Being president of the United States in wartime is, of course, an overwhelming job. The president has to be a military strategist because he is, in the long run, the Commander in Chief of the country’s armed forces. He also has to be enough of an economist and a financier to see to it that proper steps are taken to keep the country’s economy running and to keep its currency reasonably stable. On top of everything else, he has to be what he was elected to be in the first place. That is, a political leader, a politician who can work through other politicians.
Lincoln developed into one of the most canny politicians this country has seen. He worked largely through his cabinet, which included some of the men who had run against him in the 1860 Republican Presidential Nominations Campaign. Secretary of State Seward was bitterly disappointed when he was beaten by this dark horse from Illinois. But Seward was probably the man who wound up feeling the most affection for Lincoln and the man with whom Lincoln felt most at ease. It was Seward who gave Lincoln the one piece of advice about the Emancipation Proclamation that Lincoln was willing to accept; namely that it could not be issued until the Union armies had won a substantial victory. Lincoln harkened to that, put the Proclamation away and brought it out only after the Battle of Antietam.
He was close to his secretary of State all through the war and significantly enough, on the night that Booth shot Lincoln at Ford’s Theater, one of Booth’ coconspirators forced his way into Seward’s house and tried to kill him with a dagger. Seward survived, of course and served on for some time as Secretary of State. (It was under Seward that the United States bought Alaska from Russia and for quire a while the ordinary citizen could not see that there was any particular use in owning Alaska, this territory was known as Seward’s Folly.)
The other most recognizable member of Lincoln’s cabinet was Edwin M. Stanton, who was Secretary of War early in 1862. After the war, Stanton was known as a Republican Radical. He did not come into the Cabinet with that reputation; on the contrary, he had served briefly in President Buchanan’s Cabinet and had been a Democrat. When Lincoln appointed him to the War Department it was generally assumed that here was a case where Lincoln was reaching into the opposition party and taking a Democrat for an important job.
Stanton was a brusque, rather dictatorial man. He scared the daylights out of army officers who had to come to see him. He would bark at them, storm at them, snarl at them, threaten them openly with breaking them down to enlisted man’s status or firing them out of the service altogether. He was, all in all, a tough man to get along with. For quite a while, he rather despaired of President Lincoln. Lincoln’s habit of cracking jokes repelled Stanton; he did not have a sense of humor anywhere about his person.
Once or twice when President Lincoln would open a Cabinet meeting by reading a chapter or two from one of the popular humorists of the day, like Josh Billings or Artemus Ward, Stanton could hardly contain his indignation. The idea that the President of the United States, who had important business to take care of, would spend five minutes relaxing in laughter was more than Stanton could endure. Yet as the war wore on, Lincoln and Stanton worked closely together.
Stanton had many of the qualities Lincoln needed, Lincoln, on the other hand, had the ability to control Stanton’s occasionally violent, dictatorial tendencies and to put his tremendous energy to use without letting his quirks spoil everything. Lincoln, once or twice, humorously remarked that the secretary of War was running the war and that the President has no influence at all in the War department. It was actually very clear, particularly toward the end of the war, that Lincoln was the man in charge and Stanton was the Executive Officer.
After Lincoln died in the rooming house across the street from Ford’s Theater, Stanton reflecting on all that had happened said, ” There lies the greatest master of men that ever lived”, It was testimony from an expert.
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