By Frank Milligan
Historian James Oakes, the author of a wonderful new book that I have just finished reading and heartily recommend entitled The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics, has questioned in today’s November 20 New York Times, both the uniqueness and the cohesiveness of President Lincoln’s decision to appoint to his cabinet a “team of rivals.” The subject of Lincoln’s cabinet making is of course dominating the national media because of President-elect Obama’s cabinet making process.
Oakes argues that other nineteenth century presidents had turned to political rivals to fill their cabinet chairs long before Lincoln’s decision to do so. And, Oakes posits, rather than a cohesive “team,” Lincoln’s cabinet secretaries actually represented “a contentious, envious and often dysfunctional collection of prima donnas.” Lincoln appointee Simon Cameron, who supported Lincoln at the convention, proved to be a disaster in the all-important, one could argue most important, Secretary of War post. He was soon replaced by a former Democrat, Edwin M. Stanton, who had indeed been one of Lincoln’s political rivals. But Stanton, Oakes adds, “quickly grew so suspicious of leaks by his fellow cabinet officers that he stopped bringing important questions to the table, reserving such discussions for private audiences with Lincoln.” So much for the teamwork.
Not all of Stanton’s “private audiences” occurred in his War Department office, or in Lincoln’s White House office for that matter. Rather, the two men met over breakfast at the Soldiers’ Home where the Stanton family, like the Lincolns, resided for varying lengths of the time during the war. Stanton also occasionally rode along beside Lincoln during the President’s daily 30-45 minute morning rides between their Soldiers’ Home cottages and their downtown officers. During these early morning “commutes” the two men could, and did, find time to discuss political policy initiatives and military tactics. Similarly Lincoln’s Secretary of State William Seward, Lincoln’s “main rival for the nomination,” eventually gained so much private access to Lincoln that he didn’t bother attending most cabinet meetings.” Rather Seward, like Stanton, visited his boss at Lincoln’s Soldiers’ Home cottage where the two men could meet away from the White House Cabinet room fish bowl.
As the “team or rivals” issue unfolds in media and in scholarly debate, we can be sure of one thing: that President Lincoln’s Cottage at the Soldiers’ Home remained, as Lincoln scholar Matthew Pinsker writes in his wonderful book, Lincoln’s Sanctuary :Abraham Lincoln and the Soldiers’ Home, a place where President Lincoln could, in private, complain to his closest aides and conduct secret meetings with his political enemies – some of whom like Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon Chase, started out as trusted members of the “team.”