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

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The Dictator, The Marplot And The Little Men


While the Jacobins were endeavoring to reorganize the Republican antagonism to the President, Lincoln was taking thought how he could offset still more effectually their influence. in taking up the emancipation policy he had not abandoned his other policy of an all-parties Administration, or of something similar to that. By this time it was plain that a complete union of parties was impossible. In the autumn of 1862, a movement of liberal Democrats in Michigan for the purpose of a working agreement with the Republicans was frustrated by the flinty opposition of Chandler.[1] However, it still seemed possible to combine portions of parties in an Administration group that should forswear the savagery of the extreme factions and maintain the war in a merciful temper. The creation of such a group was Lincoln's aim at the close of the year.

The Republicans were not in doubt what he was driving at. Smarting over their losses in the election, there was angry talk that Lincoln and Seward had "slaughtered the Republican party."[2] Even as sane a man as John Sherman, writing to his brother on the causes of the apparent turn of the tide could say "the first is that the Republican organization was voluntarily abandoned by the President and his leading followers, and a no-party union was formed to run against an old, well-drilled party organization."[3] When Julian returned to Washington in December, he found that the menace to the Republican machine was "generally admitted and (his) earnest opposition to it fully justified in the opinion of the Republican members of Congress."[4] How fully they perceived their danger had been shown in their attempt to drive Lincoln into a corner on the issue of a new Cabinet.

Even before that, Lincoln had decided on his next move. As in the emancipation policy he had driven a wedge between the factions of the Republicans, so now he would drive a wedge into the organization of the Democrats. It had two parts which had little to hold them together except their rooted partisan habit.[5] One branch, soon to receive the label "Copperhead," accepted the secession principle and sympathized with the Confederacy. The other, while rejecting secession and supporting the war, denounced the emancipation policy as usurped authority, and felt personal hostility to Lincoln. It was the latter faction that Lincoln still hoped to win over. Its most important member was Horatio Seymour, who in the autumn of 1862 was elected governor of New York. Lincoln decided to operate on him by one of those astounding moves which to the selfless man seemed natural enough, by which the ordinary politician was always hopelessly mystified. He called in Thurlow Weed and authorized him to make this proposal: if Seymour would bring his following into a composite Union party with no platform but the vigorous prosecution of the war, Lincoln would pledge all his influence to securing for Seymour the presidential nomination in 1864. Weed delivered his message. Seymour was noncommittal and Lincoln had to wait for his answer until the new Governor should show his hand by his official acts. Meanwhile a new crisis had developed in the army. Burnside's character appears to have been shattered by his defeat. Previous to Fredericksburg, he had seemed to be a generous, high-minded man. From Fredericksburg onward, he became more and more an impossible. A reflection of McClellan in his earlier stage, he was somehow transformed eventually into a reflection of vindictivism. His later character began to appear in his first conference with the Committee subsequent to his disaster. They visited him on the field and "his conversation disarmed all criticism." This was because he struck their own note to perfection. "Our soldiers," he said, "were not sufficiently fired by resentment, and he exhorted me [Julian] if I could, to breathe into our people at home the same spirit toward our enemies which inspired them toward us."[6] What a transformation in McClellan's disciple!

But the country was not won over so easily as the Committee. There was loud and general disapproval and of course, the habitual question, "Who next?" The publication by the Committee of its insinuation that once more the stubborn President was the real culprit did not stem the tide. Burnside himself made his case steadily worse. His judgment, such as it was, had collapsed. He seemed to be stubbornly bent on a virtual repetition of his previous folly. Lincoln felt it necessary to command him to make no forward move without consulting the President.[7]

Burnside's subordinates freely criticized their commander. General Hooker was the most outspoken. It was known that a movement was afoot--an intrigue, if you will-to disgrace Burnside and elevate Hooker. Chafing under criticism and restraint, Burnside completely lost his sense of propriety. On the twenty-fourth of January, 1863, when Henry W. Raymond, the powerful editor of the New York Times, was on a visit to the camp, Burnside took him into his tent and read him an order removing Hooker because of his unfitness "to hold a command in a cause where so much moderation, forbearance, and unselfish patriotism were required." Raymond, aghast, inquired what he would do if Hooker resisted, if he raised his troops in mutiny? "He said he would Swing him before sundown if he attempted such a thing."

