the enemy camp as Mephistopheles.

No quality could have endeared him more certainly to Lincoln than the very one which the bigots misunderstood. From his earliest youth Lincoln had been governed by this same quality. With his non-censorious mind, which accepted so much of life as he found it, which was forever stripping principles of their accretions, what could be more inevitable than his warming to the one great man at Washington who like him held that such a point of view was the only rational one. Seward's ironic peacefulness in the midst of the storm gained in luster because all about him raged a tempest of ferocity, mitigated, at least so far as the distracted President could see, only by self-interest or pacifism. As Lincoln came into office, he could see and hear many signs of a rising fierceness of sectional hatred. His secretary records with disgust a proposal to conquer the Gulf States, expel their white population, and reduce the region to a gigantic state preserve, where negroes should grow cotton under national supervision.[1] "We of the North," said Senator Baker of Oregon, "are a majority of the Union, and we will govern our Union in our own way."[2] At the other extreme was the hysterical pacifism of the Abolitionists. Part of Lincoln's abiding quarrel with the Abolitionists was their lack of national feeling. Their peculiar form of introspection had injected into politics the idea of personal sin. Their personal responsibility for slavery--they being part of a country that tolerated it-was their basal inspiration. Consequently, the most distinctive Abolitionists welcomed this opportunity to cast off their responsibility. If war had been proposed as a crusade to abolish slavery, their attitude might have been different But in March, 1860, no one but the few ultra-extremists, whom scarcely anybody heeded, dreamed of such a war. A war to restore the Union was the only sort that was considered seriously. Such a war, the Abolitionists bitterly condemned. They seized upon pacifism as their defense. Said Whittier of the Seceding States:

They break the links of Union: shall we light

The fires of hell to weld anew the chain,

On that red anvil where each blow is pain?

The fury and the fear offended Lincoln in equal measure. After long years opposing the political temper of the extremists, he was not the man now to change front. To one who believed himself marked out for a tragic end, the cowardice at the heart of the pacifism of his time was revolting. It was fortunate for his own peace of mind that he could here count on the Secretary of State. No argument based on fear of pain would meet in Seward with anything but derision. "They tell us," he had once said, and the words expressed his constant attitude, "that we are to encounter opposition. Why, bless my soul, did anybody ever expect to reach a fortune, or fame, or happiness on earth or a crown in heaven, without encountering resistance and opposition? What are we made men for but to encounter and overcome opposition arrayed against us in the line of our duty?"[3]

But if the ferocity and the cowardice were offensive and disheartening, there was something else that was beneath contempt. Never was self-interest more shockingly displayed. It was revealed in many ways, but impinged upon the new President in only one. A horde of officeseekers besieged him in the White House. The parallel to this amazing picture can hardly be found in history. It was taken for granted that the new party would make a clean sweep of the whole civil list, that every government employee down to the humblest messenger boy too young to have political ideas was to bear the label of the victorious party. Every Congressman who had made promises to his constituents, every politician of every grade who thought he had the party in his debt, every adventurer who on any pretext could make a showing of party service rendered, poured into Washington. It was a motley horde.

 "Hark, hark, the dogs do bark, The beggars are coming to town."

They converted the White House into a leaguer. They swarmed into the corridors and even the private passages. So dense was the swarm that it was difficult to make one's way either in or out. Lincoln described himself by the image of a man renting rooms at one end of his house while the other end was on fire.[4] And all this while the existence of the Republic was at stake! It did not occur to him that it was safe to defy the horde, to send it about its business. Here again, the figure of Seward stood out in brilliant light against the somber background. One of Seward's faculties was his power to form devoted lieutenants. He had that sure and nimble judgment which enables some men to inspire their lieutenants rather than categorically to instruct them. All the sordid side of his political games he managed in this way. He did not appear himself as the bargainer. In the shameful eagerness of most of the politicians to find offices for their retainers, Seward was conspicuous by contrast. Even the Cabinet was not free from this vice of catering to the thirsty horde.[5] Alone, at this juncture, Seward detached himself from the petty affairs of the hour and gave his whole attention to statecraft.

He had a definite policy. Another point of contact with Lincoln was the attitude of both toward the Union, supplemented as it was by their views of the place of slavery in the problem they confronted. Both were nationalists ready to make any sacrifices for the national idea. Both regarded slavery as an issue of second importance. Both were prepared for great concessions if convinced that, ultimately, their concessions would strengthen the trend of American life toward a general exaltation of nationality.

