Members of Congress: James Harlan (1820-1899)

James Harlan

James Harlan
James Harlan
James Harlan

Mr. Lincoln had met James Harlan only once before he came to Washington, D.C. in February 1861. On Saturday, March 2, President-elect Lincoln requested that Senator James Harlan meet him at the President’s Room in the Capitol. “I at once arose, walked to the room, tapped on the door, and was admitted. He received me cordially, and, after the usual civilities, gave me a seat, and seated himself near me, saying, in a familiar way, that he had sent for me to tell him whom to appoint for heads of the Departments of the Government. I, of course, treated this observation as a pleasantry, remarking that as I understood it that duty belong to him; that I had not given the subject any consideration, that I expected to be satisfied with his selections, and that I had no names to suggest.” Mr. Lincoln asked which jobs he thought should go to Salmon P. Chase and Simon Cameron. Harlan recommended Chase for Secretary of the Treasury and Cameron for Secretary of War. “This interview lasted, probably about ten minutes. And I soon had reason to think, and still think, that my advice was effective in settling that question.”1 Harlan had earlier warned President-elect Lincoln by letter that there was considerable opposition among congressional Republicans to Cameron being Secretary of the Treasury.

Senator Harlan’s influence with President Lincoln came from several sources. Harlan was chairman of the Senate Committee on Public Lands and worked hard for passage of Homestead, Land Grant College and Pacific Railroad legislation. Harlan was also in charge of the Republican Congressional Committee in 1864 and played an important role in the distribution of millions of copies of campaign materials. Harlan was an educator who built Mt. Pleasant Collegiate Institute into what became Iowa Wesleyan University. And, as Mr. Lincoln told guard Thomas Pendel shortly before Harlan was appointed to the Cabinet, “Senator Harlan is a good man.”2

There were also many similarities in their backgrounds. They both had grown up in Indiana and moved west. Both studied to become lawyers and became accomplished speakers and debaters. Both were Whigs in Democratic states who became active in politics at an early age – Harlan had to declined nomination for the governorship in 1850 because he wasn’t yet the constitutional age of 30. Both were named as anti-Nebraska Senate candidates after the 1854 legislative elections in their states — but Harlan’s friends proved more powerful than Mr. Lincoln’s and he went directly to Washington for the next 18 years. Both Midwesterns were advocates of temperance and careful, logical speakers who supported their arguments with facts. Both used the mails to mobilize their friends. Both experienced the frustration of friends disappointed in the distribution of patronage. Both were men of integrity and probity – though after the Civil War, Harlan’s career was marred by allegations of fiscal improprieties that he strongly denied.

Shortly before Harlan died, the circumspect Iowan addressed his relationship with President Lincoln for the first time. He said that “I sometimes met President Lincoln socially, when I had no ‘ax to grind,’ and no public measure to discuss; and found him most delightful company. But these interviews were rare for the reason that he was almost constantly, day and night, overwhelmed with official duties, leaving him hardly time for necessary meals and sleep; and I was equally busy with official duties in a minor position.”3

Harlan played a critical role as a fund raiser in the 1864 campaign. He was treasurer of the Union Executive Committee which “levied upon Union postmasters, their remittances being paid to Harlan and [Committee Secretary D. N.] Cooley. The considerable volume of political mail from the Committee rooms in Washington went out under Harlan’s frank,” according to historian James A. Rawley.4 Historian James G. Randall wrote: “Senator Harlan, on behalf of the congressional campaign committee, franked letters to postmasters throughout the North, demanding from them sums ranging from two to one hundred and fifty dollars, depending on the size of the post office. When a jobholder declined to pay, the campaign directors used their influence to have him discharged. Pressure was brought to bear upon Lincoln who,’ says Professors Carman and Luthin, ‘seems to have had full knowledge of this expedient and at least did nothing that served to discourage it.’”5

Harlan’s relationship with President Lincoln became closer in 1865 – aided no doubt by the growing closeness between Robert Todd Lincoln and Mary Harlan, who eventually married in October 1868. Two events occurred in the last 45 days of the President’s life that established Harlan’s connection with Mr. Lincoln in the public mind. First, Harlan and his daughter Mary were in the party of the Lincoln entourage at the inaugural ball. Mary accompanied her future husband.