Raymond, though more than half in sympathy with Burnside, felt that the situation was startling. He hurried off to Washington. "I immediately," he writes, "called upon Secretary Chase and told him the whole story. He was greatly surprised to hear such reports of Hooker, and said he had looked upon him as the man best fitted to command the army of the Potomac. But no man capable of so much and such unprincipled ambition was fit for so great a trust, and he gave up all thought of him henceforth. He wished me to go with him to his house and accompany him and his daughter to the President's levee. I did so and found a great crowd surrounding President Lincoln. I managed, however, to tell him in brief terms that I had been with the army and that many things were occurring there which he ought to know. I told him of the obstacles thrown in Burnside's way by his subordinates and especially General Hooker's habitual conversation. He put his hand on my shoulder and said in my ear as if desirous of not being overheard, 'That is all true; Hooker talks badly; but the trouble is, he is stronger with the country today than any other man.' I ventured to ask how long he would retain that strength if his real conduct and character should be understood. 'The country,' said he, 'would not believe it; they would say it was all a lie.'"[8]

Whether Chase did what he said he would do and ceased to be Hooker's advocate, may be questioned. Tradition preserves a deal between the Secretary and the General--the Secretary to urge his advancement, the General, if he reached his goal, to content himself with military honors and to assist the Secretary in succeeding to the Presidency. Hooker was a public favorite. The dashing, handsome figure of "Fighting Joe" captivated the popular imagination. The terrible Committee were his friends. Military men thought him full of promise. On the whole, Lincoln, who saw the wisdom of following up his clash over the Cabinet by a concession to the Jacobins, was willing to take his chances with Hooker.

His intimate advisers were not of the same mind. They knew that there was much talk on the theme of a possible dictator-not the constitutional dictator of Lincoln and Stevens, but the old-fashioned dictator of historical melodrama. Hooker was reported to have encouraged such talk. All this greatly alarmed one of Lincoln's most devoted henchmen-Lamon, Marshal of the District of Columbia, who regarded himself as personally responsible for Lincoln's safety. "In conversation with Mr. Lincoln," says Lamon, "one night about the time General Burnside was relieved, I was urging upon him the necessity of looking well to the fact that there was a scheme on foot to depose him, and to appoint a military dictator in his stead. He laughed and said, 'I think, for a man of accredited courage, you are the most panicky person I ever knew; you can see more dangers to me than all the other friends I have. You are all the time exercised about somebody taking my life; murdering me; and now you have discovered a new danger; now you think the people of this great government are likely to turn me out of office. I do not fear this from the people any more than I fear assassination from an individual. Now to show my appreciation of what my French friends would call a coup d'etat, let me read you a letter I have written to General Hooker whom I have just appointed to the command of the army of the Potomac."[9]

Few letters of Lincoln's are better known, few reveal more exactly the tone of his final period, than the remarkable communication he addressed to Hooker two days after that whispered talk with Raymond at the White House levee:

"General, I have placed you at the head of the army of the Potomac. Of course I have done this upon what appear to me to be sufficient reasons, and yet I think it best for you to know that there are some things in regard to which I am not quite satisfied with you. I believe you to be a brave and skilful soldier, which of course I like. I also believe you do not mix politics with your profession, in which you are right. You have confidence in yourself, which is a valuable, if not an indispensable quality. You are ambitious, which within reasonable bounds, does good rather than harm; but I think that during General Burnside's command of the army you have taken counsel of your ambition and thwarted him as much as you could, in which you did a great wrong to the country and to a most meritorious and honorable brother officer. I have heard in such a way as to believe it, of your recently Saying that both the army and the government needed a dictator. Of course it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command. Only those generals who gain successes can set up dictators. What I now ask you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship. The government will support you to the utmost of its ability, which is neither more nor less than it has done and will do for all commanders. I much fear that the spirit which you have aided to infuse into the army, of criticizing their commander and withholding confidence from him, will now turn upon you. I shall assist you as far as I can to put it down. Neither you nor Napoleon, if he were alive again, could get any good out of an army while such a Spirit prevails in it; and now beware of rashness. Beware of rashness, but with energy and sleepless vigilance go forward and give us victories."[10]

 The appointment of Hooker had the effect of quieting the Committee for the time. Lincoln turned again to his political scheme, but not until he had made another military appointment from which at the moment no one could have guessed that trouble would ever come. He gave to Burnside what might be called the sinecure position of Commander of the Department of the Ohio with headquarters at Cincinnati.[11]

During the early part of 1863 Lincoln's political scheme received a serious blow. Seymour ranked himself as an irreconcilable enemy of the Administration. The antiLincoln Republicans struck at the President in roundabout ways. Heralding a new attack, the best man on the Committee, Julian, ironically urged his associates in Congress to "rescue" the President from his false friends--those mere Unionists who were luring him away from the party that had elected him, enticing him into a vague new party that should include Democrats." It was said that there were only two Lincoln men in the House.[12] Greeley was coquetting with Rosecrans, trying to induce him to come forward as Republican presidential "timber." The Committee in April published an elaborate report which portrayed the army of the Potomac as an army of heroes tragically afflicted in the past by the incompetence of their commanders. The Democrats continued their abuse of the dictator.

