Six Characters in Search of a Blogger

11.7 The Seventh Day: Running the “Machine”
February 3, 2009, 2:09 pm
Filed under: Lincoln's Team of Rivals | Tags: , , , ,


I love turning back and revisiting history; not necessarily for the specific lessons it teaches us, but because it reminds me that the more things change, the more they stay the same.  

Although we have almost deified Abraham Lincoln–consecrated him in marble, honored him as one of our greatest Presidents–he was, for much of his time in office, a troubled man.  He was steering the country through one of the most precarious (and costly) conflicts we have known.  He faced power struggles within his own Cabinet.  He made mistakes in his political and military appointments, hiring ineffectual leaders and generals.  And his popularity plummeted as the war raged on and the deaths of Union soldiers mounted.

The caricature above appeared in 1864, when the Civil War still engulfed the country, and gives an idea of how Lincoln was perceived–at least by a segment of the population.  He is pictured laughing (a thoughtless act in a serious time), being reminded of a joke while his Cabinet indulge in questionable war work:  claiming “great victory” for the capture of one prisoner and one gun; using ridiculous math to mount Navy attacks; arresting citizens for opposing the government; and above all, printing money.  Lots and lots of money. 

I bring this up because as we head into this week’s analysis of Obama’s Cabinet, it is critical that we remember that even our greatest Presidents have made mistakes.  And that large swaths of money have been made and spent, again and again–Americans have always been critical of such expenditures.  Now some would argue that if we are to forgive Obama for his mistakes and his stimulus package spending, then certainly George W. Bush might deserve the same regard.  After all, he made mistakes.  And he was a spendthrift (look at the Iraq War.)  

But I would suggest that the very real difference between Bush and Obama (and even Lincoln)–aside from their relative eloquence–is intent.  President Bush promised compassionate conservatism, and instead supplied us with something quite different–divisive elitism.  President Obama is promising change through bipartisanism and ethics reform, but we are far too early into his administration to see where those promises might lead.

One thing is certain:  no matter how he runs the machine, as it has been for every President before him, history will be his judge. 

11.6 “Andy Ain’t a Drunkard”: Vice President Andrew Johnson


Lincoln's Second Vice President, Andrew Johnson

Lincoln's Second Vice President, Andrew Johnson

Let’s face it, our 17th President, Andrew Johnson, was a bit of a train wreck.

We might have seen hints of it coming during the Lincoln Administration; as Lincoln’s second Vice President, Johnson was a politically clever choice–well, he would have been, had Lincoln had remained alive.

Johnson was a Tennessee Democrat, and was the only Southern Senator to remain in Congress after the Confederate states had seceded.  As such, he gained tremendous political clout among Union politicians as the war came to a close, and became an appealing symbol of unity and bipartisanship when he was put on the ticket with Lincoln in 1864.  He increased his popularity among Republicans with his professed vitriol towards the Confederates, stating  “Treason must be made odious… traitors must be punished and impoverished … their social power must be destroyed.”

However, trouble began to brew shortly after the election.  First, Johnson asked Lincoln if he actually had to attend the inaugural ceremonies.  (Lincoln’s response to the question?  “That Johnson is a queer man.”)  On Inauguration Day, he arrived drunk at his own swearing in, and proceeded to launch into a rather strange speech:  “I am a-goin’ for to tell you here to-day; yes, I’m a-goin for to tell you all, that I’m a plebian! I glory in it; I am a plebian! ”   Johnson’s excuse was that he needed the (more than 5 glasses of) whiskey he consumed as a pain reliever from the lingering symptoms of typhoid he had suffered earlier in life.  Lincoln tried to defend him by stating “I have known Andy for many years…he made a bad slip the other day, but you need not be scared. Andy ain’t a drunkard.”

As a member of a different party (the National Union Party/”War Democrat”), and kept separate from Lincoln’s Cabinet and the decision-making processes of State, Johnson was likely never intended for the Presidency.  Like his Vice Presidential predecessor (Hannibal Hamlin), Johnson was not privy to Lincoln’s inner circle, and as such, was remote from policy making.

