Letter to John Clayton (July 28, 1849)

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#130 on the list of 150 Most Teachable Lincoln Documents

Annotated Transcript

“The appointments need be no better than they have been, but the public must be brought to understand, that they are the President’s appointments. He must occasionally say, or seem to say, ‘by the Eternal,’ ‘I take the responsibility.’ Those phrases were the ‘Samson’s locks’ of Gen. Jackson, and we dare not disregard the lessons of experience. “

On This Date

HD Daily Report, July 28, 1849

The Lincoln Log, July 28, 1849

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How Historians Interpret

“In that hectic time, Lincoln followed the advice he had offered twelve years earlier when he suggested that the newly-installed president, Zachary Taylor, should announce: “by the Eternal, I take the responsibility.”

–Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life (2 volumes, originally published by Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008) Unedited Manuscript by Chapter, Lincoln Studies Center, Volume 2, Chapter 23 (PDF), 2411.

 

“Lincoln had every right to feel proud of his efforts which — in his mind — helped to win the presidency for the Whig party. Moreover, with the Whigs in control of the executive branch of the federal government, political patronage posts were available in greater abundance. Even before Taylor’s inauguration, aspiring office seekers assailed Lincoln with requests for public jobs. These requests ranged from postmaster to that of charge d’affaire. The young congressman, who was nearing the end of his only term in the United States House of Representatives, diligently forwarded all applications to the appropriate department head, exerting great efforts to secure patronage jobs for his constituents and for Illinois Whigs generally.”

–Thomas F. Schwartz, “’An Egregious Political Blunder’ Justin Butterfield, Lincoln, and Illinois Whiggery,” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association 8, no. 1 (1986): 9-19.

 

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Searchable Text

Springfield, Ill., July 28, 1849.
 
Hon. J. M. Clayton. 
Dear Sir: 
It is with some hesitation I presume to address this letter—and yet I wish not only you, but the whole cabinet, and the President too, would consider the subject matter of it. My being among the People while you and they are not, will excuse the apparent presumption. It is understood that the President at first adopted, as a general rule, to throw the responsibility of the appointments upon the respective Departments; and that such rule is adhered to and practised upon. This course I at first thought proper; and, of course, I am not now complaining of it. Still I am disappointed with the effect of it on the public mind. It is fixing for the President the unjust and ruinous character of being a mere man of straw. This must be arrested, or it will damn us all inevitably. It is said Gen. Taylor and his officers held a council of war, at Palo Alto (I believe); and that he then fought the battle against unanimous opinion of those officers. This fact (no matter whether rightfully or wrongfully) gives him more popularity than ten thousand submissions, however really wise and magnanimous those submissions may be.
The appointments need be no better than they have been, but the public must be brought to understand, that they are the President’s appointments. He must occasionally say, or seem to say, “by the Eternal,” “I take the responsibility.” Those phrases were the “Samson’s locks” of Gen. Jackson, and we dare not disregard the lessons of experience. 
Your Ob’t Sev’t 
A. LINCOLN
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