‘Though the young Lincoln would never leave the frontier, would never leave America, he traveled with Byron’s Childe Harold to Spain and Portugal, the Middle East and Italy; accompanied Robert Burns to Edinburgh; and followed the English kings into battle with Shakespeare. As he explored the wonders of literature and the history of the country, the young Lincoln, already conscious of his own power, developed ambitions far beyond the expectations of his family and neighbors. It was through literature that he was able to transcend his surroundings.’
Lincoln lost his first campaign for elected office – the Illinois state legislature - in 1832. But there was one consolation: the 23-year-old Lincoln polled 277 out of the 300 votes cast in his little village. The lesson was crystal clear: to know Lincoln was to trust Lincoln.
In 1832 Lincoln served as a captain in the Black Hawk War, an Indian skirmish which lasted but a few weeks and in which he did not once hear a shot fired in anger. In short, there seemed to be virtually nothing in this experience that might contribute to a burgeoning political career. He had a way of dealing with those who, like himself, had virtually no combat experience to bolster their careers: he showed how they and he were pretty much on the same footing. In short, their pretense brought out his withering humor. 'By the way, do you know I am a military hero? Yes, sir, in the days of the Black Hawk War, I fought, bled, and came away. Speaking of General Cass's career reminds me of my own. I was not at Stallman's defeat, but I was about as near to it as Cass to Hull's surrender; and like him I saw the place very soon afterwards. It is quite certain I did not break my sword, for I had none to break, but I bent my musket pretty badly on one occasion... If General Cass went in advance of me picking whortleberries, I guess I surpassed him in charging upon the wild onion. If he saw any live, fighting Indians, it was more than I did, but I had a good many bloody struggles with the mosquitoes, and although I never fainted from loss of blood, I can truly say that I was often very hungry.'
A Chicago lawyer who had known Lincoln for 30 years summarized his pre-presidential years: ‘One great public mistake…generally received and acquiesced in, is that he is considered by the people of this country as a frank, guileless, and unsophisticated man. There never was a greater mistake…He handled and moved men remotely as we do pieces on a chess board.’
An old friend of Lincoln advised him not to take Salmon Chase into his cabinet ‘because Chase thinks he’s a great deal bigger than you are.’ ‘Well,’ asked Lincoln, ‘do you know of any other men who think they are bigger than I am?’ ‘I don’t know that I do,’ the man replied, ‘but why do you ask?’ ‘Because,’ answered Lincoln, ‘I want to put them all in my Cabinet.’
The historian David Donald made the following interesting observation: “Lincoln enjoyed a pragmatic relationship with his often unpleasant and irritable Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton. There was a sort of tacit division of labor between these two dissimilar men. Lincoln himself explained the system: “…I want to oblige everybody when I can, and Stanton and I have an understanding that if I send an order to him which cannot be consistently granted, he is to refuse it. This he sometimes does.” The President then had the pleasant and politically rewarding opportunity of recommending promotions, endorsing pension applications, pardoning deserters and saving sleeping sentinels, and Stanton, who was something of a sadist, took equal pleasure in refusing the promotions, ignoring the petitions, and executing the delinquent soldiers. While the Secretary received the blame for all the harsh and unpopular acts that war makes necessary, the President acquired a useful reputation for sympathy and generosity.”
Lincoln certainly knew how to use the power he had. He needed support in the Senate and he needed to keep his rambunctious Secretary of State under control, so he used Senator Sumner the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee as a check against Secretary of State William Seward. That is, he designated Sumner as his chief adviser on foreign policy, authorized him carte blanche access to all foreign correspondence with virtual veto over foreign policy. In return for such power Sumner gave tacit approval of Lincoln's war policies and became a valuable Lincoln man on Capitol Hill.
In January 1862 Lincoln appointed
Edwin Stanton Secretary of War. Everyone, including Stanton, was astonished at
his appointment. After all, Stanton had repeatedly vilified this “imbecilic” President,
this “original gorilla” [Darwin’s 'Origin of Species' had just been published
in 1859]. Lincoln knew all this, of course, but had put that aside. He never
carried a grudge, he said later, because it didn't pay. Stanton was a Union man
through and through, he was a prodigious worker and he was a wizard as an
administrator - and those skills impelled Lincoln to promote him. With time it
was clear the appointment was a stroke of genius.
