Political Contradictions within Lincoln’s Cabinet

Aida Kane

The Making of the Cabinet

Political aura, geographic location, political ideology and state representation were just a few factors that Abraham Lincoln considered as he was framing his cabinet on the evening of the presidential election, November 6th, 1860. When Lincoln recalled later that evening in the telegram room in Springfield, he stated: "When I finally bade my friends goodnight and left that room, I had substantially completed the framework of my Cabinet as it now exists."   When Lincoln was framing his cabinet, secession wasn't officially declared yet but the strings that strapped the Union together had snapped, one after another. A decade earlier, in a speech to the senate, John C. Calhoun explained the disunion in the following statement: "It is a great mistake to suppose that disunion can be effected by a single blow. The cords which bound these States together in one common Union are far too numerous and powerful for that. Disunion must be the work of time."   The cords referenced by Calhoun were numerous and various. They ranged from social to religious to cultural, but the strongest cord of all was political. The major strings were the political parties.   From the mid 1820s to the mid 1850s, the WHIG and Democratic Party dominated the American political spectrum. However, between 1855 and 1860, the ongoing conundrum over slavery, along with the civil and political unrest, led to a variety of structural changes among the parties:   1. A split of the Democratic Party into two sections: The Northern Democratic Party and Southern Democratic Party 2. The forming of the Republican Party, composed of the Northern Democratic Party, the Northern WHIG Party, Free Soil Party, and the anti-slavery Know Nothing Party 3. Constitutional Union Party composed of southern Whigs.   The sectional crisis and the "House Divided", theorized by Abraham Lincoln, sparked two distinct political spectrums – one in the South and one in the North. The former was composed of the Southern Democrat Party, while the latter was composed of the Republican Party and the Northern Democrat Party.   When the die was cast, Lincoln’s cabinet included all factions of the northern political spectrum. They were appointed as follows: For Secretary of State, William H. Seward, of New York, WHIG - Republican. For Secretary of The Treasury, Salmon P. Chase, of Ohio, Free Soil - Republican For Secretary of War, Simon Cameron, of Pennsylvania, Know Nothing - Republican For Secretary of Navy, Gideon Welles, of Connecticut, Northern Democrat - Republican For Secretary of Interior, Caleb B. Smith, of Indiana, WHIG - Republican. For Attorney-General, Edward Bates, of Missouri, Know Nothing - Republican For Postmaster-General, Montgomery Blair, of Maryland, Northern Democrat - Republican   In Abraham Lincoln: A History, John G. Nicolay and John Hay reported that Lincoln considered including political opponents from Southern States but the idea was quickly rebuked. As political figures and newspaper editors analyzed Lincoln's choices of appointees, questions and remarks about the complexity of Lincoln's cabinet quickly arose. Hay and Nicolay divided the cabinet into two camps: Three WHIG-Republicans and four Democrats-Republicans. The former group consisted of Seward, Smith and Bates, while the latter included Blair, Welles, Chase and Cameron. On average, each of the seven cabinet members joined three political parties throughout their political careers.
Political Contradictions within Lincoln’s Cabinet
The members of President Lincoln's cabinet in 1861

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Lifetimes of Party Affiliations Reflected in a Single Cabinet

