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CHAPTER 25

“A SACRED EFFORT”

ON THURSDAY NIGHT, November 10, 1864, an immense crowd, “gay with banners and resplendent with lanterns,” gathered on the White House lawn to congratulate the president on his reelection. “Martial music, the cheers of people, and the roar of cannon, shook the sky.” When the joyful throng demanded his appearance, Lincoln spoke to the crowd from a second-floor window. Acknowledging that the recent canvass had been marred by “undesirable strife,” he nonetheless felt it had “demonstrated that a people’s government can sustain a national election, in the midst of a great civil war. Until now it has not been known to the world that this was a possibility.”

When Lincoln drew his little speech to a close, the revelers moved on to Seward’s Lafayette Square home. They found the secretary of state, who had just returned from Auburn, “in an exceedingly jocose frame of mind.” He predicted that the time was near when “we will all come together again…when the stars and stripes wave over Richmond,” and “you will have to look mighty sharp to find a man who was a secessionist, or an aider of the rebellion.” He recollected that when he was a boy in the early 1800s, his parents had told of “the vast number of tories” who opposed the government during the American revolution; yet, thirty years later, “there was not a tory to be found in the whole United States.”

Seward’s good humor infected the crowd, who responded with cheers and laughter. In closing, he observed that the night was young. “I advise you to go and see Mr. Fessenden, for if he gets discouraged we shall all come to grief; also be good enough to poke up Mr. Stanton; he needs poking up, for he has been seriously sick, I hear, for several days past. You cannot do better also than to call upon my excellent friend Gideon Welles, and ask him if he cannot make the blockade off Wilmington more stringent, so that I shall not need to have so much trouble with my foreign relations.”

Seward’s playful remarks about his colleagues reflected the improved atmosphere in the cabinet now that Chase and Blair were gone. Both men had symbolized the animosity between radicals and conservatives in the country at large; their clashing emotions had long reverberated through the cabinet. The periodic jealousy Welles felt over the superior access Seward and Stanton enjoyed with the president had been intensified a hundredfold so long as Blair was there to fuel the flames. Likewise, when Stanton was angry with Lincoln over pardons or appointments, Chase had eagerly lent an approving ear to his complaints. Never initiated into this contentious drama, Fessenden and Dennison brought cooperation and amity to the cabinet. Strife abated, and Welles even acknowledged that his relations with Seward had grown more “amicable” and that Stanton was sounding more reasonable and less radical regarding Reconstruction.

Rumormongers had speculated that Lincoln would now want to replace his entire cabinet. It was positively asserted that Seward would give way to Charles Francis Adams, that General Butler would replace Stanton, and that Welles and Bates had outlived their usefulness. It was surmised that Lincoln would prefer more controllable colleagues. The busy, hypothetical cabinetmakers did not understand that Lincoln had no wish to disturb the rhythm of his relationships with his colleagues, which, to his mind, worked exceedingly well.

Lincoln’s friendship with Seward had deepened with each passing year. “His confidence in Seward is great,” observed Welles that autumn. Seward “spends more or less of every day with the President.” On subjects “of the gravest importance,” Seward was the president’s “only confidant and adviser.” Whenever Lincoln bounced an idea off Seward, he received straightforward advice. When a plan to foster Union sentiment in the South through confidential government purchase of a controlling share in a number of failing Southern newspapers was presented to Lincoln, he turned to Seward for advice. “It seems to me very judicious and wise,” Seward responded. It would provide a forum for Union men to help sway the opinion of fellow Southerners. If government funds were not readily available, he suggested that Thurlow Weed “might find money by contribution.”

Though some still considered the talkative New Yorker the “power behind the throne,” Seward had long since understood that Lincoln was the master. “There is but one vote in the Cabinet,” asserted Seward, “and that is cast by the President.” Two days after the election, Seward told a crowd of supporters, “Henceforth all men will come to see him, as you and I have seen him…. Abraham Lincoln will take his place with Washington and Franklin, and Jefferson, and Adams, and Jackson, among the benefactors of the country and of the human race.”

Lincoln’s partnership with his volatile secretary of war, though not as intimate and leisurely, was equally effective. Stanton was only fifty in the fall of 1864, but he “looked older,” his clerk Benjamin recalled, “by reason of the abundant tinging of his originally brown hair and beard with iron-gray.” The war had taken a toll on his constitution, already weakened by the lifelong struggle with asthma that caused periodic “fits of strangulation.” The illness that kept him in bed on election eve lasted for nearly three weeks. For a time it seemed he would not rally. His doctor begged him to take a leave of absence from his post. “Barnes,” Stanton replied, “keep me alive till this rebellion is over, and then I will take a rest…a long one, perhaps.” In a letter to Chase written shortly after Lincoln’s reelection, he acknowledged that his health could be restored only by “absolute rest and relief from labor and care,” though nothing could keep him from his post until he had brought the soldiers home in peace.

By late November, Stanton was back working fifteen-hour days at his stand-up desk, directing his subordinates with a steely determination. The complex relationship between the president and his secretary of war was not easy to comprehend. At times it seemed as if Stanton controlled the president; at other times it was clear that Lincoln was the dominant force in dictating policy. In fact, there was an unwritten code between the two powerful men: “Each could veto the other’s acts, but Lincoln was to rule when he felt it necessary.”

Lincoln used his veto over Stanton sparingly, as two of his congressional friends learned to their dismay. Having obtained the president’s assent to a military appointment for one of their constituents, they carried the endorsed application to Stanton. Stanton flatly refused to consider it. “The position is of high importance,” Stanton explained. “I have in mind a man of suitable experience and capacity to fill it.” When informed that Lincoln wanted this man, Stanton bellowed, “I do not care what the President wants; the country wants the very best it can get. I am serving the country…regardless of individuals.”

The two congressmen walked back to the White House, assuming the president would override his secretary, but Lincoln refused: “Gentlemen, it is my duty to submit. I cannot add to Mr. Stanton’s troubles. His position is one of the most difficult in the world. Thousands in the army blame him because they are not promoted and other thousands out of the army blame him because they are not appointed. The pressure upon him is immeasurable and unending. He is the rock on the beach of our national ocean against which the breakers dash and roar, dash and roar without ceasing. He fights back the angry waters and prevents them from undermining and overwhelming the land. Gentlemen, I do not see how he survives, why he is not crushed and torn to pieces. Without him I should be destroyed. He performs his task superhumanly. Now do not mind this matter, for Mr. Stanton is right and I cannot wrongly interfere with him.”

At the same time, Lincoln expected Stanton to be aware of the special burdens he faced as president. For weeks, Lincoln wrote Stanton, he had been pressed by relatives of “prisoners of war in our custody, whose homes are within our lines, and who wish…to take the oath and be discharged.” He believed that “taking the oath” was an act of honor, that “none of them will again go to the rebellion,” though he acknowledged that “the rebellion again coming to them, a considerable per centage of them, probably not a majority, would rejoin it.” With “a cautious discrimination,” however, “the number so discharged would not be large enough to do any considerable mischief.” Moreover, looking forward to the day when the two sides would once again be united, he thought the government “should avoid planting and cultivating too many thorns in the bosom of society.” With all these considerations in mind, it would provide “relief from an intolerable pressure” if he could have Stanton’s “cheerful assent to the discharge of those names I may send, which I will only do with circumspection.” Stanton replied the following day: “Your order for the discharge of any prisoners of war, will be cheerfully & promptly obeyed.”

Lincoln’s liberal use of his pardoning power created the greatest tension between the two men. Stanton felt compelled to protect military discipline by exacting proper punishment for desertions or derelictions of duty, while Lincoln looked for any “good excuse for saving a man’s life.” When he found one, he said, “I go to bed happy as I think how joyous the signing of my name will make him and his family and his friends.”

Stanton would not allow himself such leniency. A clerk recalled finding Stanton one night in his office, “the mother, wife, and children of a soldier who had been condemned to be shot as a deserter, on their knees before him pleading for the life of their loved one. He listened standing, in cold and austere silence, and at the end of their heart-breaking sobs and prayers answered briefly that the man must die. The crushed and despairing little family left and Mr. Stanton turned, apparently unmoved, and walked into his private room.” The clerk thought Stanton an unfeeling tyrant, until he discovered him moments later, “leaning over a desk, his face buried in his hands and his heavy frame shaking with sobs. ‘God help me to do my duty; God help me to do my duty!’ he was repeating in a low wail of anguish.” On such occasions, when Stanton felt he could not afford to set a precedent, he must have been secretly relieved that the president had the ultimate authority.

When Stanton thought he was right, however, he tenaciously pursued his purpose. When a group of Pennsylvania politicians received the president’s assent for discharging some prisoners of war in their district who were willing to take the oath and join the Union army fighting Indians in the West, Stanton flatly refused to execute the order. The order specified that the discharged prisoners would receive a bounty and be credited against Pennsylvania’s draft quota, thus reducing the number of troops required of the Keystone State. “Mr. President, I cannot do it,” he asserted. “The order is an improper one, and I cannot execute it.” Lincoln was equally firm in his reply: “Mr. Secretary, it will have to be done.” And so it was.

When the order was publicized, a storm of criticism descended upon Stanton. To give a bounty to soldiers who were already in government custody seemed wasteful and wrong, as did counting the discharged prisoners against the quota that Pennsylvania, like every other state, was required to supply. Lincoln learned that Grant, too, was unhappy and blamed Stanton. “I send this,” Lincoln promptly wrote Grant, “to do justice to the Secretary of War.” He then explained that he had responded to the idea “upon pressing application…and the thing went so far before it came to the knowledge of the Secretary of War that in my judgment it could not be abandoned without greater evil than would follow it’s going through. I did not know, at the time, that you had protested against that class of thing being done; and I now say that while this particular job must be completed, no other of the sort, will be authorized, without an understanding with you, if at all. The Secretary of War is wholly free of any part in this blunder.”