 On the other hand, their differences--

Seward approached the problem in the same temper, with the same assumptions, that were his in the previous December. He still believed that his main purpose was to enable a group of politicians to save their faces by effecting a strategic retreat. Imputing to the Southern leaders an attitude of pure self-interest, he believed that if allowed to play the game as they desired, they would mark time until circumstances revealed to them whether there was more profit for them in the Union or out; he also believed that if sufficient time could be given, and if no armed clash took place, it would be demonstrated first, that they did not have so strong a hold on the South as they had thought they had; and second, that on the whole, it was to their interests to patch up the quarrel and come back into the Union. But he also saw that they had a serious problem of leadership, which, if rudely handled, might make it impossible for them to stand still. They had inflamed the sentiment of state-patriotism. In South Carolina, particularly, the popular demand was for independence. With this went the demand that Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, garrisoned by Federal troops, should be surrendered, or if not surrendered, taken forcibly from the United States. A few cannon shots at Sumter would mean war. An article in Seward's creed of statecraft asserted that the populace will always go wild over a war. To prevent a war fever in the North was the first condition of his policy at home. Therefore, in order to prevent it, the first step in saving his enemies' faces was to safeguard them against the same danger in their own calm. He must help them to prevent a war fever in the South. He saw but one way to do this. The conclusion which became the bed rock of his policy was inevitable. Sumter must be evacuated.

Even before the inauguration, he had broached this idea to Lincoln. He had tried to keep Lincoln from inserting in the inaugural the words, "The power confided to me will be used to hold, occupy and possess the property and places belonging to the government." He had proposed instead, "The power confided in me shall be used indeed with efficacy, but also with discretion, in every case and exigency, according to the circumstances actually existing, and with a view and a hope of a peaceful solution of the national troubles, and the restoration of fraternal sympathies and affections."[6] With the rejection of Seward's proffered revision, a difference between them in policy began to develop. Lincoln, says one of his secretaries, accepted Seward's main purpose but did not share his "optimism."[7] It would be truer to say that in this stage of his development, he was lacking in audacity. In his eager search for advice, he had to strike a balance between the daring Seward who at this moment built entirely on his own power of political devination, and the cautious remainder of the Cabinet who had their ears to the ground trying their best to catch the note of authority in the rumblings of vox populi. For his own part, Lincoln began with two resolves: to go very cautiously,--and not give something for nothing. Far from him, as yet, was that plunging mood which in Seward pushed audacity to the verge of a gamble. However, just previous to the inauguration, he took a cautious step in Seward's direction. Virginia, like all the other States of the upper South, was torn by the question which side to take. There was a "Union" party in Virginia, and a "Secession" party. A committee of leading Unionists conferred with Lincoln. They saw the immediate problem very much as Seward did. They believed that if time were allowed, the crisis could be tided over and the Union restored; but the first breath of war would wreck their hopes. The condition of bringing about an adjustment was the evacuation of Sumter. Lincoln told them that if Virginia could be kept in the Union by the evacuation of Sumter, he would not hesitate to recall the garrison.[8] A few days later, despite what he had said in the inaugural, he repeated this offer. A convention was then sitting at Richmond in debate upon the relations of Virginia to the Union. If it would drop the matter and dissolve--so Lincoln told another committee--he would evacuate Sumter and trust the recovery of the lower South to negotiation.[9] No results, so far as is known, came of either of those offers.

During the first half of March, the Washington government marked time. The officeseekers continued to besiege the President. South Carolina continued to clamor for possession of Sumter. The Confederacy sent commissioners to Washington whom Lincoln refused to recognize. The Virginia Convention swayed this way and that.

Seward went serenely about his business, confident that everything was certain to come his way soon or late. He went so far as to advise an intermediary to tell the Confederate Commissioners that all they had to do to get possession of Sumter was to wait. The rest of the Cabinet pressed their ears more tightly than ever to the ground. The rumblings of vox populi were hard to interpret. The North appeared to be in two minds. This was revealed the day following the inauguration, when a Republican Club in New York held a high debate upon the condition of the country. One faction wanted Lincoln to declare for a war-policy; another wished the Club to content itself with a vote of confidence in the Administration. Each faction put its views into a resolution and as a happy device for maintaining harmony, both resolutions were passed.[10] The fragmentary, miscellaneous evidence of newspapers, political meetings, the talk of leaders, local elections, formed a confused clamor which each listener interpreted according to his predisposition. The members of the Cabinet in their relative isolation at Washington found it exceedingly difficult to make up their minds what the people were really saying. Of but one thing they were certain, and that was that they represented a minority party. Before committing themselves any way, it was life and death to know what portion of the North would stand by them.[11]