In the high-stakes run-up to the Civil War immediately after the inauguration, before he knew where the White House bathrooms were, Lincoln faced a constitutional crisis of the first order. It centered on Fort Sumter and came in the form of a letter from the fort’s commandant who said they were faced with dwindling supplies. The situation on the face of it looked like heads Jefferson Davis wins, tails Abraham Lincoln loses.
On the face of it, Lincoln had two options, the one worse than the other. First, he could simply pull the garrison out, but that was utterly repellant because the North would be seen to be acceding to superior might, surrendering what was a federal installation at the point of a gun. The other alternative was to send in reinforcements, presumably to shoot it out. But that military solution was equally untenable. For one thing, the U.S. Army in the spring of 1861 had no more than 16,000 troops, and most of them had been transferred to the northwest portion of the country to provide protection for settlers heading west [sent there by secretaries of war in the 1850’s who were southerners anticipating the possibility of just such a situation]. Furthermore, not only was the Charleston harbor mined but the fort itself was surrounded by artillery manned by South Carolinians just itching to open up.
After careful deliberation the new president arrived at a third option: he ordered a ship fitted out with food and medicine to sail as soon as possible for Charleston. He then notified the South Carolina governor that that was what he was doing.
That simple decision turned the tables completely. It was now, heads Abraham Lincoln wins, tails Jefferson Davis loses. Lincoln, given a choice between withdrawing or reinforcing the garrison, had, by some sorcerer’s incantation, arrived at a third alternative: send food and medicine to re-stock the garrison. Now Jefferson Davis was presented with two choices, but for him there was to be no third option. The South could either allow the humanitarian ship entry to the fort, thus prolonging indefinitely the unbearable sense of crisis, or accede to the bombardment because those South Carolinian hotheads hadn't the patience for any other course of action. So when the South did fire on Fort Sumter, Lincoln lost a fort he couldn't maintain anyway, but gained an enormous psychological advantage in that thousands flocked to the colors with the following open-ended mindset: ‘they started it, and we’re going to finish it.’ Lincoln may have been an inexperienced prairie lawyer, but proved to be a consummate strategist. He also appeared to be remarkably cool under pressure.
At the end of June, 1864 Salmon Chase offered Lincoln his resignation as Secretary of the Treasury for the fourth time. Lincoln had refused the first three times because the country needed Chase's dazzling financial wizardry, but - unknown to Chase - Lincoln had already settled on an adequate replacement and so accepted his resignation this time. Now Chase, who wanted very much to be president himself and who had worked to undermine Lincoln at virtually every opportunity, was free from the constraints of being in Lincoln's official family and could campaign for the Republican nomination openly - but he did not have enough time to work up the necessary head of steam to win the nomination for himself. Lincoln had, in effect, utilized to the maximum the man's boundless skills, then cut him loose too close to the Republican convention for his run for the presidency to pose a serious threat to Lincoln's own bid for re-nomination.
When Lincoln ran for congress in 1846 his Democratic opponent was a fire-and-brimstone preacher named Peter Cartwright. The story goes that during the course of the campaign Lincoln went to one of Cartwright's services. At one point during the service Preacher Cartwright asked that all who desired to give their lives to God and go to heaven should stand. Of course everyone stood up. Except Lincoln. He then asked those who did not wish to go to hell to stand. At this point everyone stood up. Except Lincoln. Cartwright of course was sensitive to the fact that Lincoln was in the congregation. He then pointedly asked, ‘Mr. Lincoln, if you didn't stand in answer to either question where exactly do you intend to go?’ Lincoln replied: ‘I came here as a respectful listener. I did not know that I was to be singled out by Brother Cartwright. I believe in treating religious matters with due solemnity. I admit that the questions propounded by Brother Cartwright are of great importance. I did not feel called upon to answer as the rest did. Brother Cartwright asks me directly where I am going. I desire to reply with equal directness. I am going to Congress.’