In this instance, Stanton was transparently blameless, but Lincoln protected his volatile secretary even when criticism was justified, when “his firmness degenerated, at times, into sheer obstinacy; his enthusiasm, into intolerance; his strength of will, into arrogance.” Even the equitable George Templeton Strong acknowledged that it was “hard to vote for sustaining an Administration of which Stanton is a member. He is a ruffian.”

Implacable and abrasive as Stanton could be, his scrupulous honesty, energy, and determination were invaluable to Lincoln. When one caller complained bitterly about Stanton’s bearish style, Lincoln stopped him cold: “Go home my friend, and read attentively the tenth verse of the thirtieth chapter of Proverbs!” The verse reads as follows: “Accuse not a servant to his master, lest he curse thee, and then be found guilty.” When people speculated about cabinet changes after his reelection, Lincoln made it clear that Stanton would not be leaving. “Folks come up here and tell me that there are a great many men in the country who have all Stanton’s excellent qualities without his defects,” he commented. “All I have to say is, I have n’t met ’em! I don’t know ’em!”

Nor did Lincoln consider dismissing his “Neptune,” Gideon Welles. Reserved by nature, Welles did not enjoy the easy camaraderie with Lincoln that Seward did. The discreet New Englander looked askance at the curious pleasure both Lincoln and Seward took in talking with “the little newsmongers” and hearing “all the political gossip.” And he was often vexed by the odd intimacy between Lincoln and Stanton. Unlike Chase, however, he confined his complaints to his diary and remained totally loyal to the president whose natural sagacity he greatly admired.

Moreover, Lincoln recognized that Welles had accomplished a Herculean task—he had built a navy almost from scratch, utterly revamping a department initially paralyzed by subversion and strife. Even the normally critical Times of London was forced to concede the extraordinary growth of the American navy under the leadership of Gideon Welles. When Welles took office, there were only 76 vessels flying the American flag; four years later, there were 671. The number of seamen had increased from 7,600 to 51,000. In the span of only four years, the American navy had become “a first class power.”

A shrewd judge of character, Welles had assembled an excellent team, including his dynamic assistant secretary, Gustavus Vasa Fox, and the industrious commandant of the Navy Yard, John Dahlgren. Welles had opposed the blockade but, once overruled, had enforced it with determination and skill. He had fought Lincoln on the admission of West Virginia as a state and the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, but he had never publicly vented his objections.

With Seward, Stanton, and Welles secure in their cabinet places, the resignation of Edward Bates provided the only opening for change in the immediate aftermath of the election. The seventy-one-year-old Bates had contemplated resigning the previous spring, after suffering through a winter of chronic illness. In May, his son Barton had pleaded with him to return to St. Louis. “The situation of affairs is such that you are not required to sacrifice your health and comfort for any good which you may possibly do,” urged Barton. “As to pecuniary matters, I know well that you have but little to fall back on…for the present at least make your home at my house & Julian’s, going from one to the other as suits your convenience…. You’ve done your share of work anyhow, & it is time the youngsters were working for you. If you had nothing at all, Julian and I could continue to take good care of you and Ma and the girls; & you know that we would do it as cheerfully as you ever worked for us, and we would greatly prefer to do it rather than you should be wearing yourself out as now with labor and cares unsuited to your age.”

The prospect of going home to children and grandchildren was attractive, especially to Julia Bates, whose wishes remained paramount with her husband after forty-one years of marriage. On their anniversary in late May, Bates happily noted that “our mutual affection is as warm, and our mutual confidence far stronger, than in the first week of marriage. This is god’s blessing.”

However, during the dark period that preceded the fall of Atlanta, when Bates believed “the fate of the nation hung, in doubt & gloom,” he did not feel he could leave his post. Nor did he wish to depart until Lincoln’s reelection was assured. “Now, on the contrary,” he wrote to Lincoln on November 24, 1864, “the affairs of the Government display a brighter aspect; and to you, as head & leader of the Government all the honor & good fortune that we hoped for, has come. And it seems to me, under these altered circumstances, that the time has come, when I may, without dereliction of duty, ask leave to retire to private life.”

Bates went on to express his profound gratitude to Lincoln “not only for your good opinion which led to my appointment, but also for your uniform & unvarying courtesy & kindness during the whole time in which we have been associated in the public service. The memory of that kindness & personal favor, I shall bear with me into private life, and hope to retain in my heart, as long as I live.”

Bates had served his president and his country faithfully. In his first months as Attorney General, though he had been uncomfortable confronting Justice Taney on the issue of arbitrary arrests, he had composed an elaborate opinion justifying Lincoln’s suspension of the writ of habeas corpus. When McClellan had refused to divulge his plans in early 1862, Bates had urged Lincoln to assume control of his commanders, advising him that the authority of the presidency stood above that of his generals, even on military matters. When the president read his first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation to the cabinet in July 1862, Bates had been one of the first to speak favorably. Though Bates never fully escaped from the racial prejudices formed in his early years—he continued to believe until the end of his life that emancipation should be accompanied by colonization—his ideas had evolved to the point where he supported some very progressive measures. When asked in 1864 to deliver a legal opinion on the controversial question of the unequal pay scale for black soldiers, he declared “unhesitatingly” that “persons of color” who were performing in the field the same duties as their white counterparts should receive “the same pay, bounty, and clothing.”

Abolitionists applauded this opinion along with an earlier one declaring blacks to be citizens of the United States. The citizenship issue had arisen when a commercial schooner plying the coastal trade was detained because its captain was a black man. The Dred Scott decision had declared that blacks were not citizens, and naval law required one to be a citizen to command a ship flying the American flag. When the question was put to him, Bates carefully researched definitions of citizenship dating back to Greek and Roman times. After much consideration, he concluded that place of birth, not color of skin, determined citizenship. The Dred Scott decision was wrong; free blacks were citizens of the United States.

Bates’s decision did not cover the status of slaves, nor did it suggest that citizenship implied the right of suffrage or the right to sit on juries. Nonetheless, as a local Washington paper noted at the time of his resignation: “Though esteemed by many as more conservative than the majority of his countrymen at the present day, Mr. Bates has given opinions involving the rights of the colored race which have been quite abreast with the times, and which will henceforth stand as landmarks of constitutional interpretation.”

From their first acquaintance, the relationship between Bates and Lincoln had been marked by warmth and cordiality. On occasion, Bates’s diary reveals frustration with Lincoln’s loose management style, which left the administration with “no system—no unity—no accountability—no subordination.” He believed Lincoln relied too heavily on Seward and Stanton. He could not fathom why the disloyal Chase had been kept in place for so long or why General Butler was not fired when complaints arose about his arbitrary arrests in Norfolk. In fact, Bates confided in his diary, his “chief fear” was “the President’s easy good nature.”

Nonetheless, by the end of his tenure as Attorney General, Bates had formed a more spacious understanding of the president’s unique leadership style. While troubled at the start by Lincoln’s “never-failing fund of anecdote,” he had come to realize that storytelling played a central role in the president’s ability to communicate with the public. “The character of the President’s mind is such,” Bates remarked, “that his thought habitually takes on this form of illustration, by which the point he wishes to enforce is invariably brought home with a strength and clearness impossible in hours of abstract argument.

“Mr. Lincoln,” Bates told Francis Carpenter, “comes very near being a perfect man, according to my ideal of manhood. He lacks but one thing…the element of will. I have sometimes told him, for instance, that he was unfit to be intrusted with the pardoning power. Why, if a man comes to him with a touching story, his judgment is almost certain to be affected by it. Should the applicant be a woman, a wife, a mother, or a sister,—in nine cases out of ten, her tears, if nothing else, are sure to prevail.”

As Bates prepared to leave Washington, each of his colleagues stopped to say goodbye, in contrast to the lonely leave-taking endured by Salmon Chase. Stanton was “especially civil,” Bates noted. “Told me to write to my sons, in the army and assure them that he would [do] any thing for them that they would expect me to do.” Bates joined Seward, Welles, and Usher in the president’s office for a “pleasant” farewell. The departing Attorney General was once again touched by the president’s “affable and kind” manner.

Bates left his colleagues and staff “with regret,” but with the knowledge that his life was forever connected with the history of his country. Because Lincoln had chosen him as his Attorney General, Edward Bates had been able to “leave a trail which might make known/That I once lived—when I am gone.”

To replace Bates, Lincoln felt he had to find a man from one of the border states. “My Cabinet has shrunk up North, and I must find a Southern man,” he explained to a colleague. “I suppose if the twelve Apostles were to be chosen nowadays the shrieks of locality would have to be heeded.” His first choice was Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt. The native Kentuckian had been one of the trio of cabinet members, together with Edwin Stanton and Jeremiah Black, who had stiffened Buchanan’s will to resist secession. Lincoln liked and respected Judge Holt, having worked closely with him on court-martial cases. Holt declined the offer, however, recommending instead his fellow Kentuckian James Speed, the older brother of Lincoln’s great friend Joshua. “I can recall no public man in the State of uncompromising loyalty,” Holt told Lincoln, “who unites in the same degree, the qualifications of professional attainments, fervent devotion to the union, & to the principles of your administration, & spotless points of personal character.”

