I have been reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning bio of Abraham Lincoln, Team of Rivals. It is the book on which the recently-released Spielberg film, Lincoln, is partly based. But Spielberg’s film focuses only on the fight for the thirteenth Amendment; Goodwin’s book begins with Lincoln’s life as a boy, follows him as a young lawyer in Springfield Illinois, describes his part in forming the new Republican Party out of the wreckage of the old Whig party, charts his victorious campaign for the Republican nomination and presidency, and beyond. It includes the lives of Lincoln’s three rivals for the presidency, William Seward, Salmon Chase, and Edward Bates, all of whom he tapped for important posts in his new administration: Seward as Secretary of State, Chase as Secretary of the Treasury and Bates as Attorney General.
More important, to me, Team of Rivals reminds one how hazardous was the situation facing the nation and Lincoln, even before he took office. Seven Southern states had seceded almost immediately after Lincoln was declared the winner in the November 1860 election. In the weeks thereafter, countless members of Congress from those southern states left their offices to take part in the rebellion. So did huge chunks of the officer corps, Robert E. Lee of Virginia being only the most conspicuous. Moreover, rumors were rife that a Southern plot existed to invade and seize Washington DC before Lincoln could even take office. Edwin Stanton, a member of then-president Buchanan’s cabinet (and later Lincoln’s Secretary of War), was convinced that the government was filled with traitors and spies, that “the army had been deployed in far-flung places,” with arms shifted from northern arsenals to various southern ones, and that if Maryland and Virginia could be induced to join the secession, the rebels would seize an essentially defenseless capital, including all the symbols of government, the treasuries, the army and navy, and assassinate the new President in the bargain. Stanton decided to become a spy within the lame-duck Buchanan government, initiating contacts with then-Senator Seward in late December of 1860 to neutralize potential traitors. Seward in response gave a major speech, without Lincoln’s consent, offering concessions to the South, rehearsing Lincoln’s resolutions calling for a constitutional amendment to prevent any future Congress from interfering with slavery where it already existed, and taking steps to enforce the hated Fugitive Slave Laws. He even promised additional conciliatory changes to the Constitution to mollify the southern secessionists. Of course, Seward’s speech had no effect whatever on the southern states, but it is an important indication of where both he and Lincoln stood regarding slavery.
Goodwin reminds us that it was not slavery itself that Lincoln and Seward and most of their allies in the new party objected to. It was the extension of slavery into the newly-forming states of the west. Lincoln himself said a number of times that he had no intention whatever to interfere with slavery in the states where it already existed. He also insisted that he had no intention of trying to make slaves “equal” to whites, even in the free states, except in the most formal sense of being free of bondage. In fact, so unequal did Lincoln consider blacks, and so impossible did he consider the mixing of the races that he was a proponent of a plan to ship freed slaves back to their native countries in Africa (as well as one, about the time of the Emancipation Proclamation, to find a home for them in Central America). Both Lincoln and Seward calculated that if the Southern secessionists could be persuaded that they would be left alone to have their slaves and way of life, they would withdraw from the brink of civil war. They also had in mind that the border states like North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky could be persuaded to remain in the Union if they saw how moderate and conciliatory the new Republican administration would be.
Of course, they were wrong. The border states joined the rebellion, as did Virginia. Maryland came very close, with major riots breaking out by secessionists in Baltimore, even as Lincoln’s train was proceeding to Washington for his inauguration. So dangerous, indeed, was the inaugural situation that Seward and others prevailed on Lincoln to leave the main train transporting his wife and family members to Washington from Illinois, and board a separate train that would slip through Baltimore late at night. Lincoln did exactly that, and arrived safely.
But the danger was far from over. Before a month was out, Lincoln had ordered the re-supply of Fort Sumter, which was bungled, the Confederate forces had attacked its fewer than one-hundred defenders there, and the outmanned and outgunned commander, Major Anderson, had surrendered. With the defection of Virginia to the Confederacy, the huge naval depot at Norfolk also fell to the rebels. Now it was a question of whether Washington DC itself could be defended. Maryland was wavering, and if it too joined the Confederates, the capital would be surrounded by Confederates. Though it did not come to that, it came close: a group of Baltimore delegates demanded that Union troops stay out of their entire state, and though Lincoln refused to comply, he could not prevent a mob of secessionists in Baltimore from cutting all the telegraph wires in Baltimore and demolishing all the railroad bridges surrounding the city. Washington was at one stroke isolated from any communication with the north, and for the next week all Washington residents trembled behind barricaded doors and locked windows, able to see the campfires of the Confederate soldiers across the Potomac in Virginia, and knowing there was no army at hand to defend them.
Fortunately, Abraham Lincoln maintained a calm exterior, though he hardly slept most of the time. This makes it all the more remarkable that when he finally gave his inauguration speech, it was filled with the stirring phrases for which he became known. On March 4, 1861, he continued to try to placate the South, as he had been advised to by Secretary of State Seward—who had made major revisions to Lincoln’s original draft. The new president repeated his promise not to “directly or indirectly interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists,” saying he had no lawful right or even inclination to do so. He pledged to uphold the Fugitive Slave provision of the Constitution requiring that “slaves shall be delivered upon claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due.” He also pledged not to invade or use force against the people of the South, though he was determined to defend government property—i.e. Fort Sumter. But he also made clear that there could be no separation of the American people from each other:
Physically speaking, we cannot separate. We cannot remove our respective sections from each other, nor build an impassable wall between them. A husband and wife may be divorced, and go out of the presence, and beyond the reach of each other; but the different parts of our country cannot do this. They cannot but remain face to face; and intercourse, either amicable or hostile, must continue between them.
Then he ended with the beautiful verbal music of which he was uniquely capable, though the original phrasing had come from Seward:
The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
Goodwin titles her chapter with that magical phrase, ‘the mystic chords of memory.’ And though neither those “chords” of unity nor the “better angels of our nature” would emerge for many many years, if ever, especially where the pervasive racism of Americans is concerned, Lincoln was in the most fundamental sense correct: the Union would survive its most dangerous crisis, though it would take four years and the bloodiest war in American history to preserve it.
Now, with yet another president offering a ringing inaugural address, the question, if not the details, is essentially the same: can the warring factions from different areas of this country ever come together on the strength of those “mystic chords of memory” to agree on a sane way out of our current crises? One would like to think so; but given the persistent lunacy and power of selfish interests that prevails, it’s going to take something like those ‘better angels,’ and more, to make it happen.