It was a moment of strained pause, everybody waiting upon circumstance. And in Washington, every eye was turned Southward. How soon would they glimpse the first messenger from that glorious victory which "Fighting Joe" had promised them. "The enemy is in my power," said he, "and God Almighty can not deprive me of them."[13]

Something of the difference between Hooker and Lincoln, between all the Vindictives and Lincoln, may be felt by turning from these ribald words to that Fast Day Proclamation which this strange statesman issued to his people, that anxious spring,--that moment of trance as it were--when all things seemed to tremble toward the last judgment:

"And whereas, it is the duty of nations as well as of men to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God; to confess their sins and transgressions in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon; and to recognize the sublime truth announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history, that those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord:

"And insomuch as we know that by His divine law nations, like individuals, are subjected to punishments and chastisements in this world, may we not justly fear that the awful calamity of civil war which now desolates the land may be but a punishment inflicted upon us for our presumptuous sins, to the needful end of our national reformation as a whole people. We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven. We have been preserved, these many years, in peace and prosperity. We have grown in numbers, wealth and power as no other nation has ever grown; but we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to God that made us: "It behooves us then to humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness.

"All this being done in sincerity and truth, let us then rest humbly in the hope authorized by the divine teachings. that the united cry of the nation will be heard on high, and answered with blessings no less than the pardon of our national sins and the restoration of our now divided and suffering country to its former happy condition of unity and peace."[14]

Alas, for such men as Hooker! What seemed to him in his vainglory beyond the reach of Omnipotence, was accomplished by Lee and Jackson and a Confederate army at Chancellorsville. Profound gloom fell upon Washington. Welles heard the terrible news from Sumner who came into his room "and raising both hands exclaimed, 'Lost, lost, all is lost!'"[15]

The aftermath of Manassas was repeated. In the case of Pope, no effort had been spared to save the friend of the Committee, to find some one else on whom to load his incompetence. The course was now repeated. Again, the Jacobins raised the cry, "We are betrayed!" Again, the stir to injure the President. Very strange are the ironies of history! At this critical moment, Lincoln's amiable mistake in sending Burnside to Cincinnati demanded expiation. Along with the definite news of Hooker's overthrow, came the news that Burnside had seized the Copperhead leader, Vallandigham, and had cast him into prison; that a hubbub had ensued; that, as the saying goes, the woods were burning in Ohio.

Vallandigham's offense was a public speech of which no accurate report survives. However, the fragments recorded by "plain clothes" men in Burnside's employ, when set in the perspective of Vallandigham's thinking as displayed in Congress, make its tenor plain enough. it was an out-and-out Copperhead harangue. If he was to be treated as hundreds of others had been, the case against him was plain. But the Administration's policy toward agitators had gradually changed. There was not the same fear of them that had existed two years before. Now the tendency of the Administration was to ignore them.

The Cabinet regretted what Burnside had done. Nevertheless, the Ministers felt that it would not do to repudiate him. Lincoln took that view. He wrote to Burnside deploring his action and sustaining his authority.1[6] And then, as a sort of grim practical joke, he commuted Vallandigham's sentence from imprisonment to banishment. The agitator was sent across the lines into the Confederacy.

Burnside had effectually played the marplot. Very little chance now of an understanding between Lincoln and either wing of the Democrats. The opportunity to make capital out of the war powers was quite too good to be lost! Vallandigham was nominated for governor by the Ohio Democrats. In all parts of the country Democratic committees resolved in furious protest against the dictator. And yet, on the whole, perhaps, the incident played into Lincoln's hands. At least, it silenced the Jacobins. With the Democrats ringing the changes on the former doctrine of the supple politicians, how certain that their only course for the moment was to lie low. A time came, to be sure, when they thought it safe to resume their own creed; but that was not yet.

The hubbub over Vallandigham called forth two letters addressed to protesting committees, that have their place among Lincoln's most important statements of political science. His argument is based on the proposition which Browning developed a year before. The core of it is:

"You ask in substance whether I really claim that I may override all guaranteed rights of individuals on the plea of conserving the public safety, whenever I may choose to say the public safety requires it. This question, divested of the phraseology calculated to represent me as struggling for an arbitrary personal prerogative, is either simply a question who shall decide, or an affirmation that no one shall decide, what the public safety does require in cases of rebellion or invasion.

"The Constitution contemplates the question as likely to occur for decision, but it does not expressly declare who is to decide it. By necessary implication, when rebellion or invasion comes, the decision is to be made from time to time; and I think the man whom, for the time, the people have, under the Constitution, made the Commander-in-chief of their army and navy, is the man who holds the power and bears the responsibility of making it. If he uses the power justly, the same people will probably justify him; if he abuses it, he is in their hands to be dealt with by all the modes they have reserved to themselves in the Constitution."[17]

Browning's argument over again-the President can be brought to book by a plebiscite, while Congress can not. But Lincoln did not rest, as Browning did, on mere argument. The old-time jury lawyer revived. He was doing more than arguing a theorem of political science. He was on trial before the people, the great mass, which he understood so well. He must reach their imaginations and touch their hearts.