Thus, when he took over the Presidency after Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, he lacked both Executive experience, as well as a working knowledge of Lincoln’s Cabinet (which he inherited.)  Although he had professed hatred toward the Confederate cause, he was ultimately quite lenient towards his “plebian” Southern brethren in setting Reconstruction policy.  This ultimately cost him the support of Congress and his Cabinet (notably the leader of the anti-South sentiment, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton), as well as earned him two impeachment trials.  More importantly, Johnson’s political decisions left indelible scars on this country that can still be felt to this day.

Which leads me to this observation:  beware the politician with the folksy accent who always talks about the common people.  We had eight years of it, and look what that did for us.  And now, before the confetti from Election Day has finished being cleared from the streets, there’s another folksy outsider on the rise, “rearin’ her head” at the Alfalfa Club dinner in Washington, setting up her own PAC, and getting ready for a run in 2012.

Oh, God, Andy, I’m with you.  Pass the whiskey.

11.5 The Man Who Would Be Chief Justice: Attorney General Edward Bates


Lincoln's Attorney General, Edward Bates

Lincoln's Attorney General, Edward Bates

Edward Bates, Lincoln’s Attorney General, was also one of Lincoln’s opponents for the Republican Presidential nomination in 1860.  An ardent Whig and former supporter of the Know Nothing Party (a fiercely “nativist” party that defined themselves as anti-immigration and anti-naturalization), Bates was controversial in his position on slavery:  although he opposed it, he also supported the deportation of freed blacks from the country.

Unlike his peers on the Cabinet, Bates did not jockey for superior positions or try to rival Lincoln in any way.  He respected the President as his leader, although he wondered if Lincoln had the political gumption to maintain order over the rest of the Cabinet (especially when contending with strong personalities such as Seward, Chase, and Stanton.)

One of Bates’ major accomplishments during his term in office was the establishment of a precedent for jurisdictions in military arrests.  Because the country had not entered into a conflict with the scope of the Civil War, this precedent had never been determined–who would try civilians arrested during the war?  Should it be the state/civilian courts?  Or would this task fall to the military?  Critically, Bates chose the latter option, as civilian conduct during war would fall under military codes of law.  Technically, in most cases, they would not be in violation of civilian statutes.

Although Bates had no ambition to grow himself towards the Presidency, there was one role he coveted greatly:  that of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.  He as much as asked Lincoln for the role following the death of Chief Justice Roger Taney in October 1864.  He regarded the position as a capstone to his career, stating,  “I could not desire to close my public life more honorably, than by a brief term of service in that eminent position.”  He even went so far as to suggest he would only hold the position for 2 or 3 years, and resign after that time, allowing Lincoln to appoint a successor before he ended his second Presidential term.

However, it was not to be;  Lincoln instead appointed Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase, a less logical but more politically expedient choice.  Bates resigned in November of 1864, before Chase assumed his new role on the Supreme Court.

11.4 Mars Attacks? Secretary of War Edwin Stanton


Edwin Stanton, Lincoln's Secretary of War

Edwin Stanton, Lincoln's Secretary of War

If Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles was Lincoln’s “Neptune,” then Edwin Stanton was certainly Lincoln’s “Mars”; his god of war.  Lincoln referred to him fondly in this way throughout the Civil War, and depended on the administratively skilled Democrat to manage the War Department after the disastrous leadership of his predecessor, Lincoln’s initial appointee, Simon Cameron.

Stanton initially took the post with some reluctance.  He had been a respected member of (although a late addition to) President Buchanan’s Cabinet, serving as Attorney General from 1860-1861.  It has been suggested that during his brief role under Buchanan, he convinced the President to move away from his policy of leniency towards the secession of Southern states, and declare such acts as unconstitutional.

Stanton was to maintain his strong antagonism towards the South throughout his political career.  He was ruthless to Union officers and officials who expressed sympathy for the Southern cause.  He also appointed Lafayette Baker as head of the National Detective Police (NDP)–essentially the secret police/spy service for the Union; although quite efficient at his job, Baker was later known for dirty tactics, and according to some sources engaged in the torture of Confederate spies such as Belle Boyd.

