John G. Nicolay

“Mr. Lincoln’s unselfish magnanimity”

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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.

  On April 1, Secretary of State Seward handed Lincoln a memorandum setting forth a number of most extraordinary propositions. ……. but the principal points for which it had evidently been written and presented can be given in a few sentences. A month has elapsed, and the administration has neither a domestic nor a foreign policy. The administration must at once adopt and carry out a novel, radical, and aggressive policy. It must cease saying a word about slavery, and raise a great outcry about Union. It must declare war against France and Spain, and combine and organize all the governments of North and South America in a crusade to enforce the Monroe Doctrine. This policy once adopted, it must be the business of some one incessantly to pursue it. “It is not in my especial province,” wrote Mr. Seward; “but I neither seek to evade nor assume responsibility.” This phrase, which is a key to the whole memorandum, enables the reader easily to translate its meaning into something like the following:

  After a month’s trial, you, Mr. Lincoln, are a failure as President. The country is in desperate straits, and must use a desperate remedy. That remedy is to submerge the South Carolina insurrection in a continental war. Some new man must take the executive helm, and wield the undivided presidential authority. I should have been nominated at Chicago, and elected in November, but am willing to take your place and perform your duties.

  Why William H. Seward, who is fairly entitled to rank as a great statesman, should have written this memorandum and presented it to Mr. Lincoln, has never been explained; nor is it capable of explanation. Its suggestions were so visionary, its reasoning so fallacious, its assumptions so unwarranted, its conclusions so malapropos, that it falls below critical examination. Had Mr. Lincoln been an envious or a resentful man, he could not have wished for a better occasion to put a rival under his feet.
  The President doubtless considered the incident one of phenomenal strangeness, but it did not in the least disturb his unselfish judgment or mental equipoise. There was in his answer no trace of excitement or passion. He pointed out in a few sentences of simple, quiet explanation that what the administration had done was exactly a foreign and domestic policy which the Secretary of State himself had concurred in and helped to frame. Only, that Mr. Seward proposed to go further and give up Sumter. Upon the central suggestion tliat some one mind must direct, Mr. Lincoln wrote with simple dignity:
  “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.”
  Mr. Lincoln’s unselfish magnanimity is the central marvel of the whole affair. His reply ended the argument. Mr. Seward doubtless saw at once how completely he had put himself in the President’s power. Apparently, neither of the men ever again alluded to the incident. No other persons except Mr. Seward’s son and the President’s private secretary ever saw the correspondence, or knew of the occurrence. The President put the papers away in an envelop, and no word of the affair came to the public until a quarter of a century later, when the details were published in Mr. Lincoln’s biography. In one mind, at least, there was no further doubt that the cabinet had a master, for only some weeks later Mr. Seward is known to have written:”There is but one vote in the cabinet, and that is cast by the President.” This mastery Mr. Lincoln retained with a firm dignity throughout his administration. When, near the close of the war, he sent Mr. Seward to meet the rebel commissioners at “the Hampton Roads conference, he finished his short letter of instructions with the imperative sentence: “You will not assume to definitely consummate anything.”

Quoted in John G. Nicolay, A Short Life of Abraham Lincoln, pp. 184-187.