"Mr. Vallandigham avows his hostility to the war on the part of the Union, and his arrest was made because he was laboring with some effect, to prevent the raising of troops, to encourage desertions from the army, and to leave the rebellion without an adequate military force to suppress it. He was not arrested because he was damaging the political prospects of the Administration or the personal interests of the Commanding General, but because be was damaging the army, upon the existence and vigor of which the life of the nation depends. He was warring upon the military, and this gave the military constitutional jurisdiction to lay hands upon him.

"I understand the meeting whose resolutions I am considering, to be in favor of suppressing the rebellion by military force-by armies. Long experience has shown that armies can not be maintained unless desertion shall be punished by the severe penalty of death. The case requires, and the Law and the Constitution sanction this punishment. Must I shoot a simple-minded soldier boy who deserts while I must not touch a hair of a wily agitator who induces him to desert?"[18]

Again, the ironical situation of the previous December; the wrathful Jacobins, the most dangerous because the most sincere enemies of the presidential dictatorship, silent, trapped, biding their time. But the situation had for them a distinct consolation. A hundred to one it had killed the hope of a Lincoln-Democratic alliance.

However, the President would not give up the Democrats without one last attempt to get round the Little Men. Again, he could think of no mode of negotiation except the one he had vainly attempted with Seymour. As earnest of his own good faith, he would once more renounce his own prospect of a second term. But since Seymour had failed him, who was there that could serve his purpose? The popularity of McClellan among those Democrats who were not Copperheads had grown with his misfortunes. There had been a wide demand for his restoration after Fredericksburg, and again after Chancellorsville. Lincoln justified his reputation for political insight by concluding that McClellan, among the Democrats, was the coming man. Again Weed was called in. Again he became an ambassador of renunciation. Apparently he carried a message to the effect that if McClellan would join forces with the Administration, Lincoln would support him for president a year later. But McClellan was too inveterate a partisan. Perhaps he thought that the future was his anyway.[19]

And so Lincoln's persistent attempt to win over the Democrats came to an end. The final sealing of their antagonism was effected at a great Democratic rally in New York on the Fourth of July. The day previous, a manifesto had been circulated through the city beginning, "Freemen, awake! In everything, and in most stupendous proportion, is this Administration abominable!"[20] Seymour reaffirmed his position of out-and-out partisan hostility to the Administration. Vallandigham's colleague, Pendleton of Ohio, formulated the Democratic doctrine: that the Constitution was being violated by the President's assumption of war powers. His cry was, "The Constitution as it is and the Union as it was." He thundered that "Congress can not, and no one else shall, interfere with free speech." The question was not whether we were to have peace or war, but whether or not we were to have free government; "if it be necessary to violate the Constitution in order to carry on the war, the war ought instantly to be stopped."[21]

Lincoln's political program had ended apparently in a wreck. But Fortune had not entirely deserted him. Hooker in a fit of irritation had offered his resignation. Lincoln had accepted it. Under a new commander, the army of the Potomac had moved against Lee. The orators at the Fourth of July meeting had read in the papers that same day Lincoln's announcement of the victory at Gettysburg.[22] Almost coincident with that announcement was the surrender of Vicksburg. Difficult as was the political problem ahead of him, the problem of finding some other plan for unifying his support without participating in a Vindictive Coalition, Lincoln's mood was cheerful. On the seventh of July he was serenaded. Serenades for the President were a feature of war-time in Washington, and Lincoln utilized the occasions to talk informally to the country. His remarks on the seventh were not distinctive, except for their tone, quietly, joyfully confident. His serene mood displayed itself a week later in a note to Grant which is oddly characteristic. Who else would have had the impulse to make this quaint little confession? But what, for a general who could read between the lines, could have been more delightful?[23]

"My dear General: I do not remember that you and I ever met personally. I write this now as a grateful acknowledgment for the almost inestimable service you have done the country. I wish to say a word further. When you first reached the vicinity of Vicksburg, I thought you should do what you finally did-march the troops across the neck, run the batteries with the transports, and thus go below; and I never had any faith except a general hope that you knew better than I, that the Yazoo Pass expedition and the like could succeed. When you got below and took Port Gibson, Grand Gulf and the vicinity, I thought you should go down the river and join General Banks, and when you turned Northward, east of the Big Black, I feared it was a mistake. I now wish to make the personal acknowledgment that you were right and I was wrong.

 "Very truly, "A. LINCOLN."