At this point began a perplexity that was to torment the President almost to the verge of distraction. How far could he trust his military advisers? Old General Scott was at the head of the army. He had once been a striking, if not a great figure. Should his military advice be accepted as final? Scott informed Lincoln that Sumter was short of food and that any attempt to relieve it would call for a much larger force than the government could muster. Scott urged him to withdraw the garrison. Lincoln submitted the matter to the Cabinet. He asked for their opinions in writing.[12] Five advised taking Scott at his word and giving up all thought of relieving Sumter. There were two dissenters. The Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon Portland Chase, struck the key-note of his later political career by an elaborate argument on expediency. If relieving Sumter would lead to civil war, Chase was not in favor of relief; but on the whole he did not think that civil war would result, and therefore, on the whole, he favored a relief expedition. One member of the Cabinet, Montgomery Blair, the Postmaster General, an impetuous, fierce man, was vehement for relief at all costs. Lincoln wanted to agree with Chase and Blair. He reasoned that if the fort was given up, the necessity under which it was done would not be fully understood; that by many it would be construed as part of a voluntary policy, that at home it would discourage the friends of the Union, embolden its adversaries, and go far to insure to the matter a recognition abroad.

Nevertheless, with the Cabinet five to two against him, with his military adviser against him, Lincoln put aside his own views. The government went on marking time and considering the credentials of applicants for country post-offices.

By this time, Lincoln had thrown off the overpowering gloom which possessed him in the latter days at Springfield. It is possible he had reacted to a mood in which there was something of levity. His oscillation of mood from a gloom that nothing penetrated to a sort of desperate mirth, has been noted by various observers. And in 1861 he had not reached his final poise, that firm holding of the middle way,---which afterward fused his moods and made of him, at least in action, a sustained personality.

About the middle of the month he had a famous interview with Colonel W. T. Sherman who had been President of the University of Louisiana and had recently resigned. Senator John Sherman called at the White House with regard to "some minor appointments in Ohio." The Colonel went with him. When Colonel Sherman spoke of the seriousness of the Secession movement, Lincoln replied, "Oh, we'll manage to keep house." The Colonel was so offended by what seemed to him the flippancy of the President that he abandoned his intention to resume the military life and withdrew from Washington in disgust.[13]

Not yet had Lincoln attained a true appreciation of the real difficulty before him. He had not got rid of the idea that a dispute over slavery had widened accidentally into a needless sectional quarrel, and that as soon as the South had time to think things over, it would see that it did not really want the quarrel. He had a queer idea that meanwhile he could hold a few points on the margin of the Seceded States, open custom houses on ships at the mouths of harbors, but leave vacant all Federal appointments within the Seceded States and ignore the absence of their representatives from Washington.[14] This marginal policy did not seem to him a policy of coercion; and though he was beginning to see that the situation from the Southern point of view turned on the right of a State to resist coercion, he was yet to learn that idealistic elements of emotion and of political dogma were the larger part of his difficulty.

Meanwhile, the upper South had been proclaiming its idealism. Its attitude was creating a problem for the lower South as well as for the North. The pro-slavery leaders had been startled out of a dream. The belief in a Southern economic solidarity so complete that the secession of any one Slave State would compel the secession of all the others, that belief had been proved fallacious. It had been made plain that on the economic issue, even as on the issue of sectional distrust, the upper South would not follow the lower South into secession. When delegates from the Georgia Secessionists visited the legislature of North Carolina, every courtesy was shown to them; the Speaker of the House assured them of North Carolina's sympathy and of her enduring friendliness; but he was careful not to suggest an intention to secede, unless (the condition that was destiny!) an attempt should be made to violate the sovereignty of the State by marching troops across her soil to attack the Confederates. Then, on the one issue of State sovereignty, North Carolina would leave the Union.[15] The Unionists in Virginia took similar ground. They wished to stay in the Union, and they were determined not to go out on the issue of slavery. Therefore they laid their heads together to get that issue out of the way. Their problem was to devise a compromise that would do three things: lay the Southern dread of an inundation of sectional Northern influence; silence the slave profiteers; meet the objections that had induced Lincoln to wreck the Crittenden Compromise. They felt that the first and second objectives would be reached easily enough by reviving the line of the Missouri Compromise. But something more was needed, or again, Lincoln would refuse to negotiate. They met their crucial difficulty by boldly appealing to the South to be satisfied with the conservation of its present life and renounce the dream of unlimited Southern expansion. Their Compromise proposed a death blow to the filibuster and all he stood for. It provided that no new territory other than naval stations should be acquired by the United States on either side the Missouri Line without consent of a majority of the Senators from the States on the opposite side of that line.[16]

