Saturday, December 06, 2008

Lincoln President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter 1860-1861

I just finished reading Lincoln President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter 1860-1861 by Harry Holzer. I enjoyed it very much and I believe I have a better grasp of Lincoln's Presidency now. Those four months from election to becoming President played a large role on Lincoln and the nation.

The publisher's description of the book reads:

One of our most eminent Lincoln scholars, winner of a Lincoln Prize for his Lincoln at Cooper Union, examines the four months between Lincoln's election and inauguration, when the president-elect made the most important decision of his coming presidency -- there would be no compromise on slavery or secession of the slaveholding states, even at the cost of civil war.

Abraham Lincoln first demonstrated his determination and leadership in the Great Secession Winter -- the four months between his election in November 1860 and his inauguration in March 1861 -- when he rejected compromises urged on him by Republicans and Democrats, Northerners and Southerners, that might have preserved the Union a little longer but would have enshrined slavery for generations. Though Lincoln has been criticized by many historians for failing to appreciate the severity of the secession crisis that greeted his victory, Harold Holzer shows that the presidentelect waged a shrewd and complex campaign to prevent the expansion of slavery while vainly trying to limit secession to a few Deep South states.

During this most dangerous White House transition in American history, the country had two presidents: one powerless (the president-elect, possessing no constitutional authority), the other paralyzed (the incumbent who refused to act). Through limited, brilliantly timed and crafted public statements, determined private letters, tough political pressure, and personal persuasion, Lincoln guaranteed the integrity of the American political process of majority rule, sounded the death knell of slavery, and transformed not only his own image but that of the presidency, even while making inevitable the war that would be necessary to make these achievements permanent.

Lincoln President-Elect is the first book to concentrate on Lincoln's public stance and private agony during these months and on the momentous consequences when he first demonstrated his determination and leadership. Holzer recasts Lincoln from an isolated prairie politician yet to establish his greatness, to a skillful shaper of men and opinion and an immovable friend of freedom at a decisive moment when allegiance to the founding credo "all men are created equal" might well have been sacrificed.

The book is laid out on a largely chronological basis. It starts with Lincoln monitoring election results in November and ends with him taking the oath of office on Inauguration Day. In between, a daily description of the events of each day are covered. This includes his time in Springfield, Illinois up through his daily travel schedule to Washington, D.C.

As Lincoln waited, six southern states seceded. Much of what Lincoln did was a response to this. He did not desire war but refused to allow the Union to dissolve. He had won the election and promised to uphold the Constitution. He also assured the south that he would not interfere with slavery in places it already existed and that he would enforce the Fugitive Slave Return law. Lincoln held that in a democracy that losers of an election had no right to break up the nation just because they did not like the results of an election.

Everything Lincoln said and wrote was analyzed on a partisan basis. This made it rough for Lincoln. He did not please his Republican allies because he talked about reconciliation and only hinted about war. At the same time, southerns bent on secession took offense at almost everything he said. Further, moderates all over the country were annoyed that Lincoln did not lay out a compromise to preserve the Union. It was a tough spot to be in and Holzer shows how Lincoln did a good job for the most part in trying to present himself as President-elect.

Holzer also writes about how annoying all those people looking for Federal jobs were. Under the spoils system, Lincoln had the power to award thousands of jobs. The Republicans had never had power before and it seems like every person who voted for Lincoln felt he deserved a government job. In the days before presidential transition teams, Lincoln would meet with the public two to four hours a day (or more on some occasions!) and have to deal with endless office seekers. Some were qualified but most were not and Lincoln had to handle them politely. Holzer shares several examples of amusing letters sent from unqualified office seekers as well.

Lincoln also had to appoint a cabinet. The politics was intense. Lincoln had to balance rewarding Republican Party leaders with geographical considerations. Lincoln even tried to find loyal southerners for the cabinet. He was lobbied hard and did not settle all the appointments until he got to Washington.

Looking back, we all know how the crisis ends. Lincoln saves the Union but dies at the hands of an assassin. It is easy to use this knowledge to second guess Lincoln's decisions. However, Lincoln did not know this. His choices for the time make sense and Holzer does a good job explaining them. This is a good book and I encourage any one interested in the Civil War, Lincoln, or the "office" of President-elect to read it.

I probably could have gotten a free copy of this book to review had I requested it from the publisher. I foolishly bought it instead. I have no regrets. This book was informative and enjoyable to read for days. It was money well spent.

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