Tag Archives: Lincoln’s cabinet

The planter and the railsplitter

By Michael Lynch

Washington and Lincoln usually rank among the more admired presidents, but most people don’t consider them in light of each other.  Presidents’ Day seems like an appropriate occasion to compare and contrast these two men who had little in common except the office and above-average height.

Interestingly, recent years have witnessed renewed historical attention to both Lincoln and Washington as leaders of men.  Doris Kearns Goodwin’s bestseller on Lincoln and his cabinet turned the phrase “team of rivals” into a catchphrase, while John Ferling has argued that Washington was a much more deft political operator than other biographies have indicated.  Both men displayed an ability to handle opposition, but they approached interpersonal conflict in different ways.

Ferling has written that during the Revolutionary War, Washington felt especially vulnerable to criticism.  He was particularly sensitive when he thought critics were comparing him to powerful rivals, as he believed to be the case after the fall of Philadelphia, fearing a plot to oust him from command was in the works among his detractors in both Congress and the army.  Lincoln faced his fair share of criticism, too, but his skin was thicker than Washington’s.  If Lincoln and his rivals never constituted a true “team”—dissensions and divisions plagued the cabinet, and several of its members didn’t last the duration of Lincoln’s first term—he was nevertheless more adept at keeping discordant elements in check than the sensitive Washington.

“Abraham Lincoln, the Martyr, Victorious,” by John Sartain. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division (LC-DIG-pga-03258).

The two men also differed in their strengths and weaknesses when it came to the art of persuasion.  Washington wasn’t known for his rhetorical gifts; his most well-regarded work of prose, the Farewell Address, was partly the work of Madison in its first draft form and Hamilton in a later one.  But Washington was physically imposing and formidable, and he knew how to magnify his physical qualities with a little stagecraft.  When he arrived in Philadelphia to attend the Continental Congress, he was decked out in military uniform, prepared to make a striking impression.

And he knew how to play on an audience’s emotions by letting his formidable exterior slip a little, as he did during the unrest in the Continental Army at Newburgh in 1783.  Amid reports that disgruntled officers wanted to use the army to pressure Congress over a lack of pay, Washington addressed the men at a meeting on March 15.  Fumbling over a letter from a member of Congress that he intended to read to them, he donned a pair of glasses, stating, “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.”  The officers were deeply moved by this rare show of weakness from a man noted for his vigor and powers of endurance.

Gangly and awkward, Lincoln could never command a room simply by walking into it, as Washington could.  What he lacked in imposing presence, he made up for with his ability to craft compelling arguments and lyrical prose.  When he spoke at New York’s Cooper Union in 1860, one member of the audience found him “so angular and awkward that I had, for an instant, a feeling of pity for so ungainly a man.”  Eventually, though, the clarity of Lincoln’s ideas and the power of his words overcame the awful first impression and won his audience over. “I forgot his clothes, his personal appearance, and his individual peculiarities,” the eyewitness remembered.  “Presently, forgetting myself, I was on my feet like the rest, yelling like a wild Indian, cheering this wonderful man.”  At Newburgh, Washington used his physical presence to make up for what his prepared remarks lacked.  At Cooper Union, by contrast, it was only Lincoln’s ability as a public speaker that overcame his ungainly appearance.

Michael Lynch is a research fellow of the Abraham Lincoln Institute for the Study of Leadership and Public Policy and teaches history at Lincoln Memorial University.  He holds an M.A. in history from the University of Tennessee, blogs about historical topics at Past in the Present, and is currently working on a book about the Revolutionary War in the South.

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Carpenter’s Lincoln

The Civil War Sesquicentennial blog of The New York Times has an interesting post on Francis Carpenter and Lincoln.  Carpenter stayed at the White House while working on his painting of Lincoln reading the Emancipation Proclamation to members of his cabinet.  The painting itself got mixed reviews, but Carpenter’s book about the time he spent in the Executive Mansion has been a gold mine for historians.

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Lincoln’s team vs. Obama’s team

Todd Purum of Vanity Fair examines President Obama’s cabinet in light of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s work on Lincoln.  Obama’s relationship with his advisors, he claims, differs greatly from Lincoln’s.

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Lincoln’s Treasury Secretary

Ben Tarnoff has written a short piece for the New York Times blog on Salmon P. Chase and his contributions to the Union war effort. Here’s a sample:

A solemn man with tremendous self-discipline and unfaltering faith in himself, Treasury Secretary Chase faced the greatest challenge of his career — and the most urgent of the many problems plaguing the Union in those tense months after Fort Sumter. President Lincoln had given him the unenviable task of figuring out how to fund the war. Chase landed the job not because of any financial experience — he had none — but as a reward for supporting Lincoln at the Republican convention.

Neither of them could have anticipated how important a position it would become. Upon taking office on March 7, 1861, Chase inherited an epic mess. At the opening of the Civil War, the Treasury was a bureaucratic tangle of independent fiefdoms, marred by decades of mismanagement. The government had run a deficit every year since 1857, and revenue from taxes and tariffs, its principal source of income, had fallen dramatically. Lincoln commanded a poorly provisioned army of fewer than 20,000 men. He needed guns, ships, tents, uniforms. The war would be expensive, and Lincoln didn’t have time to find the money to fight it. For that, he needed Chase.

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