A House Dividing

By William E. Baringer
AN UNCRITICAL, straightforward, well-documented account of Lincoln’s actions and thinking during the four months which intervened between his election and inauguration as President, A House Dividing: Lincoln as President Elect (published by the Abraham Lincoln Association, Springfield, Illinois) does nothing to enhance Lincoln’s reputation. During the crucial months prior to his inauguration, he made no clear, authoritative statement concerning the plans and policies of his administration. In answer to all pleas that he should do so, he replied that his position had been clearly stated in his earlier speeches and published papers. He stood on his record in a time when conditions were changing day by day.
Moreover — as far as the secession movement was concerned— the situation was deteriorating so rapidly that only the most confirmed optimist could have hoped for a peaceful conclusion. Yet Lincoln did nothing to clarify the issue or to unite his followers in a common ideology. Compromise with the South was in the air. Compromise had bitter opponents — the “now or never" Republicans. What constituted “coercion” by the Federal government? What were the rights and wrongs of the secession doctrine? To these and similar questions the President-elect returned evasive answers or none at all.
During this period he was Lincoln the politician, not Lincoln the statesman. His nomination at Chicago had been secured by the usual methods of political bribery. His agents, whose pledges he disavowed in public utterance, nevertheless promised a Cabinet post to Pennsylvania, patronage to New York, another Cabinet position to New England, and so on. As President-elect these pledges returned to plague him. He offered Seward, his previous opponent, the post of Secretary of State in the belief that the offer would be refused. Seward accepted. The promises to Pennsylvania forced him, under pressure, to appoint the unsavory Cameron to the vital post of Secretary of War. Some of his pledges he ignored entirely.
The net result, once Cameron had been retired, was better than could have been expected, given so wretched a system for building an administration. The author describes the final phase of this period, Lincoln’s humiliating entry into Washington, almost in disguise after a shift in trains because the egregious Pinkerton had discovered a plot to attack the President-elect as he passed through Baltimore. It is not hard to understand why, in a period of passionate tension, he should have been attacked and vilified by his contemporaries, as vacillating, weak, unable to make up his mind or to face the issues. He was, perhaps, undecided as to the course to follow. But there was wisdom in his preoccupation to build up a solid party which would back the Administration once it had taken form and would uphold him when the vital test came.
All this Mr. Baringer tells with admirable clarity. He quotes largely from contemporary newspapers, paying particular attention to Villard’s Springfield dispatches to the New York Herald. The book is factual, and criticism of Lincoln’s actions is implied rather than stated bluntly. It is a genuine contribution to the immense library of Lincoln volumes, and should be read by all students of Lincoln as President-elect. The book includes a useful bibliography.