As a solution of the sectional quarrel, to the extent that it had been definitely put into words, what could have been more astute? Lincoln himself had said in the inaugural, "One section of our country believes slavery is right and ought to be extended; while the other believes it is wrong and ought not to be extended. That is the only substantial dispute." In the same inaugural, he had pledged himself not to "interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it now exists;" and also had urged a vigorous enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law. He never had approved of any sort of emancipation other than purchase or the gradual operation of economic conditions. It was well known that slavery could flourish only on fresh land amid prodigal agricultural methods suited to the most ignorant labor. The Virginia Compromise, by giving to slavery a fixed area and abolishing its hopes of continual extensions into fresh land, was the virtual fulfillment of Lincoln's demand.

The failure of the Virginia Compromise is one more proof that a great deal of vital history never gets into words until after it is over. During the second half of March, Unionists and Secessionists in the Virginia Convention debated with deep emotion this searching new proposal. The Unionists had a fatal weakness in their position. This was the feature of the situation that had not hitherto been put into words. Lincoln had not been accurate when he said that the slavery question was "the only substantial dispute." He had taken for granted that the Southern opposition to nationalism was not a real thing,--a mere device of the politicians to work up excitement. All the compromises he was ready to offer were addressed to that part of the South which was seeking to make an issue on slavery. They had little meaning for that other and more numerous part in whose thinking slavery was an incident. For this other South, the ideas which Lincoln as late as the middle of March did not bring into play were the whole story. Lincoln, willing to give all sorts of guarantees for the noninterference with slavery, would not give a single guarantee supporting the idea of State sovereignty against the idea of the sovereign power of the national Union. The Virginians, willing to go great lengths in making concessions with regard to slavery, would not go one inch in the way of admitting that their State was not a sovereign power included in the American Union of its own free will, and not the legitimate subject of any sort of coercion.

The Virginia Compromise was really a profound new complication. The very care with which it divided the issue of nationality from the issue of slavery was a storm signal. For a thoroughgoing nationalist like Lincoln, deep perplexities lay hidden in this full disclosure of the issue that was vital to the moderate South. Lincoln's shifting of his mental ground, his perception that hitherto he had been oblivious of his most formidable opponent, the one with whom compromise was impossible, occurred in the second half of the month.

As always, Lincoln kept his own counsel upon the maturing of a purpose in his own mind. He listened to every adviser--opening his office doors without reserve to all sorts and conditions--and silently, anxiously, struggled with himself for a decision. He watched Virginia; he watched the North; he listened--and waited. General Scott continued hopeless, though minor military men gave encouragement. And whom should the President trust-the tired old General who disagreed with him, or the eager young men who held views he would like to hold? Many a time he was to ask himself that question during the years to come.

On March twenty-ninth, he again consulted the Cabinet.[17] A great deal of water had run under the mill since they gave their opinions on March sixteenth. The voice of the people was still a bewildering roar, but out of that roar most of the Cabinet seemed to hear definite words. They were convinced that the North was veering toward a warlike mood. The phrase "masterly inactivity," which had been applied to the government' s course admiringly a few weeks before, was now being applied satirically. Republican extremists were demanding action. A subtle barometer was the Secretary of the Treasury. Now, as on the sixteenth, he craftily said something without saying it. After juggling the word "if," he assumed his "if" to be a fact and concluded, "If war is to be the result, I perceive no reason why it may not best be begun in consequence of military resistance to the efforts of the Administration to sustain troops of the Union, stationed under authority of the government in a fort of the Union, in the ordinary course of service." This elaborate equivocation, which had all the force of an assertion, was Chase all over! Three other ministers agreed with him except that they did not equivocate. One evaded. Of all those who had stood with Seward on the sixteenth, only one was still in favor of evacuation. Seward stood fast. This reversal of the Cabinet's position, jumping as it did with Lincoln's desires, encouraged him to prepare for action. But just as he was about to act his diffidence asserted itself. He authorized the preparation of a relief expedition but withheld sailing orders until further notice.[18] Oh, for Seward's audacity; for the ability to do one thing or another and take the consequences!

