The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

May 30, 2009

Lots to consider before we make up our minds about Lincoln

By Mayor Dan Williams for The News Courier

I remember reading and studying about President Abraham Lincoln during my school years, and I have read a good bit of information about him since that time. He died in 1865 at the hands of assassin John Wilkes Booth, just 77 years, or three generations before I was born. At the time of my birth, the South and its people, according to many, were still suffering from the Civil War, reconstruction, and harsh retaliation from Northern sympathizers who still considered the South as rebels rather than secessionists. I think many people who are my age never admired Lincoln as the nation's greatest president, probably due to these factors.

I recently read "Team of Rivals," the book about President Abraham Lincoln's cabinet that served him during his first term as the American Civil War raged through this nation. Doris Kearnes Goodwin, a noted presidential historian, compiled the book that has over 900 pages over a 10-year period.

The book tells the story of four men who aspired to be the presidential nominee for the new Republican Party during the 1860 national elections that were held on the eve of the Civil War. They were: William H. Steward, a senator from New York, who was considered the front-runner; Salmon P. Chase, a former governor of Ohio and a senator; Edward Bates, a lawyer and one-term U.S. congressman from Missouri; and Abraham Lincoln, a poor, self-educated Kentucky-born lawyer who resided and practiced in Springfield, Ill.

Lincoln served one term in the U.S Congress, was defeated, then twice defeated in attempts to be elected to the U.S. Senate, and was certainly the dark horse for the nomination. Seward, the obvious choice to defeat the Democrats, thought it was his to have without question. Chase lusted during his entire life for the presidency, and would stoop to any length to secure it. He always attempted to justify his efforts in a moral manner to his equally ambitious daughter. Bates wanted the presidency, but did not seem to be as obsessed as the other three about it.

Many factors played a part in Lincoln successfully securing the nomination, including the business of politics as usual, but his moderate stance on the question of slavery and his willingness to accept people and their actions without criticism or retaliation, made him very acceptable to many people. He probably had a much better knowledge of human nature than his three opponents due to not having the advantages they had in their early lives.

After his election, Lincoln appointed his bitter rivals to his cabinet. Seward was his Secretary of State, Chase became the Secretary of the Treasury, and Bates was the Attorney General. He also appointed Simon Cameron, a rival from Pennsylvania as Secretary of War, but replaced him soon with Edwin Stanton from Ohio. It seems that Stanton actually despised Lincoln more than the others. Lincoln received much criticism and advice from supporters about appointing these bad guys. He did appoint Montgomery Blair from Kentucky as Postmaster General and Gideon Welles from Connecticut as Secretary of the Navy. They were the good guys.

Lincoln told people that he appointed his rivals because they were the finest minds in the nation, and the nation shouldn’t be deprived of their talents. Many think he was smart enough to get them into his cabinet, away from the powerful positions in government that would allow them to undermine his efforts. This was smart thinking because until this time the largest thing Lincoln had managed was his law office. It seems that Lincoln used these men to help him operate the country during the most critical time of its existence, and by personally taking the blame for all their mistakes, he eventually caused them to become staunch supporters and friends to himself as he did his best to save the Union.

Lincoln was elected president on Nov. 6, 1860. Seven Southern states seceded from the Union before he was inaugurated on March 4, 1861. The Civil War began on April 12, 1861, one month after his inauguration, and ended in April, 1865, just days before his assassination. How this poor, self-educated lawyer from the Plains ever administered and held such a sprawling nation together during such a dire, critical time is what this book is about. I recommend it to anyone who seriously wishes to understand how historical events shaped our nation, and how their consequences are with us to this day.

A person should never base his knowledge and conclusions of persons and events in our history upon one source of information. Our local library contains numerous volumes pertaining to Lincoln, slavery, and the Civil War. These volumes, along with this latest compilation of information about these matters, should all be considered before we finally make up our minds about Lincoln.