Sunday, April 04, 2010

Seward's Folly, Lincoln's Wisdom?

Abraham Lincoln
Image from FPRI)

If you think that politics today is corrupt and Machiavellian, then consider this anecdote about President Abraham Lincoln and his Secretary of State William H. Seward in "The Foreign Policy of Abraham Lincoln" (2010) from the pen of Harvey Sicherman, writing in an E-Note for the Foreign Policy Research Institute:
April 1, 1861, must rank as one of the most amazing April Fool's Days in our history. For on that day, Seward did two things. He wrote a letter to Lincoln, saying that it was clear that despite the crisis there was no policy direction in the Cabinet. So Seward proposed that while Lincoln remain President, he should announce that, henceforth, the conduct of affairs would be controlled by the undersigned, Mr. Seward. Now on that same day, Lincoln had authorized the preparation of an expedition in New York to reinforce Fort Sumter. There was another fort, Fort Pickens in Florida, that was also in danger, but Fort Sumter was in much worse shape. Seward thought it was a very bad idea to reinforce Sumter, lest this provoke a war. Consequently, he promptly had orders written out in the name of the Secretary of War and the President of the United States indicating that the expedition should go to Fort Pickens. He slipped the papers among others that were full of appointments, and taking advantage of Lincoln’s busy schedule, insisted that all had to be signed immediately, which Lincoln did, unaware of their contents. Apprised by the secretary of the navy of the change, Lincoln later countermanded the order.

Now, just imagine all of this happening on the same day, and yet Lincoln did not fire Seward! Instead, he wrote a letter to him saying in effect that yes, it was true that there should be one person in charge of giving the lead and, as Lincoln put it, "I suppose that person is me." He thanked Seward for his advice and signed off. Nor did he chastise Seward for the substitution of the papers. Judging that Seward's dismissal at that point would have been catastrophic for his political situation, he did something else, defended him to the Cabinet while taking the blame because he'd been careless in examining his papers. This saved Seward's honor and cemented their relationship. And it would not be the last time that Lincoln would defend him. Confronted with the kind of insubordination that must have boiled his blood, Lincoln subordinated his emotions to his principle of unity.
Any ordinary individual confronted by such insubordination would have fired Seward or fallen prey to his machinations, but Lincoln was extraordinary. No one knew that at the time, of course . . . not even Lincoln, though he perhaps had an inkling since he believed that knew how to handle the 'team of rivals' that made up his cabinet:
The so-called "team" so unnerved one of Lincoln's confidants that he said to Lincoln, "They will eat you!" To which Lincoln replied, "No, they will eat each other."
Such a remark expresses not just self-confidence but also extraordinarily intelligent insight, and Lincoln would need this sort of intelligence for at least two reasons, both grounded in his ignorance:
As for Lincoln, there is no evidence that he had virtually any thoughts on foreign policy at all before he became president.

. . .

Unfortunately, although Seward and Lincoln were both trained as lawyers, their knowledge of international law was defective.
Even in the 1860s, ignorance of international affairs was a detriment for an American president, but Lincoln was lucky in that the Europeans were unlucky . . . as you can discover by reading Sicherman's entire article. And this gives me some hope for America these days.

Not that I wish any bad luck on the rest of the world, for I am, after all, living out here in the 'rest' of the world.

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At 8:02 AM, Blogger Won Joon Choe said...

Lincoln was perhaps the greatest admixture of intellectual acuity and political skills since Caesar. He had a chameleon-like capacity to adapt his speech and behavior to the audience and the occasion. In fact, his entire political career is the progressive unfolding of an assiduously cultivated Noble Lie--that this world-historical colossus was an every man with whom the common man could emulate.

At 8:21 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

He was certainly an uncommon man, almost uniquely gifted intellectually. Your comparison to Julius Caesar is one I would never have thought of, but it is intriguing.

Lincoln himself claimed consistency, of course, maintaining that once he had fixed upon a political position as the correct one, he never wavered.

Not being a Lincoln expert, I can't accurately judge the truth of this claim.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:29 AM, Blogger Rick Darby said...