Seward had not foreseen this turn of events. He had little respect for the rest of the Cabinet, and had still to discover that the President, for all his semblance of vacillation, was a great man. Seward was undeniably vain. That the President with such a Secretary of State should judge the strength of a Cabinet vote by counting noses--preposterous! But that was just what this curiously simple-minded President had done. If he went on in his weak, amiable way listening to the time-servers who were listening to the bigots, what would become of the country? And of the Secretary of State and his deep policies? The President must be pulled up short--brought to his senses--taught a lesson or two.

Seward saw that new difficulties had arisen in the course of that fateful March which those colleagues of his in the Cabinet--well-meaning, inferior men, to be sure--had not the subtlety to comprehend. Of course the matter of evacuation remained what it always had been, the plain open road to an ultimate diplomatic triumph. Who but a president out of the West, or a minor member of the Cabinet, would fail to see that! But there were two other considerations which, also, his well-meaning colleagues were failing to allow for. While all this talk about the Virginia Unionists had been going on, while Washington and Richmond had been trying to negotiate, neither really had any control of its own game. They were card players with all the trumps out of their hands. Montgomery, the Confederate Congress, held the trumps. At any minute it could terminate all this makebelieve of diplomatic independence, both at Washington and at Richmond. A few cannon shots aimed at Sumter, the cry for revenge in the North, the inevitable protest against coercion in Virginia, the convention blown into the air, and there you are--War!

And after all that, who knows what next? And yet, Blair and Chase and the rest would not consent to slip Montgomery's trumps out of her hands--the easiest thing in the world to do!- -by throwing Sumter into her lap and thus destroying the pretext for the cannon shots. More than ever before, Seward would insist firmly on the evacuation of Sumter.

But there was the other consideration, the really new turn of events. Suppose Sumter is evacuated; suppose Montgomery has lost her chance to force Virginia into war by precipitating the issue of coercion, what follows? All along Seward had advocated a national convention to readjust all the matters "in dispute between the sections." But what would such a convention discuss? In his inaugural, Lincoln had advised an amendment to the Constitution "to the effect that the Federal government shall never interfere with the domestic institutions of the State, including that of persons held to service." Very good! The convention might be expected to accept this, and after this, of course, there would come up the Virginia Compromise. Was it a practical scheme? Did it form a basis for drawing back into the Union the lower South?

 Seward's whole thought upon this subject has never been disclosed. It must be inferred from the conclusion which he reached, which he put into a paper entitled, Thoughts for the President's Consideration, and submitted to Lincoln, April first.

The Thoughts outlined a scheme of policy, the most startling feature of which was an instant, predatory, foreign war. There are two clues to this astounding proposal. One was a political maxim in which Seward had unwavering faith. "A fundamental principle of politics," he said, "is always to be on the side of your country in a war. It kills any party to oppose a war. When Mr. Buchanan got up his Mormon War, our people, Wade and Fremont, and The Tribune, led off furiously against it. I supported it to the immense disgust of enemies and friends. If you want to sicken your opponents with their own war, go in for it till they give it up."[19] He was not alone among the politicians of his time, and some other times, in these cynical views. Lincoln has a story of a politician who was asked to oppose the Mexican War, and who replied, "I opposed one war; that was enough for me. I am now perpetually in favor of war, pestilence and famine."

The second clue to Seward's new policy of international brigandage was the need, as he conceived it, to propitiate those Southern expansionists who in the lower South at least formed so large a part of the political machine, who must somehow be lured back into the Union; to whom the Virginia Compromise, as well as every other scheme of readjustment yet suggested, offered no allurement. Like Lincoln defeating the Crittenden Compromise, like the Virginians planning the last compromise, Seward remembered the filibusters and the dreams of the expansionists, annexation of Cuba, annexation of Nicaragua and all the rest, and he looked about for a way to reach them along that line. Chance had played into his hands. Already Napoleon III had begun his ill-fated interference with the affairs of Mexico. A rebellion had just taken place in San Domingo and Spain was supposed to have designs on the island. Here, for any one who believed in predatory war as an infallible last recourse to rouse the patriotism of a country, were pretexts enough. Along with these would go a raging assertion of the Monroe Doctrine and a bellicose attitude toward other European powers on less substantial grounds. And amid it all, between the lines of it all, could not any one glimpse a scheme for the expansion of the United States southward? War with Spain over San Domingo! And who, pray, held the Island of Cuba! And what might not a defeated Spain be willing to do with Cuba? And if France were driven out of Mexico by our conquering arms, did not the shadows of the future veil but dimly a grateful Mexico where American capital should find great opportunities? And would not Southern capital in the nature of things, have a large share in all that was to come? Surely, granting Seward's political creed, remembering the problem he wished to solve, there is nothing to be wondered at in his proposal to Lincoln: "I would demand explanations from Spain and France, categorically, at once." . . . And if satisfactory explanations were not received from Spain and France, "would convene Congress and declare war against them."