Stanton’s one great tactical mistake during his management of the War came when he closed recruitment offices in 1862, under the false assumption that the Civil War would be ending soon thereafter.  This stem in the flow of new recruits likely hastened the addition of black soldiers to the war effort; 1863 marked the year when the first black regiments, such as the famous Massachusetts 54th, began to form.

Like many of his colleagues on the Cabinet, Stanton went from a great skeptic of Lincoln to being a great supporter.  Like the god he was named for, he had a quick and fiery temper, which he often launched and Lincoln or his subordinates.  Despite his many disagreements with the President, it was ultimately he who gave us one of the most lasting remarks about Lincoln:  “Now he belongs to the ages.”

Following Lincoln’s assassination, Stanton oversaw the capture and arrest of John Wilkes Booth and his co-conspirators.  Subsequently, Stanton remained on President Andrew Johnson’s Cabinet, where he argued fiercely against what he perceived as Johnson’s gentle treatment of the South during Reconstruction.  Stanton’s antagonism was actually at the root of Johnson’s later impeachment trials; the President tried to have Stanton removed from office without the knowledge or approval of the Senate, and thus earned their enmity.

Perhaps one of the most intriguing suggestions about Stanton was that he may have been behind the Lincoln assassination.  Although it is a rather far-fetched conspiracy theory, it was put forward by Stanton’s “superspy” Lafayette Baker, who was demoted when he was found to have tapped Stanton’s office telegraph line from Washington to Nashville after the war had ended.  Recalled after Lincoln’s assassination, Baker contributed to the capture of John Wilkes Booth and subsequently presented Stanton with Booth’s diary.  Later, when it was discovered that the diary was missing 18 pages, Baker suggested that Stanton had removed them to cover up his connection to the crime.  Baker died in 1868, under mysterious circumstances that were labeled “meningitis.”  More recent tests on his remains have suggested that he died of arsenic poisoning.

And so we are left to wonder:  did Mars attack?

11.3 Dig that Hair: Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles


Gideon Welles, hair icon

Gideon Welles, hair icon

Facial hair was evidently the thing in Civil War America.  Part of Abraham Lincoln’s iconic image was the close-cropped beard that framed his face.  Robert E. Lee sported a full beard and mustache.  Generals Ulysses S. Grant and George McClellan had beards.  And who could forget General Ambrose Burnside’s imposing sideburns?  The were enough to scare the Confederacy into submission.  (They were so fierce, in fact, that the term “sideburns” actually derives from Burnside’s name.)

Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles’ locks were no exception.  A big, bushy white beard with a curly, girly mop: he certainly set a standard for interesting hair trends in the 19th Century.

It’s not exactly the coif you would conjure for a Secretary of the Navy, is it?  It’s a bit extreme, even for the 1800s.  Given this, it’s not surprising that Welles came to this military jurisdiction largely via a career in law, journalism and politics in Connecticut.  After founding the Hartford Times in 1826, he served in the Connecticut state legislature from 1827-1835.  A Jacksonian Democrat for most of his life, Welles shifted to the Republican party as a means of protest because of his anti-slavery views.  When he was picked by Lincoln for the Cabinet post in 1861, he had just started another newspaper in Connecticut, the Republican-leaning Hartford Evening Press, and had served as a staunch political supporter of Lincoln’s.

However misguided his hair choices may have been, the misguidedness did not spill over into his role as head of the Navy.  He found the state of the Navy department in shambles when he first assumed office, especially after the departure of Southern naval leaders to join the Confederate cause.  In 1861, the Navy had 76 ships and 7600 sailors.  By 1865, it had nearly ten times that number.  Grudgingly (because he disagreed with the decision) he used this manpower to blockade Southern ports as part of the Anaconda Plan, which ultimately helped win the war–the South was financially strangled by their inability to sell cotton or to import goods and weapons.  For this success, Lincoln dubbed Welles his “Neptune.”

Despite quite vocal disagreements with other members of the Cabinet during throughout his tenure there, Welles remained in the Naval Secretary position through Andrew Johnson’s administration, and left office in 1869.  Largely due to his disagreement with Johnson about Reconstruction policies, he reverted to his membership in the Democratic Party.  Upon leaving Washington, he returned home to Connecticut to edit his newspapers and write.  His biography, Lincoln and Seward, was published in 1877.  He died of strep throat a year later.

