Blogs > Cliopatria > Daniel W. Crofts: Review of Harold Holzer's Lincoln President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter 1860-1861 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008)

Dec 2, 2008 6:10 pm

Daniel W. Crofts: Review of Harold Holzer's Lincoln President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter 1860-1861 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008)

[Mr. Crofts is Professor of History at The College of New Jersey. He is the author of Reluctant Confederates: Upper South Unionists in the Secession Crisis (North Carolina, 1989) and The Diary of a Public Man: A Secession Crisis Enigma (Louisiana State, forthcoming).]

            Today the United States finds itself in the midst of an interregnum between outgoing and incoming presidents.  A high level of public interest attends this transfer of power because it intersects with a sharp economic reversal.  But things could be much worse.  In the broader sweep of world history, convulsions often accompany regime change.  And the United States has not been immune.  

The most dangerous transfer of power in American history occurred in the winter of 1860-61, following Abraham Lincoln’s election as president.  Before he even took office, seven states in the Deep South—from South Carolina west to Texas—declared themselves out of the Union and began to organize the government for a separate nation, the Confederate States of America.

Electoral systems are supposed to assure orderly successions.  In theory, those who participate in an election pledge themselves to abide by the result.  Certainly Lincoln and his fellow Republicans expected the South to acquiesce.  But theory and practice do not always coincide.  Many white Southerners considered Lincoln’s victory an intolerable affront.  Refusing to accept a “Black Republican” president, they demanded that their states secede from the Union.

During the four months following the election in early November 1860, the outgoing lame-duck president, James Buchanan, was responsible for dealing with the secession crisis (until 1936, American presidents were inaugurated on March 4, not January 20).  Buchanan insisted that no state could legally secede, but he feared that any use of armed force against the secessionists would make a bad situation worse.  As the Union unraveled, Lincoln could only await events.   No incoming president before or since has faced such a vexing crisis.

In his inaugural address, Lincoln declared that the Union was perpetual and that it remained “unbroken.”  His oath of office obligated him to take care that the laws “be faithfully executed in all the States.”  But he eagerly hoped that national authority could be restored without “bloodshed or violence.”  And he ended with words that President-elect Barack Obama quoted on election night earlier this month:  “We are not enemies, but friends.  We must not be enemies.  Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.” (Basler, ed., Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, IV:262-71, quotations on 264-66, 271.)  Because Lincoln will always be remembered as a war president, we rarely recall that he came to power hopeful that the peace might yet be preserved.

Harold Holzer has just published a hefty new study of Lincoln’s role during the excruciating interval between his election and his inauguration.  One approaches this book with high hopes.  Holzer is the author or editor of thirty books on various aspects of Lincoln’s life and the Civil War.  He commands a wide audience.  His Lincoln at Cooper Union was awarded the Lincoln Prize.  This latest venture is being vigorously marketed and carries glowing endorsements from prominent scholars.

Lincoln President-Elect provides an almost linear catalog of Lincoln’s daily routines and movements between early November 1860 and early March 1861.  Two-thirds of the volume is situated in Springfield, Illinois, where Lincoln remained until early February.  Another hundred pages detail his roundabout railroad trip to Washington, D.C.  The final few chapters sketch the pressure-packed ten days between February 23 and March 4, after Lincoln reached the national capital and had to make weighty decisions about his inaugural address, about the roster of his cabinet, and about the dread matter that hung over everything—his policy toward the disaffected South.

Anything a reader might wish to know about Lincoln’s appearance, attire, and diet may be found here.  The book is definitive on his post-election decision to grow whiskers.  We learn about the furnishings of his Springfield home, many of which were sold as he prepared to move.  We find him besieged by a growing volume of visitors.            Holzer also has ransacked many odd nuggets from Lincoln’s incoming mail—counterparts to the miscellaneous avalanche of gifts and mementos that steadily accumulated in a room of the Illinois State House.

Holzer contends that Lincoln’s secession crisis role has been insufficiently appreciated.  He takes exception to the idea that the president-elect picked his way tentatively through the shocks and surprises of the interregnum.  He rejects David M. Potter’s tart view that Lincoln “groped and blundered” as he began to realize that the seceding states were in earnest. (Potter, Lincoln and His Party in the Secession Crisis, 315.)   Holzer’s Lincoln, by contrast, navigated “brilliantly” (458) through all the snares of the secession winter and had a clear vision of the road ahead.

Part of Holzer’s case is compelling.  On one key point Lincoln was adamant—he repeatedly demanded that Republicans maintain their opposition to slavery in the territories.  “Hold firm, as with a chain of steel,” he insisted (159).  He feared that the party would no longer stand for anything if it backed down from its core principles.  He feared too that radicals would defect and cripple his new administration.