His purpose, he said, was to change the question before the public, from one upon slavery, or about slavery, for a question upon Union or Disunion. Sumter was to be evacuated "as a safe means for changing the issue," but at the same time, preparations were to be made for a blockade of the Southern coast.[20] This extraordinary document administered mild but firm correction to the President. He was told that he had no policy, although under the circumstances, this was "not culpable"; that there must be a single head to the government; that the President, if not equal to the task, should devolve it upon some member of the Cabinet. The Thoughts closed with these words, "I neither seek to evade nor assume responsibility."

Like Seward's previous move, when he sent Weed to Springfield, this other brought Lincoln to a point of crisis. For the second time he must render a decision that would turn the scale, that would have for his country the force of destiny. In one respect he did not hesitate. The most essential part of the Thoughts was the predatory spirit. This clashed with Lincoln's character. Serene unscrupulousness met unwavering integrity. Here was one of those subjects on which Lincoln was not asking advice. As to ways and means, he was pliable to a degree in the hands of richer and wider experience; as to principles, he was a rock. Seward's whole scheme of aggrandizement, his magnificent piracy, was calmly waved aside as a thing of no concern. The most striking characteristic of Lincoln's reply was its dignity. He did not, indeed, lay bare his purposes. He was content to point out certain inconsistencies in Seward's argument; to protest that whatever action might be taken with regard to the single fortress, Sumter, the question before the public could not be changed by that one event; and to say that while he expected advice from all his Cabinet, he was none the less President, and in last resort he would himself direct the policy of the government.[21]

Only a strong man could have put up with the patronizing condescension of the Thoughts and betrayed no irritation. Not a word in Lincoln's reply gives the least hint that condescension had been displayed. He is wholly unruffled, distant, objective. There is also a quiet tone of finality, almost the tone one might use in gently but firmly correcting a child. The Olympian impertinence of the Thoughts had struck out of Lincoln the first flash of that approaching masterfulness by means of which he was to ride out successfully such furious storms. Seward was too much the man of the world not to see what had happened. He never touched upon the Thoughts again. Nor did Lincoln. The incident was secret until Lincoln's secretaries twenty-five years afterward published it to the world.

But Lincoln's lofty dignity on the first of April was of a moment only. When the Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, that same day called on him in his offices, he was the easy-going, jovial Lincoln who was always ready half-humorously to take reproof from subordinates--as was evinced by his greeting to the Secretary. Looking up from his writing, he said cheerfully, "What have I done wrong?"[22] Gideon Welles was a pugnacious man, and at that moment an angry man. There can be little doubt that his lips were tightly shut, that a stern frown darkened his brows. Grimly conscientious was Gideon Welles, likewise prosaic; a masterpiece of literalness, the very opposite in almost every respect of the Secretary of State whom he cordially detested. That he had already found occasion to protest against the President's careless mode of conducting business may be guessed--correctly--from the way he was received. Doubtless the very cordiality, the whimsical admission of loose methods, irritated the austere Secretary. Welles had in his hand a communication dated that same day and signed by the President, making radical changes in the program of the Navy Department. He had come to protest.

"The President," said Welles, "expressed as much surprise as I felt, that he had sent me such a document. He said that Mr. Seward with two or three young men had been there during the day on a subject which he (Seward) had in hand and which he had been some time maturing; that it was Seward's specialty, to which he, the President, had yielded, but as it involved considerable details, he had left Mr. Seward to prepare the necessary papers. These papers he had signed, many of them without reading, for he had not time, and if he could not trust the Secretary of State, he knew not whom he could trust. I asked who were associated with Mr. Seward. 'No one,' said the President, 'but these young men who were here as clerks to write down his plans and orders.' Most of the work was done, he said, in the other room.