But however changeable his life may have been, one thing in Gideon Welles’ life remained constant: his hair.  No doubt he would have won any hair-related throwdowns among the Team of Rivals (although he did have some competition in Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, as we will see tomorrow.)  Lincoln wouldn’t have a chance.

11.2 What’s in a Name? Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase


Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase

Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury was named after a fish.

Well, I don’t know that for sure.  Maybe “Salmon” is a family name.  Or maybe the Chase clan had a little Irish in them, and were familiar with the Celtic legend of the “salmon of wisdom” and decided to make one of their young sons its namesake.  Or maybe they were inspired by the story of Sacagawea, and named the wee baby Chase after her birthplace, Salmon, Idaho.  Or maybe they just loved their Omega 3s.

There is also the outside possibility that they considered “Salmon” in its definition as the Anglo-Saxon derivation of “son of Solomon,” and being a religious family, named him accordingly.  After all, King Solomon was rich, married and/or bedded lots of Biblical era chicks, and had some of the most interesting verses in the Bible dedicated to him–the Song of Songs.  (Been to a Catholic wedding in the U.S. in the past few years?  Ever heard a reading that includes  “my love is like a gazelle or a young stag…”–the one that isn’t 1 Corinthians, “Love is patient, love is kind”?  Yup, that’s the Song of Songs.)

Believe it or not, any of the above could be true, because Salmon Chase was born in New Hampshire, and you never know what folks from New Hampshire are capable of.  All of that “live free or die” craziness.  (That’s why Massachusetts folks flock there to do their tax-free shopping on the weekends, and then high-tail it home afterwards to wrap themselves in the comfort of a regular income tax.)  And there were other precedents of wacky naming practices in the Chase family; for instance, the uncle who helped to raise young Salmon, an Episcopal bishop, was named Philander Chase.  Philander.  He was a bishop.  The Chase women must have had a pretty interesting sense of humor.)

But what’s in a name, right?  (After all, we just elected a man with one of the most ethnically unusual names in modern political history.)

Chase, like Secretary of State William Seward, was also much more qualified for the office of President than Lincoln.  He had served as U.S. Senator from Ohio for a term from 1849-1855 before assuming the governorship of Ohio from 1856-1860; at which time he sought the Republican Party’s nomination for President.  By then, Chase had developed quite a name for himself not only as a voice against slavery, but also as an abolitionist.  He was even more famous than Seward for his defense of fugitive slaves; in fact, he took one of his cases all the way to the Supreme Court, in the famous Jones v. Van Zandt.  (The case involved a Kentucky slaveowner–Jones–who sued abolitionist/Underground Railroad conductor Van Zandt for monetary damages after Van Zandt was caught helping several of Jones’s slaves escape.  Chase represented the abolitionist, and lost in a unanimous 9-0 decision.)


Chase's image adorns the $10,000 bill

Chase's image adorns the $10,000 bill, discontinued since 1945

As Secretary of the Treasury, Chase wielded a fair amount of power during the Civil War era.  He oversaw the war coffers, which were incredibly stretched during that time, leading him to create government bonds to finance it.  He also instituted the national banking system, as well as introduced the first national paper currency to the U.S. (prior to this, paper currency was non-standard and issued by individual states.)  Not surprisingly, the ever-ambitious Chase, who also had to design the paper currency once it was created, put his own image on the notes.  (Maybe they should have called him humility.)  Constantly attempting to gain leverage over Lincoln, Chase threatened to/attempted to resign from his Cabinet post 3 times; on each occasion Lincoln, in an effort to appease Chase, asked him to stay so there might be stability in government leadership during wartime.

In 1865, Chase’s 4th resignation was accepted by Lincoln.  (Which apparently took Chase by surprise.)  In order to appease high-ranked Chase supporters in the Republican party (as well as, perhaps, to keep Chase from challenging him for reelection), Lincoln nominated Chase for Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 1864.  He held the post from 1864 until his death in 1873; ever convinced of his own readiness for high political office, however, Chase did pursue the potential for a Democratic nomination for President in 1868, but it didn’t come to fruition.  As Chief Justice, he presided over Andrew Johnson’s impeachment proceedings, and appointed the first African-American lawyer to argue a case before the Supreme Court.