In Seward: Lincoln's Indispensable Man, New York Times bestselling author Walter Stahr retraces William H. Seward's journey across the political spectrum. Between 1820 and 1856, he was a Bucktail (follower of Martin Van Buren), a member of the Anti-Masonic Party, the WHIG Party and the Republican Party.   Seward brought to the cabinet a piece of ideology from each political party that he joined. As the Whig governor of New York, he took some courageous pro-immigration stands. To the dismay of many in his party, he welcomed immigrants and promoted religion tolerance. Tied to the anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic Know-Nothing Party, his colleague Attorney General Edward Bates had a different ideology.   Bates first joined the Democratic-Republican Party, then successively joined the National Republican Party, the WHIG Party, the Know-Nothing Party and finally Republican Party. His path across the political map spanned from 1820 to 1856. As the oldest member of Lincoln's cabinet, Bates didn’t trust most of the cabinet members. Despite his mistrust, he managed to maintain non-conflictual and cordial in relations with them. He entered in his diary: "I carefully keep myself clear of all these cliques and combinations.”   As a Missourian, Bates was against the expansion of slavery but was himself a slaveowner. Consequently, this made him the antipode of his fellow cabinet member Secretary of Treasury Salmon P. Chase.   Chase was a member of the WHIG Party but was quickly disillusioned by compromises the party made with slave states. Chase founded the Liberty Party and the Free Soil Party before finally joining the Republican Party in 1854. For most of his career he perceived himself as a Jeffersonian Democrat.   His anti-slavery stands have been illustrated in his legal work where he undertook numerous fugitive slave cases, as well as his antislavery political work through the Liberty Party. Stahr's book Salmon P. Chase: Lincoln's Vital Rival reveals Chase’s view on antislavery. Chase wrote, "Antislavery aims at a complete deliverance of the government of the nation from all connection with and all responsibility for slavery."   Chase was not the only antislavery proponent in the cabinet. Montgomery Blair, Postmaster General, defended Dred Scott before the Supreme Court and Seward called for the end of slavery throughout his political career. Despite Chase’s common stance on slavery with Blair and Seward, they continued to have their disagreements. Blair had a profound disdain for Chase and remained his constant detractor. Seward almost left the cabinet in 1862 due, in part, to Chase's instigations.   The remaining cabinet members were highly politically active, as well. Gideon Welles and Caleb Smith both joined two political parties throughout their careers, while Simon Cameron joined three.
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Not a Football Between Rival Factions

At first glance, the cabinet appeared to be a ball and chain tied around Lincoln’s foot. The political and ideological variety within his cabinet would add a layer of difficulty to his presidency. The dissonance within the cabinet could impact the war effort.   Relations with Congress were a major component of the war efforts. As early as 1862, a delegation of nine Republican Senators led by Jacob Collamer of Vermont and manipulated by Chase, met with Lincoln to argue that Seward's conservative ideology weighed on the struggle to preserve the Union. This meeting ultimately triggered the infamous Cabinet Crisis of 1862.   The cabinet's political disharmony had impact on how major issues that led to the civil war would be addressed. For these issues, the cabinet members had singular viewpoints on what needed to be done, when actions needed to take place and how to communicate it with the country.   On the matter of slavery, the members of the cabinet recognized that emancipation was imminent, however, they were divided over the timing and its consequences. Bates gave his support, while Chase wanted immediate emancipation, and Blair opposed the proclamation due to fears of losing the fall elections. Nevertheless, Lincoln had to keep in mind the necessity of keeping the border states, the radical republicans and the northern democrats content.   Ultimately, taking into consideration Seward's recommendation to announce the proclamation right after a military victory, the Preliminary emancipation proclamation would get drafted on September 22nd, 1862 following the battle of Antietam. The heated partisanships and divisions in this example reveal a strong desire for Lincoln to avoid alternating between rival factions. As such, the cabinet members quickly realized that the final decision on each matter was in his hands.   Lincoln was an old-line Whig himself, so from a political perspective he made the parties even. In terms of political leadership and shrewdness, the choices that Lincoln made corresponded perfectly to his political nature.   The late Civil War historian Shelby Foote described Lincoln as a "very mysterious man". He further explains: "He's got so many sides to him. The curious thing about Lincoln to me is that he could remove himself from himself, as if he were looking at himself. It's a very strange, very eerie thing." He adds: "And highly intelligent. Such a simple thing to say but Lincoln’s been so smothered with stories of his compassion that people forget what a highly intelligent man he was and almost everything he did was calculated for effect.”   While Lincoln’s choice of cabinet members brought forth its own set of challenges, it also boasted a unique set of benefits. Differing opinions from a wide array of political experience added an element of difficulty to Lincoln’s presidency, but his diverse cabinet allowed him to make objective decisions on some of the most critical matters in American politics. As the head of a complex cabinet, Lincoln exhibited his intelligence and skills as a leader. The decisions made by Lincoln and his cabinet had a profound impact on the political and social landscape of the United States. This can still be seen today.
Political Contradictions within Lincoln’s Cabinet
Abraham Lincoln in 1861
Political Contradictions within Lincoln’s Cabinet

Aida Kane

Aida Kane is the founder a small production company called Wallflower Documentaries. Her passion is to tell the great stories of those who came before us in historical art house documentaries. In addition to working on documentaries, she's a bilingual English and French journalist.
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