Lincoln followed Holt’s recommendation that very day, sending a telegram to Speed. “I appoint you to be Attorney General. Please come on at once.” Though taken by surprise, Speed was honored to accept: “Will leave tomorrow for Washington.”

James Speed would prove to be an excellent choice. Over the years, he had arrived at a radical position on slavery. The previous spring, he and his brother, Joshua, had been instrumental in forming a new liberal party in conservative Kentucky, the Unconditional Union Party, which supported Lincoln’s reelection and emancipation. “I am a thorough Constitutional Abolitionist,” James Speed had declared during the fall campaign, meaning he, like Lincoln, was “for abolishing Slavery under the War Power of the National Constitution, and then clinching it by a Constitutional amendment prohibiting it everywhere forever.” Though unable to swing the state for Lincoln, the Unconditionalists remained hopeful that they might eventually direct Kentucky’s future. “We are less now but true,” James Speed had written Lincoln after the election.

To those unfamiliar with the Louisville lawyer, Lincoln explained that Speed was “a man I know well, though not so well as I know his brother Joshua. That, however, is not strange, for I slept with Joshua for four years, and I suppose I ought to know him well.” Lincoln’s ease in referring to his sleeping arrangement with Joshua Speed is further evidence that theirs was not a sexual relationship. Had it been, historian David Donald suggests, the president would not have spoken of it “so freely and publicly.”

“You will find,” Lincoln predicted as James Speed set out for Washington, “he is one of those well-poised men, not too common here, who are not spoiled by a big office.”

THE EASE WITH WHICH LINCOLN filled the post of Attorney General was not replicated when Roger Taney’s death in mid-October left vacant the seat of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Though Lincoln had initially planned to offer Salmon Chase the position, he discovered that three of his most loyal cabinet members—Edwin Stanton, Edward Bates, and Montgomery Blair—desired the honored post for themselves. He decided to postpone his choice until after the election.

Stanton’s claim seemed the most compelling. The Chief Justiceship was the only position, observed a longtime friend, “Stanton ever desired.” His brilliant legal career had brought him to argue numerous cases before the Supreme Court. Lifetime tenure would secure his family’s finances, which had diminished seriously during the war. His unstable health might be restored with the pressures of the war office removed. “You have been wearing out your life in the service of your country & have fulfilled the duties of your very responsible & laborious office with unexampled ability,” wrote his friend the Supreme Court justice Robert Grier. Though Grier himself was an obvious choice to fill Taney’s position, he believed Stanton deserved the honor. “It would give me the greatest pleasure and satisfaction,” he wrote Stanton, “to have you preside on our bench…. I think the Presowes it to you.”

Ellen Stanton, doubtless acting at her husband’s behest, invited Orville Browning to their house one Sunday night when Stanton was at City Point. “She expressed to me a great desire to have her husband appointed Chief Justice,” Browning recorded in his diary, “and wished me to see the President upon the subject. I fear Mr Chase’s appointment, and am anxious to prevent it. Mr Stanton is an able lawyer, learned in his profession, and fond of it, of great application, and capacity of endurance in labor—I think a just man—honest and upright, and incapable of corruption, and I, therefore, think would be an appointment most fit to be made. I will see the President upon the subject tomorrow.”

Methodist bishop Matthew Simpson also called on Lincoln to urge Stanton’s appointment “on the grounds of his fitness, and as a reward for his services and labors.” Lincoln “listened attentively” and then, “throwing his leg over a chair, and running his hands through his hair,” responded with heartfelt emotion: “Bishop, I believe every word you have said. But where can I get a man to take Secretary Stanton’s place? Tell me that, and I will do it.”

Like Lincoln, General Grant worried about losing Stanton’s indispensable talents in the War Department. At City Point, he urged the secretary to stay at his post. The strain of the situation likely contributed to Stanton’s ongoing illness that fall. In the end, Stanton informed Lincoln through a friend that he should no longer be considered “among candidates.” He “felt that the completion of the work he had in hand,” his sister Pamphila recalled, “was nearer to his heart, and a far higher ambition.”

A heartfelt note from Henry Ward Beecher helped to dispel Stanton’s disappointment at relinquishing his ambition. “The country cannot spare your services from your present place,” wrote the celebrated minister, “or I could wish that you might redeem Taney’s place and restore to that Court, the honor and trust of Marshall’s day…. I regard your administration of the War Department, from whatever point it is viewed, as one of the greatest features of this grand time. Your energy vitalizing industry, and fidelity, but above all, Your moral vision… are just as sure to give your name honor and fame…. If you were to die to-morrow you have done enough for your own fame already.”

In an emotional reply, Stanton told Beecher that he was deeply moved by his generous remarks. “Often, in dark hours, you have come before me, and I have longed to hear your voice, feeling that above all other men you could cheer, strengthen, guide, and uphold me in this great battle, where, by God’s providence, it has fallen upon me to hold a post and perform a duty beyond my own strength. But being a stranger I had no right to claim your confidence or ask for help…. Now, my dear Sir, your voice has reached me, and your hand is stretched forth as to a friend…. Already my heart feels renewed strength and is inspired with fresh hope.”

Montgomery Blair desired the post of Chief Justice even more fervently than Stanton. He had gracefully acceded to Lincoln’s request for his resignation, but the high appointment would certainly compensate for the remnant wound. His distinguished career as a lawyer had been defined by his eloquent representation of the slave Dred Scott in the case that had forever cast a blight on Justice Taney’s name. Monty had powerful backers, including Seward, Weed, and Welles, all of whom vastly preferred him to Chase. Welles told Lincoln that, of all the candidates, Blair “best conformed to these requirements—that the President knew the man, his ability, his truthfulness, honesty and courage.” Lincoln “expressed his concurrence…and spoke kindly and complimentarily of Mr. Blair but did not in any way commit himself, nor did I expect or suppose he would.”

Lincoln understood that the appointment mattered greatly, not only to Monty but to his father, who had taken his son’s forced resignation as a personal blow. A week after Taney died, the elder Blair wrote Lincoln an impassioned plea: “I beg you to indulge me with a little conference with you on paper about a thing which as involving a good deal of egotism, I am ashamed to talk about face to face.” He went on to describe the Blairs’ enduring loyalty to both the Union and the president. “Now I come,” he pressed, “to what I hope you will consider another & higher opportunity of serving you & the Republic by carrying your political principles & the support of your policy expressed in relation to the reconstruction of the Union & the support of the freedman’s proclamation, into the Supreme Court. I think Montgomery’s unswerving support of your administration in all its aspects coupled with his unfaltering attachment to you personally fits him to be your representative man at the head of that Bench.”

When Mary Lincoln warned Old Man Blair that “Chase and his friends are besieging my Husband for the Chief-Justiceship,” Blair discarded his embarrassment and requested a personal interview. Lincoln listened graciously as Monty’s father suggested that his son “had been tried as a Judge and not found wanting, that his practice in the West had made him conversant with our land law, Spanish law, as well as the common and civil law in which his university studies had grounded him, that his practice in the Supreme Court brought him into the circle of commercial and constitutional questions. That, besides on political issues he sustained him [the President] in every thing,” and “when Chase and every other member of [the] Cabinet declined to make war for Sumter, Montgomery stood by him.”

Lincoln agreed that Monty would admirably acquit himself as Chief Justice, but he was also aware that the nomination would produce a storm of criticism from his many enemies in the Congress. He had no desire to provoke unnecessary animosity among the radicals, who probably held sufficient power to deny confirmation. Nor did Lincoln trust where Monty Blair’s conservative philosophy would lead on issues surrounding Reconstruction and the integration of the country’s new black citizens.

The same objections most likely applied to Edward Bates. Believing the post would be “a crowning and retiring honor,” Bates had “personally solicited” Lincoln to consider his name. “If not overborne by others,” Lincoln told Bates, he would happily consider him for the post, but “Chase was turning every stone, to get it, and several others were urged, from different quarters.” Hearing this, Bates declared himself “happy in the feeling that the failure to get the place, will be no painful disappointment for my mind is made up to private life.”

In the end, Lincoln returned to his first impulse upon learning of Roger Taney’s illness—Salmon P. Chase. “Of Mr. Chase’s ability and of his soundness on the general issues of the war there is, of course, no question,” he told Chase’s friend Henry Wilson. “I have only one doubt about his appointment. He is a man of unbounded ambition, and has been working all his life to become President. That he can never be; and I fear that if I make him chief-justice he will simply become more restless and uneasy and neglect the place in his strife and intrigue to make himself President. If I were sure that he would go on the bench and give up his aspirations and do nothing but make himself a great judge, I would not hesitate a moment.” He made a similar comment when Schuyler Colfax gave his word that Chase “would dedicate the remainder of his life to the Bench.”

When supporters of other candidates reminded the president of Chase’s myriad intrigues against him, Lincoln responded, “Now, I know meaner things about Governor Chase than any of those men can tell me,” but “we have stood together in the time of trial, and I should despise myself if I allowed personal differences to affect my judgment of his fitness for the office.”

Chase remained in Ohio throughout this tumult, confident that the nomination would be his. Oblivious to Stanton’s own hopes, he told the war secretary two days after Taney’s death that “within the last three or four months I have been assured that it was the Presidents intention, to offer the place to me in case of a vacancy. I think I should accept it if offered: for I am weary of political life & work.” However, when weeks passed with no word from the president, Chase anxiously decided to come to Washington. Fessenden and Sumner assured him that the appointment would be made as soon as the elections were over, but Lincoln waited until December 6 to announce his choice.

