Letter to William Seward (April 1, 1861)

Contributing editors for this page include Moyra Schauffler

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#56 on the list of 150 Most Teachable Lincoln Documents

Annotated Transcript

“Since parting with you I have been considering your paper dated this day, and entitled ‘Some thoughts for the President’s consideration.’ The first proposition in it is, ‘1st. We are at the end of a month’s administration, and yet without a policy, either domestic or foreign.'”

On This Date

HD Daily Report, April 1, 1861

The Lincoln Log, April 1, 1861

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Close Readings

Moyra Schauffler, “Lincoln Responds to Seward,” (Dickinson College, Spring 2015)

How Historians Interpret

“One of Lincoln’s greatest challenges was taming his secretary of state. ‘I can’t afford to let Seward take the first trick,’ he told Nicolay in early March. While struggling with the Fort Sumter dilemma, Lincoln had to keep the wily New Yorker, who presumed he would serve as the Grand Vizier of the administration, from taking not just the first trick but the entire rubber. Seward hoped to dominate Lincoln just as he had dominated President Zachary Taylor. Seward evidently wished the motto of the administration to be, ‘The King reigns, but does not govern.’ He told a European diplomat that there ‘exists no great difference between an elected president of the United States and a hereditary monarch. The latter is called to the throne through the accident of birth, the former through the chances which make his election possible. The actual direction of public affairs belongs to the leader of the ruling party here just as in a hereditary principality.’ The New Yorker considered himself, not Lincoln, the ‘leader of the ruling party.’ In his own eyes, he was a responsible, knowledgeable, veteran statesman who must guide the naïve, inexperienced Illinoisan toward sensible appointments and policies. Unlike Lincoln, he did not believe that the new administration had to carry out the Republicans’ Chicago platform.”

–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 22  (PDF), 2327-2328.

 

“Throughout the war years, Seward, while remaining a faithful subordinate to Lincoln, enjoyed the President’s complete confidence. If Seward was in any sense a prime minister, it was because the chief executive desired him to play that role. Yet a myth persists to the contrary.”

— Norman B. Ferris, “Lincoln and Seward in Civil War Diplomacy: Their Relationship at the Outset Reexamined,” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association 12, no. 1 (1991), 21-42.

NOTE TO READERS

This page is under construction and will be developed further by students in the new “Understanding Lincoln” online course sponsored by the House Divided Project at Dickinson College and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. To find out more about the course and to see some of our videotaped class sessions, including virtual field trips to Ford’s Theatre and Gettysburg, please visit our Livestream page at http://new.livestream.com/gilderlehrman/lincoln

 

Searchable Text

Executive Mansion
April 1, 1861
 
Hon. W. H. Seward
 
My dear Sir:
Since parting with you I have been considering your paper dated this day, and entitled “Some thoughts for the President’s consideration.” The first proposition in it is, “1st. We are at the end of a month’s administration, and yet without a policy, either domestic or foreign.”
 
At the beginning of that month, in the inaugeral, I said “The power confided to me will be used to hold, occupy and possess the property and places belonging to the government, and to collect the duties, and imposts.” This had your distinct approval at the time; and, taken in connection with the order I immediately gave General Scott, directing him to employ every means in his power to strengthen and hold the forts, comprises the exact domestic policy you now urge, with the single exception, that it does not propose to abandon Fort Sumpter.
 
Again, I do not perceive how the re-inforcement of Fort Sumpter would be done on a slavery, or party issue, while that of Fort Pickens would be on a more national, and patriotic one.
 
The news received yesterday in regard to St. Domingo, certainly brings a new item within the range of our foreign policy; but up to that time we have been preparing circulars, and instructions to ministers, and the like, all in perfect harmony, without even a suggestion that we had no foreign policy.
 
Upon your closing propositions, that “whatever policy we adopt, there must be an energetic prossecution of it”
 
“For this purpose it must be somebody’s business to pursue and direct it incessantly”
 
“Either the President must do it himself, and be all the while active in it, or”
 
“Devolve it on some member of his cabinet”
 
“Once adopted, debates on it must end, and all agree and abide” I remark that if this must be done, I must do it. When a general line of policy is adopted, I apprehend there is no danger of its being changed without good reason, or continuing to be a subject of unnecessary debate; still, upon points arising in its progress, I wish, and suppose I am entitled to have the advice of all the cabinet.
 
Your Obt. Servt.
A. LINCOLN
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