"The President reiterated that they [the changes in the Navy] were not his instructions, though signed by him; that the paper was an improper one; that he wished me to give it no more consideration than I thought proper; to treat it as cancelled, or as if it had never been written. I could get no satisfactory explanation from the President of the origin of this strange interference which mystified him and which he censured and condemned more severely than myself. . . . Although very much disturbed by the disclosure, he was anxious to avoid difficulty, and to shield Mr. Seward, took to himself the whole blame.

Thus Lincoln began a role that he never afterward abandoned. It was the role of scapegoat Whatever went wrong anywhere could always be loaded upon the President. He appeared to consider it a part of his duty to be the scapegoat for the whole Administration. It was his way of maintaining trust, courage, efficiency, among his subordinates.

 Of those papers which he had signed without reading on April first, Lincoln was to hear again in still more surprising fashion six days thereafter.

He was now at the very edge of his second crucial decision. Though the naval expedition was in preparation, he still hesitated over issuing orders to sail. The reply to the Thoughts had not committed him to any specific line of conduct. What was it that kept him wavering at this eleventh hour? Again, that impenetrable taciturnity which always shrouded his progress toward a conclusion, forbids dogmatic assertion. But two things are obvious: his position as a minority president, of which he was perhaps unduly conscious, caused him to delay, and to delay again and again, seeking definite evidence how much support he could command in the North; the change in his comprehension of the problem before him-his perception that it was not an "artificial crisis" involving slavery alone, but an irreconcilable clash of social-political idealism--this disturbed his spirit, distressed, even appalled him. Having a truer insight into human nature than Seward had, he saw that here was an issue immeasurably less susceptible of compromise than was slavery. Whether, the moment he perceived this, he at once lost hope of any peaceable solution, we do not know. Just what he thought about the Virginia Compromise is still to seek. However, the nature of his mind, the way it went straight to the human element in a problem once his eyes were opened to the problem's reality, forbid us to conclude that he took hope from Virginia. He now saw what, had it not been for his near horizon, he would have seen so long before, that, in vulgar parlance, he had been "barking up the wrong tree." Now that he had located the right tree, had the knowledge come too late? It is known that Seward, possibly at Lincoln's request, made an attempt to bring together the Virginia Unionists and the Administration. He sent a special representative to Richmond urging the despatch of a committee to confer with the President.

The strength of the party in the Convention was shown on April fourth when a proposed Ordinance of Secession was voted down, eighty-nine to forty-five. On the same day, the Convention by a still larger majority formally denied the right of the Federal government to coerce a State. Two days later, John B. Baldwin, representing the Virginia Unionists, had a confidential talk with Lincoln. Only fragments of their talk, drawn forth out of memory long afterward--some of the reporting being at second hand, the recollections of the recollections of the participants--are known to exist. The one fact clearly discernible is that Baldwin stated fully the Virginia position: that her Unionists were not nationalists; that the coercion of any State, by impugning the sovereignty of all, would automatically drive Virginia out of the Union.[23]

Lincoln had now reached his decision. The fear that had dogged him all along--the fear that in evacuating Sumter he would be giving something for nothing, that "it would discourage the friends of the Union, embolden its adversaries"--was in possession of his will. One may hazard the guess that this fear would have determined Lincoln sooner than it did, except for the fact that the Secretary of State, despite his faults, was so incomparably the strongest personality in the Cabinet. We have Lincoln's own word for the moment and the detail that formed the very end of his period of vacillation. All along he had intended to relieve and hold Fort Pickens, off the coast of Florida. To this, Seward saw no objection. In fact, he urged the relief of Pickens, hoping, as compensation, to get his way about Sumter. Assuming as he did that the Southern leaders were opportunists, he believed that they would not make an issue over Pickens, merely because it had not in the public eye become a political symbol. Orders had been sent to a squadron in Southern waters to relieve Pickens. Early in April news was received at Washington that the attempt had failed due to misunderstandings among the Federal commanders. Fearful that Pickens was about to fall, reasoning that whatever happened he dared not lose both forts, Lincoln became peremptory on the subject of the Sumter expedition. This was on April sixth. On the night of April sixth, Lincoln's signatures to the unread despatches of the first of April, came home to roost. And at last, Welles found out what Seward was doing on the day of All Fools.[24]