That morning, Chase’s friend John Alley of Massachusetts had called on the president. “I have something to tell you that will make you happy,” Lincoln announced. “I have just sent Mr. Chase word that he is to be appointed Chief-Justice, and you are the first man I have told of it.” Alley enthusiastically replied, “Mr. President, this is an exhibition of magnanimity and patriotism that could hardly be expected of any one. After what he has said against your administration, which has undoubtedly been reported to you, it was hardly to be expected that you would bestow the most important office within your gift on such a man.”

“To have done otherwise I should have been recreant to my convictions of duty to the Republican party and to the country,” Lincoln answered. “As to his talk about me, I do not mind that. Chase is, on the whole, a pretty good fellow and a very able man. His only trouble is that he has ‘the White House fever’ a little too bad, but I hope this may cure him and that he will be satisfied.”

Lincoln later told Senator Chandler that personally he “would rather have swallowed his buckhorn chair than to have nominated Chase,” but the decision was right for the country. “Probably no other man than Lincoln,” Nicolay wrote to Therena, “would have had, in this age of the world, the degree of magnanimity to thus forgive and exalt a rival who had so deeply and so unjustifiably intrigued against him. It is however only another most marked illustration of the greatness of the President.”

Chase got the official word from Kate when he arrived home that night. He immediately sat down to write the president. “I cannot sleep before I thank [you] for this mark of your confidence…. Be assured that I prize your confidence & good will more than nomination or office.”

On December 15, the Supreme Court was “overflowing with an immense throng of dignitaries of various degrees, ladies, congressmen, foreign ministers, and others who wished to view the simple but impressive ceremony of swearing in the chief judicial officer of the republic.” Kate Sprague and her sister, Nettie, were there, “gorgeously dressed,” according to Noah Brooks. Secretary Seward was also present, along with Nathaniel Banks, Ben Wade, Reverdy Johnson, and Charles Sumner, whose “handsome features plainly showed his inward glow of gratification.” At the usher’s solemn announcement, everyone stood as the robed justices entered the room. The senior justice, James W. Wayne, administered the oath, which Chase “read in a clear but tremulous voice.” When he finished, Chase “lifted his right hand, looked upward to the beautiful dome of the court-room, and with deep feeling added, ‘So help me God.’”

“I hope the President may have no occasion to regret his selection,” Gideon Welles confided in his diary, sharing Lincoln’s apprehension that Chase would “use the place for political advancement and thereby endanger confidence in the court.” Still, Lincoln believed the risk worth taking. He trusted that Chase would help secure the rights of the black man, for which he had fought throughout his career, a belief that outweighed concerns about Chase’s restless temperament.

Chase quickly justified Lincoln’s confidence in this regard. Within hours of Chase’s accession to the Court, John Rock, a black lawyer from Massachusetts, wrote a hopeful letter to Charles Sumner. Rock had been seeking to practice before the Supreme Court for over a year, but his efforts had been denied on the basis of his race. “We now have a great and good man for our Chief Justice, and with him I think my color will not be a bar to my admission,” he wrote. Sumner immediately contacted Chase, who was delighted to pursue the cause of opening the Court to its first black barrister.

Six weeks later, Sumner stood before the Supreme Court as Rock’s sponsor: “May it please the Court, I move that John S. Rock, a member of the Supreme Court of the State of Massachusetts, be admitted to practice as a member of this Court.” Then, with Chase’s assent, Rock stepped forward for the oath that would allow him to practice before the highest court in the land. “This event,” Harper’s Weekly observed, represented an “extraordinary reversal” of the decision in the Dred Scott case. Rock’s admission, Harper’s predicted, would “be regarded by the future historian as a remarkable indication of the revolution which is going on in the sentiment of a great people.”

MARY LINCOLN TOOK special satisfaction in her husband’s reelection. The White House “has been quite a Mecca of late,” she wrote to her friend Mercy Conkling. “We are surrounded, at all times, by a great deal of company,” and “it has been gratifying, from all quarters, to receive so many kind & congratulatory letters, so fraught, with good feeling.”

Mary’s pleasure in her husband’s victory reflected more than simple pride. During the fall election, she had been terrified that his defeat might signal merchants in New York and Philadelphia—to whom she still owed substantial sums—to call in her debt. “I owe altogether about twenty-seven thousand dollars,” she confided in Elizabeth Keckley. “Mr. Lincoln has but little idea of the expense of a woman’s wardrobe. He glances at my rich dresses, and is happy in the belief that the few hundred dollars that I obtain from him supply all my wants. I must dress in costly materials. The people scrutinize every article that I wear with critical curiosity. The very fact of having grown up in the West, subjects me to more searching observation. To keep up appearances, I must have money—more than Mr. Lincoln can spare for me. He is too honest to make a penny outside of his salary; consequently I had, and still have, no alternative but to run in debt.”

Although padded bills and attempts to trade upon her White House influence exposed her to serious scandal, Mary could not curtail her excessive spending habits. “Here is the carriage of Mrs Lincoln before a dry goods Store,” Judge Taft noted four weeks after the election, “her footman has gone into the Store. The Clerk is just going out to the carriage (where Mrs L is waiting) with some pieces of goods for her to choose from. I should rather think that she would have a better chance at the goods if she was to go into the Store but then she might get jostled and gazed at and that too would be doing just as the common people do. The footman holds the carriage door open. The driver sits on the box and hold[s] the horses. Mrs L. thumbs the goods and asks a great many questions.”

A week later, Mary journeyed to Philadelphia for another shopping trip. Not long afterward, she visited New York, where she purchased a new dress, expensive furs, and “300 pairs of kid gloves.” When the items she purchased did not measure up to her expectations, her manic sprees quickly gave way to depression and anger. “I can neither wear, or settle with you, for my bonnet without different inside flowers,” she threatened a milliner in New York. “I cannot retain or wear the bonnet, as it is—I am certainly taught a lesson, by your acting thus.”

Mary’s self-conscious attention to the details of her bonnet was not entirely misplaced. Newspaper reports of her evening receptions invariably commented on every piece of her apparel. At the first White House levee of the new winter season, the National Republican noted that she “was charmingly and elegantly attired…dressed in a rich, plain white silk, with heavy black lace flounce and black lace shawl, and upon her head was a coronet of white and purple flowers—a most tasteful decoration.” Her outfit at a state dinner a few weeks later drew equal praise. “Mrs. Lincoln was tastefully attired in a heavy black and white spotted silk, elegantly trimmed with black lace, her headdress and rich set of jewelry harmonizing throughout.”

The new season brought new rules of etiquette for visitors at public receptions at the White House: “Overcoats, hats, caps, bonnets, shawls, cloaks &c. should be deposited in the several ante-rooms provided for that purpose, and where they will be in charge of proper persons for safekeeping.” The new arrangement pleased the Washington social elite, who began returning to the open receptions they had shunned. A reporter for the National Republican noted on the part of all the guests “a more general observance of the proprieties of dress and demeanor,” which seemed to suggest “increasing respect for the President, his family and themselves.”

Mary also took great pride in her informal Blue Room receptions, which continued to draw distinguished visitors. She was particularly gratified by the regular appearance of Charles Sumner. The handsome senator, though in his early fifties, was considered one of the most eligible bachelors in Washington. “I was pleased,” Mary later recalled, “knowing he visited no other lady—His time was so immersed in his business—and that cold & haughty looking man to the world—would insist upon my telling him all the news, & we would have such frequent and delightful conversations & often late in the evening—My darling husband would join us & they would laugh together, like two school boys.”

However, the prestige and pleasure of her second term as first lady could not assuage Mary’s lingering grief over the loss of Willie. Over two years after her son’s death, it was still difficult for her to enter the library, which had been one of his favorite rooms. Her “darling Boy!”—“the idolized child, of the household”—was never far from her mind. “I have sometimes feared,” she admitted to a friend, “that the deep waters, through which we have passed would overwhelm me.” In the absence of her gentle son, “The World, has lost so much, of its charm. My position, requires my presence, where my heart is so far from being.”

After Willie’s death, Mary had been determined not to allow her oldest son, Robert, to risk his life in the army. But after his graduation from Harvard, she could no longer detain him. In January 1865, Lincoln wrote to General Grant: “Please read and answer this letter as though I was not President, but only a friend. My son, now in his twenty second year, having graduated at Harvard, wishes to see something of the war before it ends. I do not wish to put him in the ranks, nor yet to give him a commission, to which those who have already served long, are better entitled, and better qualified to hold. Could he, without embarrassment to you, or detriment to the service, go into your Military family with some nominal rank, I, and not the public, furnishing his necessary means? If no, say so without the least hesitation, because I am as anxious, and as deeply interested, that you shall not be encumbered.”

Grant replied two days later. “I will be most happy to have him in my Military family,” he wrote. He suggested that the rank of captain would be most appropriate. So Robert’s wish to join the army was granted. Stationed at Grant’s headquarters, Robert “soon became exceedingly popular,” Horace Porter recalled. “He was always ready to perform his share of hard work, and never expected to be treated differently from any other officer on account of his being the son of the Chief Executive of the nation.”

IN THE FIRST DAYS OF 1865, Gideon Welles was preoccupied with thoughts of “passing time and accumulating years.” His wistful contemplation was shared by Salmon Chase. On the first of January, the Chief Justice’s last surviving sister, Helen, was buried in Ohio. Of ten siblings, only Chase and his brother Edward, both in their mid-fifties, remained alive. Chase wrote to Lincoln explaining that the death of his sister precluded his attendance at the traditional New Year’s reception. “Without your note of to-day,” Lincoln promptly replied, “I should have felt assured that some sufficient reason had detained you. Allow me to condole with you in the sad bereavement.”

