Friday, April 01, 2011

150 Years Ago: "Some Thoughts for the President's Consideration"

William Henry Seward, circa 1860-1865Image via Wikipedia

On April 1, 1861, President Abraham Lincoln received an extraordinary letter from Secretary of State William Seward entitled "Some Thoughts for the President's Consideration."  Lincoln might be forgiven for thinking it an April Fool's Day prank if such a thing existed at that time.  Seward was essentially trying to set himself up to be the prime minister or premier of the Lincoln administration.  Lincoln quickly responded, putting Seward in his place.

The letter and Lincoln's reply did not come to light until many years after the war.  According to John Nicolay and John Hay, Lincoln's private secretaries and biographers, "So far as is known, the affair never reached the knowledge of any other member of the Cabinet, or even the most intimate of the President's friends; nor was it probably ever again alluded to by either Lincoln or Seward. Doubtless it needed only the President's note to show the Secretary of State how serious a fault he had committed, for all his tireless industry and undivided influence continued to be given for four long years to his chief, not only without reserve, but with a sincere and devoted personal attachment."
SOME THOUGHTS FOR THE PRESIDENT'S CONSIDERATION

First. We are at the end of a month's administration, and yet without a policy either domestic or foreign.

Second. This, however, is not culpable, and it has even been unavoidable. The presence of the Senate, with the need to meet applications for patronage, have prevented attention to other and more grave matters.

Third. But further delay to adopt and prosecute our policies for both domestic and foreign affairs would not only bring scandal on the administration, but danger upon the country.

Fourth. To do this we must dismiss the applicants for office. But how? I suggest that we make the local appointments forthwith, leaving foreign or general ones for ulterior and occasional action.

Fifth. The policy at home. I am aware that my views are singular, and perhaps not sufficiently explained. My system is built upon this idea as a ruling one, namely, that we must

Change The Question Before The Public From One Upon Slavery, Or About Slavery, for a question upon UNION Or Disunion:

In other words, from what would be regarded as a party question, to one of patriotism or union.

The occupation or evacuation of Fort Sumter, although not in fact a slavery or a party question, is so regarded. Witness the temper manifested by the Republicans in the free states, and even by the Union men in the South.

I would therefore terminate it as a safe means for changing the issue. I deem it fortunate that the last administration created the necessity.

For the rest, I would simultaneously defend and reenforce all the ports in the gulf, and have the navy recalled from foreign stations to be prepared for a blockade. Put the island of Key West under martial law.

This will raise distinctly the question of union or disunion. I would maintain every fort and possession in the South.

For Foreign Nations

I would demand explanations from Spain and France, categorically, at once.

I would seek explanations from Great Britain and Russia, and send agents into Canada, Mexico, and Central America to rouse a vigorous continental spirit of independence on this continent against European intervention.

And, if satisfactory explanations are not received from Spain and France,

Would convene Congress and declare war against them.

But whatever policy we adopt, there must be an energetic prosecution 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.

It is not in my especial province;

But I neither seek to evade nor assume responsibility.


NOTE IN REPLY TO SECRETARY SEWARD S THOUGHTS

Executive Mansion, April i, 1861.

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, "First, 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 inaugural, 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 Sumter.

Again, I do not perceive how the reenforcement of Fort Sumter would be done on a slavery or a 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 prosecution 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 obedient servant,

A. Lincoln.
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