While the Sumter expedition was being got ready, still without sailing orders, a supplemental expedition was also preparing for the relief of Pickens. This was the business that Seward was contriving, that Lincoln would not explain, on April first. The order interfering with the Navy Department was designed to checkmate the titular head of the department. Furthermore, Seward had had the amazing coolness to assume that Lincoln would certainly accept his Thoughts and that the simple President need not hereinafter be consulted about details. He aimed to circumvent Welles and to make sure that the Sumter expedition, whether sailing orders were issued or not, should be rendered innocuous. The warship Powhatan, which was being got ready for sea at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, was intended by Welles for the Sumter expedition. One of those unread despatches signed by Lincoln, assigned it to the Pickens expedition. When the sailing orders from Welles were received, the commander of the Sumter fleet claimed the Powhatan. The Pickens commander refused to give it up. The latter telegraphed Seward that his expedition was "being retarded and embarrassed" by "conflicting" orders from Welles. The result was a stormy conference between Seward and Welles which was adjourned to the White House and became a conference with Lincoln. And then the whole story came out. Lincoln played the scapegoat, "took the whole blame upon himself, said it was carelessness, heedlessness on his part; he ought to have been more careful and attentive." But he insisted on immediate correction of his error, on the restoration of the Powhatan to the Sumter fleet. Seward struggled hard for his plan. Lincoln was inflexible. As Seward had directed the preparation of the Pickens expedition, Lincoln required him to telegraph to Brooklyn the change in orders. Seward, beaten by his enemy Welles, was deeply chagrined. In his agitation he forgot to be formal, forgot that the previous order had gone out in the President's name, and wired curtly, "Give up the Powhatan. Seward."

This despatch was received just as the Pickens expedition was sailing. The commander of the Powhatan had now before him, three orders. Naturally, he held that the one signed by the President took precedence over the others. He went on his way, with his great warship, to Florida. The Sumter expedition sailed without any powerful ship of war. In this strange fashion, chance executed Seward's design.

Lincoln had previously informed the Governor of South Carolina that due notice would be given, should he decide to relieve Sumter. Word was now sent that "an attempt will be made to supply Fort Sumter with provisions only; and that if such attempt be not resisted, no effort to throw in men, arms or ammunition will be made without further notice, or in case of an attack upon the fort."[25] Though the fleet was not intended to offer battle, it was supposed to be strong enough to force its way into the harbor, should the relief of Sumter be opposed. But the power to do so was wholly conditioned on the presence in its midst of the Powhatan. And the Powhatan was far out to sea on its way to Florida.

And now it was the turn of the Confederate government to confront a crisis. It, no less than Washington, had passed through a period of disillusion. The assumption upon which its chief politicians had built so confidently had collapsed. The South was not really a unit. It was not true that the secession of any one State, on any sort of issue, would compel automatically the secession of all the Southern States. North Carolina had exploded this illusion. Virginia had exploded it. The South could not be united on the issue of slavery; it could not be united on the issue of sectional dread. It could be united on but one issue-State sovereignty, the denial of the right of the Federal Government to coerce a State. The time had come to decide whether the cannon at Charleston should fire. As Seward had foreseen, Montgomery held the trumps; but had Montgomery the courage to play them? There was a momentous debate in the Confederate Cabinet. Robert Toombs, the Secretary of State, whose rapid growth in comprehension since December formed a parallel to Lincoln's growth, threw his influence on the side of further delay. He would not invoke that "final argument of kings," the shotted cannon. "Mr. President," he exclaimed, "at this time, it is suicide, murder, and will lose us every friend at the North. You will instantly strike a: hornet's nest which extends from mountain to ocean, and legions now quiet will swarm out and sting us to death. It is unnecessary; it puts us in the wrong; it is fatal." But Toombs stood alone in the Cabinet. Orders were sent to Charleston to reduce Fort Sumter. Before dawn, April twelfth, the first shot was fired. The flag of the United States was hauled down on the afternoon of the thirteenth. 'Meanwhile the relieving fleet had arrived--without the Powhatan. Bereft of its great ship, it could not pass the harbor batteries and assist the fort. Its only service was to take off the garrison which by the terms of surrender was allowed to withdraw. On the fourteenth, Sumter was evacuated and the inglorious fleet sailed back to the northward.

Lincoln at once accepted the gage of battle. On the fifteenth appeared his proclamation calling for an army of seventy-five thousand volunteers. Automatically, the upper South fulfilled its unhappy destiny. Challenged at last, on the irreconcilable issue, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, seceded. The final argument of kings was the only one remaining.