One of the guests at the White House reception noted “a great contrast between this ‘New Years’ and any previous one for the past three years, four years ago there was a solemn stillness, a burthensome weight hanging upon the minds of all, a fearful foreboding of Evil, a dread of the future. It was but little better three years or two years ago…. Even one year ago we could scarcely see any light. Today all are in good spirits.”

The stunning success of Sherman’s March to the Sea, which had ended with the capture of Savannah on Christmas Day, was largely responsible for the ebullience that prevailed in Washington. “Our joy was irrepressible,” recalled Assistant Treasury Secretary Hugh McCulloch, “because it was an assurance that the days of the Confederacy were numbered.” The president had initially been “anxious, if not fearful,” about Sherman’s plan to abandon his supply lines and trust that his men could forage for necessary food and provisions along the way. The day after Savannah fell, Lincoln recalled his skepticism in a gracious note to Sherman: “The honor is all yours; for I believe none of us went farther than to acquiesce.”

Sherman’s March to the Sea proved devastating to Southern property and countryside. Frank Blair, whose troops played a major role in the historic march, rationalized the indiscriminate destruction in a letter to his father: “We have destroyed nearly four hundred miles of Railroad, severing the western from the Eastern part of the Confederacy, and we have burned millions of dollars worth of cotton which is the only thing that enables them to maintain credit abroad & to purchase arms & munitions of war & we have actually ‘gobbled’ up enough provisions to have fed Lee’s army for six months.” Though the military gains justified the march in the minds of Union soldiers, the memory of its terrible impact on civilian lives haunts the South to this day.

In his congratulatory note to Sherman, Lincoln also paid tribute to General George Thomas, who had defeated Hood’s forces at Nashville ten days earlier. News of the two victories, Lincoln wrote, brought “those who sat in darkness, to see a great light.” The telegram announcing Thomas’s victory had been carried to Stanton in the middle of the night. “Hurrah,” Stanton cried as he hurriedly dressed and rushed to the White House with Thomas Eckert, the chief of the telegraph office. Eckert would long remember the delight on Lincoln’s face when he heard the news. Standing at the top of the stairs “in his night-dress, with a lighted candle in his hand,” the tall president created an arresting tableau.

The fall of Fort Fisher, which guarded the port of Wilmington, North Carolina, followed in mid-January. Headlines trumpeted the “Combined Work of the Army and Navy!,” which had gained the capture of the fort and its seventy-two large-caliber guns. “This glorious work,” hailed the National Republican, “closes the port of Wilmington, and shuts off supplies to the rebels from abroad.” Gideon Welles was ecstatic, recording that at the cabinet meeting that morning, “there was a very pleasant feeling. Seward thought there was little now for the Navy to do…. The President was happy.” The defeat was shattering to Southern logistics and morale. Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens considered the fall of Fort Fisher “one of the greatest disasters which had befallen our Cause from the beginning of the war—not excepting the loss of Vicksburg or Atlanta.” With nearly every other port closed by the naval blockade, the closing of Wilmington signaled “the complete shutting out of the Confederate States from all intercourse by sea with Foreign Countries,” bringing an end to the exchange of cotton for vitally needed munitions and supplies.

Stanton was in Savannah, Georgia, for a conference with Sherman when “the rebel flag of Fort Fisher was delivered to [him].” Eager to see the battleground, he journeyed to North Carolina, where he spent the night with General Rufus Saxton and his wife. When he arrived, he warned his hosts that “fatigue would compel him to retire early,” but, relaxing before the fire, surrounded by a collection of books, he revived. “Ah, here are old friends,” he said, picking up a volume of Macauley’s poetry from the table. He asked Mrs. Saxton to read “Horatius at the Bridge,” which he followed with “The Battle of Ivry.” Midnight found him still seated by the fire, “repeating snatches of poetry.” During his stay, Mrs. Saxton noted, “the Titan War Secretary was replaced by the genial companion, the man of letters, the lover of nature—the real Stanton.” For a few hours, Stanton allowed himself the distraction and the levity he had often decried in Lincoln.

Stanton had journeyed south to confer with Sherman, concerned by reports of the general’s hostile behavior toward the black refugees who were arriving by the thousands into his lines. It was said that Sherman opposed their employment as soldiers, drove them from his camp even when they were starving, and manifested toward them “an almost criminal dislike.” Sherman countered that the movement of his military columns was hindered “by the crowds of helpless negroes that flock after our armies…clogging my roads, and eating up our substance.” Military success, he felt, had to take precedence over treatment of the Negroes.

In his conversations with Stanton, however, Sherman agreed to issue “Special Field Orders, No. 15,” a temporary plan to allocate “a plot of not more than forty acres of tillable ground” to help settle the tide of freed slaves along the coast of Georgia and on the neighboring islands. Stanton returned home feeling more at ease about the situation. In the weeks that followed, Congress followed up by creating a Freedmen’s Bureau with authority to distribute lands and provide assistance to displaced refugees throughout the South.

NOTHING ON THE HOME FRONT in January engaged Lincoln with greater urgency than the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery. He had long feared that his Emancipation Proclamation would be discarded once the war came to an end. “A question might be raised whether the proclamation was legally valid,” he said. “It might be added that it only aided those who came into our lines…or that it would have no effect upon the children of the slaves born hereafter.” Passage of a constitutional amendment eradicating slavery once and for all would be “a King’s cure for all the evils.”

The previous spring, the Thirteenth Amendment had passed in the Senate by two thirds but failed to garner the necessary two-thirds vote in the House, where Republicans had voted aye and Democrats nay along nearly unanimous party lines. In his annual message in December, Lincoln had urged Congress to reconsider the measure. He acknowledged that he was asking the same body to debate the same question, but he hoped the intervening election had altered the situation. Republican gains in November ensured that if he called a special session after March 4, the amendment would pass. Since it was “only a question of time,” how much better it would be if this Congress could complete the job, if Democrats as well as Republicans could be brought to support its passage in a show of bipartisan unity.

Congressman James M. Ashley of Ohio reintroduced the measure into the House on January 6, 1865. Lincoln set to work at once to sway the votes of moderate Democrats and border-state Unionists. He invited individual House members to his office, dealing gracefully and effectively with each one. “I have sent for you as an old whig friend,” he told Missouri’s James Rollins, “that I might make an appeal to you to vote for this amendment. It is going to be very close, a few votes one way or the other will decide it.” He emphasized the importance of sending a signal to the South that the border states could no longer be relied upon to uphold slavery. This would “bring the war,” he predicted, “rapidly to a close.” When Rollins agreed to support the amendment, Lincoln jumped from his chair and grasped the congressman’s hands, expressing his profound gratitude. The two old Whigs then discussed the leanings of the various members of the Missouri delegation, determining which members might be persuaded. “Tell them of my anxiety to have the measure pass,” Lincoln urged, “and let me know the prospect of the border state vote.”

He assigned two of his allies in the House to deliver the votes of two wavering members. When they asked how to proceed, he said, “I am President of the United States, clothed with great power. The abolition of slavery by constitutional provision settles the fate, for all coming time, not only of the millions now in bondage, but of unborn millions to come—a measure of such importance that those two votes must be procured. I leave it to you to determine how it shall be done; but remember that I am President of the United States, clothed with immense power, and I expect you to procure those votes.” It was clear to his emissaries that his powers extended to plum assignments, pardons, campaign contributions, and government jobs for relatives and friends of faithful members. Brooklyn Democrat Moses F. Odell agreed to change his vote; when the session ended, he was given the lucrative post of navy agent in New York. Elizabeth Blair noted that her father had successfully joined in the lobbying effort, persuading several members.

Ashley learned that the Camden & Amboy Railroad could secure the vote of two New Jersey Democrats if Senator Sumner could be convinced to postpone a bill he had introduced to end the monopoly the railroad enjoyed. Unable to move Sumner, Ashley asked Lincoln to intervene. Lincoln regretfully replied that he could “do nothing with Mr. Sumner in these matters,” and feared if he tried, Sumner “would be all the more resolute.”

As the vote neared, pressure intensified. The leader of the opposition was McClellan’s running mate, Democrat George Pendleton of Ohio. “Though he had been defeated in the election,” observed Senator James Blaine, “he returned to the House with increased prestige among his own political associates.” Democrats who considered changing their vote were made to understand that dire consequences would follow if they failed to maintain the party line on an issue compromising the sanctity of states’ rights and effecting a fundamental shift in the Constitution.

Both sides knew that the outcome would be decided by the thinnest of margins. “We are like whalers,” Lincoln observed, “who have been long on a chase: we have at last got the harpoon into the monster, but we must now look how we steer, or with one ‘flop’ of his tail he will send us all into eternity.” On the morning of the scheduled vote, Ashley feared that the entire effort would collapse. Rumors circulated that Confederate Peace Commissioners were on the way to Washington or had already arrived in the capital. “If it is true,” Ashley urgently wrote to the president, “I fear we shall [lose] the bill.” The Democratic leadership would prevail upon wavering party members, arguing that the amendment would lead the commissioners to abort the peace talks. “Please authorize me to contradict it, if not true,” Ashley entreated.

“So far as I know,” Lincoln promptly replied, “there are no peace Commissioners in the City, or likely to be in it.” Ashley later learned that Lincoln, in fact, had been informed that three Peace Commissioners were en route to Fort Monroe, but he could honestly, if insincerely, claim that no commissioners were in the capital city. Without this cunning evasion, Ashley believed, “the proposed amendment would have failed.”