Although Lincoln consistently rejected a territorial compromise, in other ways his response to the crisis was opportunistic.  New Mexico was the only territory south of the old Missouri Compromise line (36°30´).  Lincoln could tolerate its admission to the Union as a slave state.  He wasn’t keen to put a non-Republican Southerner into his cabinet, but he decided to offer a position to North Carolina’s John A. Gilmer, who nonetheless declined it.  He rewrote his inaugural address so as to emphasize his hopes for peace.  Once in office, he anguished for most of a month before deciding to risk war.

Lincoln President-Elect is an imperfect guide to the political crisis that was at the center of Lincoln’s consciousness between November and March.  Part of the problem is conceptual.  However much a relentless day-by-day format may inform readers about Lincoln’s activities, it is ill-suited to illuminate the various tangled strands of the story.  Most historical writing examines particular topics within the broader context of chronology.  Only rarely do scholars attempt a rigidly chronological approach.

By focusing so intently on Lincoln, Holzer tends to overlook important parts of the story that did not take place in Springfield.  Thus, he barely touches the crisis that engulfed Buchanan’s cabinet in late December, after Major Robert Anderson boldly moved his besieged garrison of federal soldiers in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, from Fort Moultrie, a defenseless sandspit, to Fort Sumter, a mile offshore.  The little that he writes about it shows that Holzer should have studied the subject more carefully.  Sumter was destined to become Lincoln’s biggest headache of all.

Lincoln President-Elect has other limitations.  Holzer tends to turn everything into biography or personality.  For example, his account of Thurlow Weed’s visit to Springfield just before Christmas manages to misunderstand why Weed was far more alarmed than Lincoln about the situation in the South.  Holzer depicts instead two veteran storytellers trading yarns with each other.  A “delighted” Weed, fortified with a “hearty breakfast of sausages,” headed back east with warm feelings about his new friend (170).  This glimpse conceals more than it explains.

Holzer knows a bewildering amount about Lincoln—and he cannot restrain himself from putting it all in the book.  But he simply hasn’t done the research to write with full authority about the secession crisis.  He has not consulted the papers of the other key players—William H. Seward, Salmon P. Chase, James Buchanan, Stephen A. Douglas, and Charles Francis Adams, for starters.  And he knows so little about the South that he keeps making mistakes.  Georgia’s Alexander Stephens had never been a U.S. Senator.  James A. Bayard, identified here simply as a Philadelphian, was in fact a powerful U.S. Senator from Delaware.

For many weeks Lincoln remained confident that the South would come to its senses.  He continually refused to make conciliatory statements or to offer reassurances of his good intentions.  Holzer celebrates Lincoln’s stance and castigates those who saw the matter differently.  Holzer cannot comprehend why any self-respecting Republican might have supported efforts to enact some kind of compromise legislation.   

A recent book by a young scholar, Russell McClintock, Lincoln and the Decision for War: The Northern Response to Secession (North Carolina, 2008), offers far more depth and perspective on the crisis that led to war.  More succinct than Holzer’s bloated volume, McClintock’s book also covers Lincoln’s first crucial six weeks in office.  McClintock understands—as Holzer does not—the complexity of what was happening in the slave states.  An anti-secession insurgency in the Upper South tempted some Republicans, especially Seward, to heed warnings from Virginia about the need for compromise and about the danger of maintaining federal control over Fort Sumter, the powder keg in Charleston harbor.  In the end, McClintock, like Holzer, strongly affirms Lincoln’s leadership.  But McClintock’s case rests on far more persuasive foundations.

            Holzer shortchanges the one previous book that covers the exact same ground as his—William E. Baringer’s A House Dividing: Lincoln as President-Elect (Abraham Lincoln Association, 1945).  An accomplished Lincoln scholar, Baringer wrote more economically than Holzer and did not get bogged down in detail.   So too, a wider research base enabled Baringer to grasp some aspects of the crisis that eluded Holzer.  Baringer explained more clearly why pressures to enact a modified compromise intensified in January and February, once it could be depicted as a way of supporting Union-loving anti-secessionists in the Upper South.

            In the end, Lincoln did prove willing to accept one key compromise—a constitutional amendment forever safeguarding slavery in the states where it already existed.  He made this position explicit in his inaugural address.  Holzer reprints the inaugural as an appendix, but his own narrative does not breathe a word about Lincoln’s position on the constitutional amendment.  To do so would admit too much paradox.  Holzer must depict Lincoln as someone who, unlike Seward, would never countenance the permanence of slavery (213-14).

Holzer refuses to see that the man we now hail as the “Great Emancipator” never expected to become a war president and never expected to preside over the forcible destruction of the slave system.  Only rarely do Lincoln’s modern admirers come to grips with the “plain evidence of his earnest efforts to avoid that course altogether.”  Lincoln was, in fact, “reluctant to become an Emancipator,” David Potter wrote, “and the conflict which immortalized him was a conflict which he had believed he could avert.” (Potter, Lincoln and His Party in the Secession Crisis, 315.)

Related Links

  • Daniel W. Crofts: Review of Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005)

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