Although Chase has largely been forgotten in modern America, his legacy lives on in a few interesting ways.  First, although it has no relation to the man himself, Chase Manhattan Bank was named for him.  Also, his was the first and only image to appear on the $10,000 bill, the last of which was printed in 1945.  (Making him one of the elite club of non-Presidents to grace the face of U.S. paper money–others include Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin.)

11.1 Secretary of State William Seward, the Hillary Clinton of His Time


The Hillary Clinton of his day, William Seward

The Hillary Clinton of his day, William Seward

It could be said that William Seward should have been our 16th President of the United States, instead of Abraham Lincoln.

It could also be said that he was the Hillary Clinton of his day;  here’s why.

Seward, a prominent member of the Whig party before it dissolved, and one of the stars of the Republican Party when it was first formed in 1854, was actually the popular frontrunner for his party’s nomination in 1860 (sound familiar?)  But on the advice of his friend and political advisor Thurlow Weed, overly confident about his future, and cautious about making any controversial statements before the nomination process, Seward left the country for an 8 month tour of Europe instead.  He returned shortly before the vote to find that a relative (and very underestimated) newcomer to the national political scene, Abraham Lincoln, had been campaigning vigorously during his absence, lining up support within the party’s leadership.  Despite the fact that he had been a heavy favorite for the Republican title, Seward lost the nomination.

Seward had many more credentials for the Presidency than Lincoln.  In 1860, he was a second term Senator from the state of New York, and had also served two 2-year terms as Governor of the state.  Known for his fierce resistance to slavery, he opposed the Compromise of 1850 (which defined certain territories such as California and Texas as being either “free” states or slavery states), as well as the Fugitive Slave Law, which required citizens of free states to return runaway slaves to their owners.

A lawyer by profession, Seward defended a number of fugitive slaves in court to gain them safe haven in free states.  In the 1846, he also gained fame for his defense of two prominent murder suspects in New York.  The first, a white man, was accused of killing a cellmate in prison; the second, a black man, was accused of breaking into a home and killing 4 people there.  Seward, well aware that both defendants suffered from mental illness and abuse, was one of the first lawyers in the country to employ the insanity defense.  Not surprisingly, he was a firm believer in prison reform and in better care standards for the insane.

When he lost his party’s nomination in 1860, he fell in with the party line and became a supporter of Lincoln, going so far as to campaign for his rival (again, the echoes of Clinton are clear.)  Once Lincoln was elected, he appointed Seward as his Secretary of State, in which Seward served from 1861-1869 (he continued in the role after Lincoln’s assassination and during Andrew Johnson’s Presidency.)

The office that Clinton is inheriting is, of course, in some ways vastly more complex than the one that Seward did.  There were not the pervasive external threats–in the form of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism–to American security in Seward’s time that there are now.  However, Seward’s challenges were formidable;  we were embroiled in a costly and vicious Civil War that required delicate diplomacy with countries such as Great Britain, who had a separate relationship with Confederate leaders.  Seward’s legacy also includes his dedication to westward expansion–he was keen on extending the United States’ sphere of influence into the Pacific, and it was under his leadership in 1867 that the United States purchased the vast wilderness that was the Alaska territory (afterwards known as “Sewards Folly.”  And just think:  they didn’t even know about Sarah Palin yet.)

Many people may have forgotten that the night of Lincoln’s assassination, Seward was also targeted.  John Wilkes Booth’s associate Lewis Powell broke into Seward’s home on that tragic night (April 14, 1865), where he attacked two of Seward’s sons before stabbing Seward multiple times in the face and neck.  Seward survived, but his wife died two months later from shock; a year later, Seward’s daughter died of tuberculosis.

He spent his years after office traveling the world, and died at his home in Auburn, New York in 1872.  His last message to his children was reported to have been “love one another,” fitting words for a man who had seen the ravages of war tear his country apart.

It’s also a fitting message for our new Secretary of State, as she begins her very critical work around the world.