As the debate opened, Ashley acknowledged that “never before, and certain I am that never again, will I be seized with so strong a desire to give utterance to the thoughts and emotions which throbbed my heart and brain.” The amendment’s passage would signal “the complete triumph of a cause, which at the beginning of my political life I had not hoped to live long enough to see.”

Ashley recalled, “Every available foot of space, both in the galleries and on the floor of the House, was crowded at an early hour, and many hundred could not get within hearing.” Chief Justice Chase and the members of the Supreme Court were present, along with Seward, Fessenden, and Dennison representing the cabinet. Dozens of senators had come to witness the historic debate, as had members of most foreign ministries.

Ashley wisely decided to yield his time to the small band of Democrats who would support the amendment but needed to justify their shift to constituents. He called first on Archibald McAllister. The Pennsylvania congressman explained that he had changed his mind when he saw that the only way to achieve peace was to destroy “the corner-stone of the Southern Confederacy.” His remarks brought forth applause from the galleries, as did those of his colleague Alexander Coffroth. “If by my action to-day I dig my political grave,” the congressman from Somerset County proclaimed, “I will descend into it without a murmur.”

After every Democrat who wanted to speak had been heard, the voting began. “Hundreds of tally sheets had been distributed on the floor and in the galleries,” Ashley recorded. It appeared at first that the amendment had fallen two or three votes short of the requisite two-thirds margin. The floor was in tumult when Speaker Colfax stood to announce the final tally. His voice shaking, he said, “On the passage of the Joint Resolution to amend the Constitution of the United States the ayes have 119, the noes 56. The constitutional majority of two thirds having voted in the affirmative, the Joint Resolution has passed.” Without the five Democrats who had changed their votes, the amendment would have lost.

“For a moment there was a pause of utter silence,” Noah Brooks reported, “as if the voices of the dense mass of spectators were choked by strong emotion. Then there was an explosion, a storm of cheers, the like of which probably no Congress of the United States ever heard before.”

“Before the members left their seats,” Congressman Arnold recalled, “the roar of artillery from Capitol Hill announced to the people of Washington that the amendment had passed.” Ashley brought to the War Department a list of all those who had voted in favor. Stanton ordered three additional batteries to “fire one hundred guns with their heaviest charges” while he slowly read each name aloud, proclaiming, “History will embalm them in great honor.”

Lincoln’s friends raced to the White House to share the news. “The passage of the resolution,” recalled Arnold, “filled his heart with joy. He saw in it the complete consummation of his own great work, the emancipation proclamation.” The following evening, Lincoln spoke to celebrants gathered at the White House. “The occasion was one of congratulation to the country and to the whole world,” he said. “But there is a task yet before us—to go forward and consummate by the votes of the States that which Congress so nobly began.” The audience responded with cheers. “They will do it” was the confident cry. And, indeed, the legislatures in twenty states acted almost immediately. Before the year 1865 was out, the requisite three quarters had spoken putting a dramatic end to the slavery issue that had disturbed the nation’s tranquillity from its earliest days.

No praise must have been more welcome to Lincoln than that of his old critic, the fiery abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. “And to whom is the country more immediately indebted for this vital and saving amendment of the Constitution than, perhaps, to any other man?” Garrison asked a cheering crowd at the Boston Music Hall. “I believe I may confidently answer—to the humble railsplitter of Illinois—to the Presidential chain-breaker for millions of the oppressed—to Abraham Lincoln!”

THE STORY OF the Peace Commissioners, whose presence had almost derailed the vote on the new amendment, had begun with Francis Preston Blair. Lincoln’s reelection had convinced the old editor that another attempt at peace might be successful. Lincoln remained unconvinced that talks at this juncture would be effective, but Blair was so anxious to try that Lincoln gave him a pass for Richmond. It was understood, however, that he was proceeding on his own, without authority to speak for the president.

After leaving Lincoln, Blair wrote two letters to Jefferson Davis. The first, designed for public consumption, requested simply “the privilege of visiting Richmond” to inquire about the papers Blair had lost when General Early’s troops took possession of his Silver Spring house. The second revealed that his “main purpose” in coming was to discuss “the state of the affairs of our country.” He promised to “unbosom [his] heart frankly & without reserve,” hopeful that some good might result.

On January 11, 1865, the seventy-three-year-old Blair arrived in Richmond, where he was greeted warmly by numerous old friends. Jefferson Davis’s wife, Varina, “threw her arms around him” and said, “Oh you Rascal, I am overjoyed to see you.” Seated with President Davis in the library of the Confederate White House, Blair conceded his proposal “might be the dreams of an old man,” but he was confident of Davis’s “practical good sense” and “utmost frankness.” He reminded Davis of his own deep attachment to the South. “Every drop” of his own blood and his children’s sprang from “a Southern source.” Davis responded with equal warmth, assuring Blair that he “would never forget” the many “kindnesses” exhibited by the Blairs toward the Davis family, and that “even when dying they would be remembered in his prayers.”

Blair presented his proposal, which would essentially postpone the war between the North and the South while the armies allied against the French, who had invaded Mexico and installed a puppet regime in violation of the Monroe Doctrine. Davis agreed that nothing would better heal the raw emotions on both sides “than to see the arms of our countrymen from the North and the South united in a war upon a Foreign Power.” The specifics of this improbable and unauthorized plan, reminiscent of Seward’s proposal four years earlier, were not discussed, though Davis agreed to send Peace Commissioners to Washington “with a view to secure peace to the two Countries.”

Though tired from his arduous journey back to Washington by carriage, train, and steamer, Blair rushed to the White House and delivered the Davis letter to the president. Lincoln consulted Stanton, who pointedly noted: “There are not two countries…and there never will be two countries. Tell Davis that if you treat for peace, it will be for this one country; negotiations on any other basis are impossible.” Lincoln immediately agreed. “You may say to him,” Lincoln directed Blair, “that I have constantly been, am now, and shall continue, ready to receive any agent…with the view of securing peace to the people of our one common country.”

Blair returned straightaway to Richmond with Lincoln’s response, and Davis called a cabinet meeting at his home to discuss his next move. His advisers recognized the irreconcilable conflict between the concepts of “two countries” and “one common country,” but the insistent clamor for peace had convinced Davis to send three commissioners to Fort Monroe—Vice President Alexander Stephens, former United States senator R. M. T. Hunter, and former Supreme Court Justice John A. Campbell.

On Sunday, January 29, a flag of truce flown at Petersburg announced the arrival of the commissioners. “By common consent all picket firing was suspended,” the New York Herald reported, “and the lines of both armies presented the appearance of a gala day.” Viewed as “harbingers of peace,” the three gentlemen elicited “prolonged and enthusiastic” applause from both sides, revealing the depth of the soldiers’ desire to end the fighting and return to their families and homes. One reporter noted that when rival songs were played by Southern and Northern bands—“Dixie” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy”—each side responded only to its own patriotic air, “but when the band struck up ‘Home Sweet Home,’ the opposing camps forgot their hostility, and united in vociferous tribute to the common sentiment.”

A Union colonel escorted the commissioners to Grant’s headquarters at City Point. “It was night when we arrived,” Alexander Stephens later recalled. “There was nothing in [Grant’s] appearance or surroundings which indicated his official rank. There were neither guards nor aids about him…. I was instantly struck with the great simplicity and perfect naturalness of his manners, and the entire absence of everything like affectation, show, or even the usual military air or mien of men in his position. He was plainly attired, sitting in a log-cabin, busily writing on a small table, by a Kerosene lamp…. His conversation was easy and fluent, without the least effort or restraint.” After talking for a while, Grant escorted them to the steamship Mary Martin, where he had arranged “comfortable quarters” for his three distinguished visitors. Though Grant was not authorized to discuss the peace mission itself, Stephens got the impression that he was very anxious for “the return of peace and harmony throughout the country.”

Meanwhile, at Lincoln’s request, Seward headed south to meet with the commissioners. “You will make known to them that three things are indispensable,” Lincoln wrote: “The restoration of the national authority…. No receding, by the Executive of the United States on the Slavery question…. No cessation of hostilities short of an end of the war.” If these three conditions were accepted, he was to tell them that all other propositions would be met with “a spirit of sincere liberality.” After riding the train to Annapolis, Seward boarded Grant’s flagship, the River Queen, and proceeded to Fort Monroe.

Before Seward could interview the commissioners, word reached Lincoln that President Davis had instructed them to negotiate peace for two countries. The president felt he had no choice but to recall Seward, until an urgent telegram from Grant changed his mind. Grant was “convinced,” he had written to Stanton, after talking with the three men “that their intentions are good,” and he believed that “their going back without any expression from any one in authority will have a bad influence.” Given the complexity of the situation, Grant wished that the president could meet with them personally. “Induced by a despatch of Gen. Grant,” Lincoln promptly telegraphed Seward and Grant, “Say to the gentlemen I will meet them personally at Fortress-Monroe, as soon as I can get there.”

Accompanied by a single valet and an overnight bag, the president left Washington two hours later on a train headed to Annapolis. There, the steamer Thomas Collyer, “supposed to be the fastest in the world,” stood ready to take him to Fort Monroe. “Upon getting out of the bay,” noted a Herald correspondent who had boarded the vessel before the president arrived, “we encountered large fields of ice, through which we passed slowly.” The steamer finally arrived at Fort Monroe a little past ten that evening, and Lincoln joined Seward on the River Queen.