I have to register a mild dissent.

From what I have read about Lincoln, he was humane toward a defeated — but only a defeated — South. Doubtless, too, he was tactically shrewd and skilled in personal relationships with other political players. Under normal circumstances, a decent man.

But he was a fanatic, an absolute lunatic concerning his sacred "Union." Perhaps he can't be blamed for not foreseeing the carnage of the War before he began it, but he certainly had ample opportunity to understand it in the next few years.

Nevertheless he pressed on when he could have negotiated an honorable settlement. Instead his war devastated North and South alike, engendering bitterness that lasted for generations.

Six hundred thousand casualties. For what? The "Union." A political entity. To prevent the Confederacy from doing what the colonies had done less than a century before.

I know, I know: what about slavery? First, I doubt seriously the moral issue was much in his mind. The emancipation proclamation applied only to the Confederacy, i.e., another nation (by its own reckoning). It was a political ploy to retain the votes of the abolitionists in the 1864 election, and perhaps to encourage slave rebellions.

Second, slavery was an evil institution, but the vast destruction unleashed on the South merely shifted the unfortunate blacks from legal slavery to extra-legal oppression, aroused in part by the hard feelings left from the war and Reconstruction.

Third, although this is hindsight, slavery would have been made economically irrelevant by improved farming technology and perhaps an increase in generous feeling within a decade or two.

Lincoln was in many ways a good man, but he brought about a disaster through his obsession.

At 6:36 AM, Blogger Won Joon Choe said...

Mr. Hodges,

As I am sure you know, I am strictly referring to Lincoln's uncanny combination of intellect and prudence, and nothing else.

So of course, I do not imply that Lincoln was a tyrant in the manner of Caesar (though some Confederate partisans--and civil rights absolutists--do seem to feel that way).

At 6:38 AM, Blogger Won Joon Choe said...

Mr. Darby,

Instead of rebutting your claims point-by-point, I should refer you to Harry Jaffa's Crisis of the House Divided. In it, he addresses all of your claims in painstaking detail; and I also think it's the best book on Lincoln I've hitherto read.

At 6:41 AM, Blogger Won Joon Choe said...

P.S. I should be remiss not to mention that Lincoln does seem to imply that he was not immune to tyrannical temptations in his remarkable Lyceum Address.

At 7:01 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Mr. Darby and WJC, you're both far more knowledgeable about Lincoln than I am, so I'd do best to let the two of you discusss the man's flaws and virtues.

Rather than open my mouth and remove all doubt about my status as possible fool . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:38 AM, Blogger Rick Darby said...

Okay, I bopped over to Amazon and read the reviews of Harry Jaffa's Crisis of the House Divided. Obviously that is not the same as reading the book, but it tells me something about the subject and the author's viewpoint.

Jaffa writes about the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Let's agree for the purpose of discussion that Lincoln was a great orator and that he held dearly the idea of equality. Perhaps the book reveals what equality meant to Lincoln. But whatever he thought about the concept, it is either demonstrably wrong (people are clearly not equal in intelligence or various kinds of talent) or a moral and spiritual precept (people are all of equal value in the sight of God) whose political significance is debatable.

Lincoln's gift for language and high-toned rhetoric naturally appeals to academics and others who feast on abstractions. I simply want to call attention to the actual consequences of Lincoln's captivity to one abstraction, the Union.

It led him to pursue war against states that had chosen independence, and that had no aggressive designs against the North. It led him to continue the ghastly war when it was obvious that the South would not give up until it was destroyed.

For many people today, all that is obscured in a haze of legend. There was nothing hazy about it for Americans of the time. It was as solid as a minie ball or bayonet.

Lincoln undoubtedly had many virtues, and as I said previously, under other circumstances he might legitimately have been called a great president. But his monomania about "preserving" the Union — which the War hardly did anyway, except in a legal sense — was a disaster.

At 4:13 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Knowing the sources of Lincoln's sacralization of the Union would be interesting. I strongly suspect that he was not alone in this, but shared the view with many other Americans, else his rhetoric would have failed to be persuasive.

Jeffery Hodges

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