The Corner

Team of Rivals

From a reader in re the Lincolnification of Obama:

Sent this to someone else yesterday.  Backed up in the LA Times.

I really wish someone would check the facts on this Team of Rivals business.  I am just a chemist, but I have been reading Civil War books since I was in third grade.

These are more questions than anything else, and I confess I have not read Kearns-Goodwin’s book.  I intend to someday.  I have great respect for her as a historian.  But having said that…..

There seems to be this mythic legend about Lincoln choosing all of his rivals for the nomination for cabinet posts since these were the best and brightest men the country had to offer.  While there is something to that idea, it is not nearly so ideal as the myth.

Some of Lincoln’s cabinet appointments may have been a matter of horse-trading.  Lincoln’s campaign manager was a man named David Davis, the Karl Rove of his day.  At the convention, as the votes were being taken one round after another, Lincoln sent a telegram to Davis (candidates did not attend the convention in those days) that said, “make no contracts that will bind me.”  Davis was shown the telegram by a horrified staffer, since Davis had been making promises right and left.  Davis’ reply was basically, “We’re here and he’s not.”  I don’t know if that story is in Team of Rivals, but it is in Shelby Foote.  Civil war history begins and ends with Shelby Foote.

One of the rivals was William Seward.  Seward as an able ambitious man and was appointed Sec. of  State.  After initially trying to set himself up as Prime Minister of the Cabinet, Seward eventually became an admirer of Lincoln and carried out his policies.  This is just my opinion, but I think they shared a love of story-telling.  Seward was almost as much of a yarn-spinner as Lincoln and the two seem to have genuinely enjoyed swapping tales.  As I read history, Lincoln did not have many friends.  Seward may have indeed qualified as a friend.  Seward fits into the story of the Team of Rivals.

but on to the rest.

Salmon Chase, ex-Gov of Ohio and rival for the nomination was made Sec. of Treasury.  He was an able ambitous man, with no experience in finance or treasury.  He himself admitted, he did not truly know what he was doing.  He was a stiff humorless man with little respect for Lincoln and I doubt if he ever changed his opinion in that regard.  While Chase was an able Sec of Treasury in his time, when Lincoln became a much more able executive, Chase was replaced with Wm Fessenden of Maine.  Fessenden was also a capable man, anti-slavery, and much easier to deal with than Chase.  Not the least of this was the fact that Fessenden was not a rival for the Presidency.  Lincoln was a man of almost no executive experience.  The largest thing he had ever run was his law office.  It was only his incredible political talent that allowed him to survive his first two years and learn how to be an executive.

Simon Cameron was a rival for the nomination.  Cameron was a Gov. of Pa.  He was appointed Sec. of War.  He didn’t last long and was widely regarded as incompetent and corrupt.  No one would have considered Simon Cameron among the countries best and brightest.

Edward (Edwin?) Bates was a Gov. of Mo.  He would have been a rival for the nomination.  Bates was Attorney General.  He was regarded as a poor lawyer.  But, Lincoln regarded himself as a pretty fair constitutional scholar and in a sense in Lincoln’s cabinet and Attorney General was redundant.

Gideon Wells was a Conn newspaperman who was made Secretary of the Navy.  Not a rival.  No prior Navel experience.  Although he was effective.  Before the army the Union Navy began to promote young, aggressive commanders (in Farragut’s case not so young, but he made up for it with even more aggressiveness.).

Edwin Stanton was appointed Sec. of War after Cameron.  I believe it is Stanton who would have referred to Lincoln as a long-armed ape.  Stanton was in no way a rival for the Presidency.  He was too unlovable to ever be elected Pres on his own, and he knew it.  Stanton was ruthless, devious, merciless, tireless, and efficient.  He was exactly what was needed as a Secretary of War.  He was an excellent compliment to Lincoln.  He was the bad cop.  He was incredibly smart, but not well liked.   By the time of Lincoln’s assassination he would have come to almost worship Lincoln.  But, he was not a rival for the nomination in 1860 or in 1864.

Sometimes the best and the brightest don’t work out.  John Freemont, the legendary Pathfinder, was given a commission as a General.  He proved to be mostly worthless.  U.S. Grant had been reduced to selling firewood on the streets of St. Louis before the war and was only able to win a commission in the Ill. militia when the war broke out.

I apologize for the long rant.  But I have been getting a bit tired of this team of rivals business.

Me: I am about to sit down to dinner. I was reluctant to post this as Civil War buffs are somewhere between  Bible experts and engineers in terms of most frequent emailers. But I thought it was interesting. I’m sure Edwin Stanton fans will inundate me with complaints. I’ll post anything really worthwhile here as an update because I don’t want to clutter the Corner with too much of this.

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