The four-hour meeting, known as the Hampton Roads Conference, took place the next day in the saloon of the River Queen, which had been lashed to the Mary Martin the night before and “gaily decked out with a superabundance of streamers and flags.” After everyone was introduced, Stephens opened the conversation with warm memories of his days as Lincoln’s congressional colleague nearly two decades earlier. The president “responded in a cheerful and cordial manner,” Stephens recalled, “as if the remembrance of those times…had awakened in him a train of agreeable reflections.” They talked for several minutes of old acquaintances before Stephens asked, “Well, Mr. President, is there no way of putting an end to the present trouble, and bringing about a restoration of the general good feeling and harmony then existing between the different States and Sections of the country?”

The conversation that followed, Seward later wrote, “was altogether informal. There was no attendance of secretaries, clerks, or other witnesses. Nothing was written or read.” The only other person who entered the room was the “steward, who came in occasionally to see if anything was wanted, and to bring in water, cigars, and other refreshments.”

In reply to the question posed by Stephens, Lincoln attested that “there was but one way that he knew of, and that was, for those who were resisting the laws of the Union to cease that resistance.” Stephens countered with the hope for a temporary solution that would integrate their respective armies to fight the French “until the passions on both sides might cool.”

“I suppose you refer to something Mr. Blair has said,” Lincoln replied. “Now it is proper to state at the beginning, that whatever he said was of his own accord…. The restoration of the Union is a sine qua non with me.” There could be no substantive talk of an armistice or postponement until “the resistance ceased and the National Authority was recognized.” Attempting to circumvent this declaration, Hunter recalled that Charles I of England had entered repeatedly into arrangements with his adversaries despite ongoing hostilities. “I do not profess to be posted in history,” Lincoln answered. “On all such matters I will turn you over to Seward. All I distinctly recollect about the case of Charles I, is, that he lost his head in the end.”

Judge Campbell then turned the conversation to the question of “how restoration was to take place, supposing that the Confederate States were consenting to it.” This opened a discussion of slavery, which Seward addressed by reciting verbatim from Lincoln’s annual address in which he had said that he would not “attempt to retract or modify the Emancipation Proclamation, nor…return to slavery any person who is free by the terms of that Proclamation.” Moreover, Seward said, he felt obliged to inform the commissioners that Congress had just passed a constitutional amendment banning slavery throughout the entire United States.

They had clearly reached an impasse, but the conversation continued in an amicable tone. Lincoln let the commissioners know that “he would be willing to be taxed to remunerate the Southern people for their slaves.” He was fairly confident “the people of the North” would sustain him with “an appropriation as high as Four Hundred Millions of Dollars for this purpose.” On the question of some sort of postponement of hostilities prior to the end of the war, Lincoln was immovable. The conference drew to a close without agreement on any issue.

Before any outcome was made public, the radicals had worked themselves into “a fury of rage,” certain that the president “was about to give up the political fruits which had been already gathered from the long and exhausting military struggle.” Fearing Lincoln would turn his back on emancipation, Thaddeus Stevens excoriated him on the floor of the House. In the Senate, “the leading members of the Committee on the Conduct of the War” roundly castigated the very idea of the conference, predicting that “we shall be sold out, and that the Peace we shall obtain, if any we do, will dishonor us.” Both branches passed a resolution calling for a full report on the proceedings. Even Stanton worried that the president’s kindheartedness “might lead him to make some admission which the astute Southerners would wilfully misconstrue and twist to serve their purpose.”

Lincoln’s report on the conference, complete with the telegrams and documents preceding it, was “read amidst a breathless silence in the hall, every member being in his seat. A low gush of satisfaction broke out when the phrase ‘one common country’ was read in the Blair letter, and an involuntary burst followed the annunciation of the three conditions of peace, given to Seward.” Noah Brooks observed that “as the reading of the message and documents went on, the change which took place in the moral atmosphere of the hall of the House was obvious. The appearance of grave intentness passed away, and members smilingly exchanged glances as they began to appreciate Lincoln’s sagacious plan for unmasking the craftiness of the rebel leaders.” When the presentation was done, “there was an instant and irrepressible storm of applause…it was like a burst of refreshing rain after a long and heartbreaking drought.” Representatives vied with one another to praise the president. Even Thaddeus Stevens “paid a high tribute to the sagacity, wisdom, and patriotism of President Lincoln.”

“Indeed,” Harper’s Weekly observed, “nothing but the foolish assumption of four years ago, that Mr. Lincoln was unfit for his office,” could explain the fatuous predictions that he would “flinch and falter” before the Southern delegates. “If there is any man in the country who comprehends the scope of the war more fully than the President, who is he?…We venture to say that there is no man in our history who has shown a more felicitous combination of temperament, conviction, and ability to grapple with a complication like that in which this country is involved than Abraham Lincoln.”

Jefferson Davis pragmatically employed the failed conference to incite greater effort on the battlefield, pledging that “he would be willing to yield up everything he had on earth” before acceding to Northern demands. He predicted that before another year had passed, the South would be able to secure peace on its own terms, with separation and slavery intact. “I can have no ‘common country’ with the Yankees,” he announced. “My life is bound up in the Confederacy; and, if any man supposes that, under any circumstances, I can be an agent of reconstruction of the Union, he has mistaken every element of my nature!”

Still, Lincoln did not relinquish hope that he might somehow bring the war to an honorable end before tens of thousands more young men had to die. Following his Hampton Roads suggestion of compensated emancipation, he drafted a proposal that Congress empower him “to pay four hundred millions of dollars” to the Southern states, distributed according to “their respective slave populations.” The first half would be paid if “all resistance to the national authority” came to an end by April 1; the second half would be allocated if the Thirteenth Amendment were ratified by July 1. At that point, with the armed rebellion at an end, the Union restored, and slavery eradicated, “all political offences will be pardoned” and “all property, except slaves, liable to confiscation or forfeiture, will be released.” Furthermore, “liberality will be recommended to congress upon all points not lying within executive control.”

The proposition met with unanimous disapproval from the cabinet, all of whom were present except Seward. “The earnest desire of the President to conciliate and effect peace was manifest,” Welles recorded, “but there may be such a thing as so overdoing as to cause a distrust or adverse feeling.” Usher believed that the radicals in Congress “would make it the occasion of a violent assault on the President.” Stanton had long maintained that it was unnecessary and wasteful to talk about compensation for slaves already freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. Fessenden declared “that the only way to effectually end the war was by force of arms, and that until the war was thus ended no proposition to pay money would come from us.”

Lincoln pointed out that the sum he proposed was simply the cost of continuing the war for another one or two hundred days, “to say nothing of the lives lost and property destroyed.” Still, the cabinet was adamant. “You are all against me,” Lincoln said, his voice filled with sadness. “His heart was so fully enlisted in behalf of such a plan that he would have followed it if only a single member of his Cabinet had supported him,” Usher thought. Had Seward been there, Usher mused, “he would probably have approved the measure.” Without a trace of support among his colleagues at the table, Lincoln felt compelled to forsake his proposition, which, in any event, as Jefferson Davis had made clear, was unacceptable to the Confederacy. So the war would continue until the South capitulated.

MEANWHILE, THE WAR FRONT continued to generate good news for the Union. After capturing Savannah, Sherman had headed north to Columbia, reaching the state capital of South Carolina on February 17. Columbia’s fall led to the evacuation of Charleston. Stanton ordered “a national salute” fired from “every fort arsenal and army headquarters of the United States, in honor of the restoration of the flag of the Union upon Fort Sumter.” In Washington, the National Republican noted, “the flash and smoke were visible from the tops of buildings on the avenue, and the thunder of the guns was heard in all parts of the city.” That evening, Lincoln was in “cheerful” spirits as he relaxed with Seward, Welles, and General Hooker in his office. “General H. thinks it the brightest day in four years,” Welles recorded in his diary.

The following day, however, Browning found Lincoln “more depressed” than he had seen him in the four years of his presidency. His low spirits were probably caused by the pending execution of John Yates Beall, a former Confederate captain who had been tried and found guilty as a spy. In the fall of 1864, when Confederate agents based in Canada were pursuing plots to disrupt the draft and influence the elections, Beall had led a team of raiders in a daring and elaborate scheme to commandeer Union ships in the Great Lakes area, destroy railroad lines, and liberate Confederate prisoners in Ohio. The commander of the army in New York State, General John A. Dix, was unyielding in his belief that Beall must be executed as an example to others.

But Beall came from a prominent Virginia family, and a wide array of supporters petitioned Lincoln for clemency, including Orville Browning, Monty Blair, eight dozen congressmen, and six United States senators. They argued that Beall was acting as a commissioned officer in the Confederate army and should not be treated as “a robber, brigand, and pirate.” The case troubled Lincoln greatly, but he felt compelled to support General Dix. “I had to stand firm,” he told an acquaintance a few weeks later, “and I even had to turn away his poor sister when she came and begged for his life, and let him be executed, and he was executed, and I can’t get the distress out of my mind yet.”

The week before his second inaugural on March 4, Lincoln announced that he would “not receive callers (except members of the Cabinet) for any purpose whatever, between the hours of three and seven o’clock p.m.” He needed solitude to work on his inaugural speech. “The hopeful condition of the Union cause” had brought thousands of visitors to Washington, the National Republican reported. They were anxious not only to partake of the inaugural revelries but to share in the general elation that pervaded the capital. The city was so overcrowded that the parlors of all the leading hotels “were occupied by ladies and gentlemen, sitting up all night because no beds could be found for them.”

Frederick Douglass decided to join “in the grand procession of citizens from all parts of the country.” Blacks had been excluded from previous inaugural festivities, but with soldiers of both races “mingling their blood,” it seemed to him that “it was not too great an assumption for a colored man to offer his congratulations to the President with those of other citizens.” The evening before the inauguration, he visited Chase’s Sixth Street home. There, he later recalled, he helped Kate “in placing over her honored father’s shoulders the new robe then being made in which he was to administer the oath to the reelected President.” As he looked at the new Chief Justice, Douglass recollected the “early anti-slavery days” of their first acquaintance. Chase had “welcomed [him] to his home and his table when to do so was a strange thing.”

The steady rain on the morning of March 4 did not dampen the spirits of the estimated fifty thousand citizens gathered at the Capitol to witness the inauguration. Invited guests poured into the Senate chamber for the first part of the ceremony, which included a farewell address by the outgoing vice president, Hannibal Hamlin, and the swearing in of Andrew Johnson. Shortly before noon, a stir in the galleries revealed the arrival of the “notables”—generals, governors, the justices of the Supreme Court, the cabinet members, led by Seward, and finally, the president himself, whose chair was positioned in the middle of the front row. Mary Lincoln was seated in the Diplomatic Gallery, surrounded by members of the foreign ministries. “One ambassador was so stiff with gold lace,” Noah Brooks observed, “that he could not sit down except with great difficulty and had to unbutton before he could get his feet on the floor.”

After Hamlin delivered a graceful farewell address, Andrew Johnson rose to take the oath. His face was “extraordinarily red,” his balance precarious. He appeared to observers to be “in a state of manifest intoxication.” For twenty long minutes, he spoke incoherently, repeatedly declaring his plebeian background and his pride that such a humble man “could rise from the ranks, under the Constitution, to the proud position of the second place in the gift of the people.” Pivoting to face the Supreme Court justices, he reminded them that they also derived their “power from the people.” Then he spoke to the members of the cabinet, insisting they, too, were “creature[s]” of the people. He addressed each secretary by name—Mr. Seward, Mr. Stanton, and down the ranks—until he reached Gideon Welles, whose name he could not remember. Seemingly nonplused, he turned to someone near him and loudly inquired, “What’s the name of the Secretary of the Navy?” Continuing his tirade, he ignored Hamlin’s pointed reminder that “the hour for the inauguration ceremony had passed.”

The crowd stirred uneasily, and the men on the dais tried with varying success to conceal their dismay. “Stanton looked like a petrified man,” Noah Brooks observed. “All this is in wretched bad taste,” Speed whispered to Welles. “The man is certainly deranged.” Welles whispered to Stanton that “Johnson is either drunk or crazy.” Dennison, the new postmaster general, “was red and white by turns,” while Justice Samuel Nelson’s jaw “dropped clean down in blank horror.” Seward and Lincoln alone appeared unruffled. Seward remained as “serene as summer,” charitably suggesting to Welles that Johnson’s performance was a by-product of “emotion on returning and revisiting the Senate.” Lincoln listened in silence, “patiently waiting” for the harangue to end, his eyes shut so that no one could discern his discomfort. “You need not be scared,” he said a few days later; Johnson had “made a bad slip” but was not “a drunkard.”

When Johnson finished at last, the audience proceeded outside to the east front of the Capitol for the inaugural ceremony. As the president appeared on the platform, observed Noah Brooks, “the sun, which had been obscured all day, burst forth in its unclouded meridian splendor and flooded the spectacle with glory and light.” It seemed to many, including the superstitious Lincoln, an auspicious omen, as did the appearance of the newly completed Capitol dome, topped with the statue of Freedom.

If the spirited crowd expected a speech exalting recent Union victories, they were disappointed. In keeping with his lifelong tendency to consider all sides of a troubled situation, Lincoln urged a more sympathetic understanding of the nation’s alienated citizens in the South. There were no unbridgeable differences, he insisted: “Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.”

In his Springfield speech a decade earlier, Lincoln had maintained that he could not condemn the South for an inability to end slavery when he himself knew of no easy solution. Now the president suggested that God had given “to both North and South, this terrible war” as punishment for their shared sin of slavery. Speaking with “the eloquence of the prophets,” he continued, “Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.’”

Drawing upon the rare wisdom of a temperament that consistently displayed uncommon magnanimity toward those who opposed him, he then issued his historic plea to his fellow countrymen: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

More than any of his other speeches, the Second Inaugural fused spiritual faith with politics. While Lincoln might have questioned the higher force that shaped human ends, “as he became involved in matters of the gravest importance,” his friend Leonard Swett observed, “a feeling of religious reverence, and belief in God—his justice and overruling power—increased upon him.” If his devotion were determined by his lack of “faith in ceremonials and forms,” or by his failure “to observe the Sabath very scrupulously,” Swett added, “he would fall far short of the standard.” However, if he were judged “by the higher rule of purity of conduct, of honesty of motive, of unyielding fidelity to the right,” or by his powerful belief “in the great laws of truth, the rigid discharge of duty, his accountability to God,” then he was undoubtedly “full of natural religion,” for “he believed in God as much as the most approved Church member.”

His address completed, the president turned to Chief Justice Salmon Chase, who administered the oath of office. The crowd cheered loudly, the artillery fired a round of salutes, the band played, and the peaceful ceremony drew to a close.

That evening the gates of the White House were opened for a public reception attended by “the largest crowd that has been here yet,” according to Nicolay. The president was reported to be “in excellent spirits” as he tirelessly shook the hands of the more than five thousand people who came to show their respect and affection. “It was a grand ovation of the People to their President,” Commissioner French observed, and Mary vowed “to remain till morning, rather than have the door closed on a single visitor.” French estimated that Lincoln shook hands “at the rate of 100 every 4 minutes.”

Frederick Douglass would always remember the events of that evening. “On reaching the door, two policemen stationed there took me rudely by the arm and ordered me to stand back, for their directions were to admit no persons of my color.” Douglass assured the officers “there must be some mistake, for no such order could have emanated from President Lincoln; and that if he knew I was at the door he would desire my admission.” His assumption was later confirmed when he discovered there were “no orders from Mr. Lincoln, or from any one else. They were simply complying with an old custom.” The impasse continued for a few moments, until Douglass recognized a gentleman going in and asked him to tell the president that he was unable to gain entry. Minutes later, the word came back to admit Douglass. “I walked into the spacious East Room, amid a scene of elegance such as in this country I had never before witnessed.”

Douglass had no difficulty spotting Lincoln, who stood “like a mountain pine high above the others,” he recalled, “in his grand simplicity, and home-like beauty. Recognizing me, even before I reached him, he exclaimed, so that all around could hear him, ‘Here comes my friend Douglass.’ Taking me by the hand, he said, ‘I am glad to see you. I saw you in the crowd to-day, listening to my inaugural address; how did you like it?’” Douglass was embarrassed to detain the president in conversation when there were “thousands waiting to shake hands,” but Lincoln insisted. “You must stop a little, Douglass; there is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours. I want to know what you think of it?”

For a moment these two remarkable men stood together amid the sea of faces. Lincoln knew that Douglass would speak his mind, just as he always had. “Mr. Lincoln,” Douglass said finally, “that was a sacred effort.” Lincoln’s face lit up with delight. “I am glad you liked it!” he replied.

A few days later, Lincoln provided his own assessment to Thurlow Weed, predicting that the address would “wear as well as—perhaps better than—any thing” he had written, though he did not believe it would be “immediately popular. Men are not flattered by being shown that there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them.” Just as Lincoln surmised, the speech drew criticism from several quarters. The Democratic New York World faulted Lincoln for his “substitution of religion for statesmanship,” while the Tribune charged that the stern biblical overtones would impede any chance for peace.

Many others, however, recognized the historic weight of the address. “That rail-splitting lawyer is one of the wonders of the day,” Charles Francis Adams, Jr., wrote to his father in London. “The inaugural strikes me in its grand simplicity and directness as being for all time the historical keynote of this war.” The London Spectator, previously critical of Lincoln, agreed with young Adams, judging the address as “by far the noblest which any American President has yet uttered to an American Congress.”

Praise for the speech mingled with praise for Lincoln himself. The Spectator suggested that it was “divine inspiration, or providence” that brought the Republican Convention in 1860 to choose Lincoln the “village lawyer” over Seward. Congressman Isaac Arnold overheard a conversation between a celebrated minister and an unidentified New York statesman, whom one historian suggests was likely William Henry Seward himself. “The President’s inaugural is the finest state paper in all history,” the minister declared. “Yes,” the New Yorker answered, “and as Washington’s name grows brighter with time, so it will be with Lincoln’s. A century from to-day that inaugural will be read as one of the most sublime utterances ever spoken by man. Washington is the great man of the era of the Revolution. So will Lincoln be of this, but Lincoln will reach the higher position in history.”

Perhaps the most surprising contemporaneous evaluation of Lincoln’s leadership appeared in the extreme secessionist paper the Charleston Mercury. “He has called around him in counsel,” the Mercury marveled, “the ablest and most earnest men of his country. Where he has lacked in individual ability, learning, experience or statesmanship, he has sought it, and found it…. Force, energy, brains, earnestness, he has collected around him in every department.” Were he not a “blackguard” and “an unscrupulous knave in the end,” the Mercury concluded, “he would undoubtedly command our respect as a ruler…. We turn our eyes to Richmond, and the contrast is appalling, sickening to the heart.”

The editors of the Mercury would have been even more astonished if they had an inkling of the truth recognized by those closer to Lincoln: his political genius was not simply his ability to gather the best men of the country around him, but to impress upon them his own purpose, perception, and resolution at every juncture. With respect to Lincoln’s cabinet, Charles Dana observed, “it was always plain that he was the master and they were the subordinates. They constantly had to yield to his will, and if he ever yielded to them it was because they convinced him that the course they advised was judicious and appropriate.”

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