Second, Harlan went to Union Army headquarters at City Point with the Lincolns in early April. The Lincolns often took the Harlans on drives out of the city. In the last week of the President’s life they drove together into the Virginia countryside. “This drive has become to me historical. First, because it was the last one taken by me in his company; and proved to have been so near the end of his life. And, secondly, because he had suddenly become, on the fall of Richmond and the surrender of the Confederate Army, April 9th, at Appomattox, a different man from what I had ever seen in him. His whole appearance, poise and bearing had marvelously changed. He was, in fact, transfigured. That indescribable sadness which had previously seemed to be an adamantean element in his very being, had been suddenly exchanged for an equally indescribable expression of serene joy as if conscious that the great purpose of his life had been achieved….Yet there was no manifestation of exultation, or ecstacy. He seemed the very personification of supreme satisfaction.”6

Harlan’s relationship with the President was built on their personal similarities but also on Harlan’s role as an important Methodist layman – and as a close friend of Methodist Bishop Matthew Simpson, who had been his teacher and the preacher who presided at his marriage. Simpson wanted Methodists to be better recognized for their support of President Lincoln – and boosting Harlan for a Cabinet post became his top priority after President Lincoln’s reelection.

“As the elections of 1864 approached, Simpson and his associates began to plot the means of enforcing upon the government appropriate honors for Methodism. The least which should be expected as a place in the cabinet. The Methodist best qualified for such a position, and the one most available, was Senator James Harlan of Iowa,” wrote Simpson biographer Robert D. Clark. “Simpson decided to concentrate upon this one office, to the exclusion of all others. As his friend James Mitchell wrote, it will ‘take all the power we can muster to force our member’ on the government. In consequence, the bishop refused to lend his influence to other office seekers, in the fall of 1864…”7

“Senator Harlan’s influence with President Lincoln seems by [1864] to have been quite generally recognized, for the senator received numerous letters urging him to call upon Lincoln, not only in support of office-seekers, but also for the purpose of giving the President counsel and advice on various subjects,” wrote biographer Johnson Brigham. “While he was a firm friend and admirer of Lincoln, Harlan was, nevertheless, not blind to the President’s shortcomings. ‘I wish he could be induced to be more careful in his appointments’, Harlan wrote confidentially to William Penn Clarke in April, 1864. ‘It is a terrible shame that his real friends – the friends of the vital elements that brought him into power, have to fight the influence of his administration, and the pro-slavery element combined, or jointly.”8

Bishop Simpson fought for influence – although he was careful not to do so publicly. At the end of 1864, and beginning of 1865, he took advantage of flux in Lincoln Administration. Attorney General Edward Bates of Missouri was replaced by another border state man, James Speed of Kentucky. Ohio’s Salmon P. Chase was appointed as chief justice of Supreme Court, less than six months after his left his Treasury Department post. Senator Fessenden took on that job for just eight months before returning to the Senate – leaving the Treasury post to Indiana’s Hugh McCulloch. That left Indiana overrepresented in the Cabinet – so Interior Secretary John P. Usher was asked to leave – making way for a Methodist representative. Although the appointment was made, Usher was granted a grace period in office and Harlan did not take office until after President Lincoln was assassinated.

There was pressure from friends of Illinois State Auditor Jesse Dubois to received the appointment, but Mr. Lincoln was sensitive to charges that Illinois received too much patronage. President Lincoln told Illinois Congressman-elect Shelby M. Cullom that he had promised Bishop Simpson to appoint Harlan: “The Methodist Church has been standing by me very generally. I agreed with Bishop Simpson to give Senator Harlan this place, and I must keep my agreement. I would like to take care of Uncle Jesse, but I do not see that I can as member of my cabinet.”9 By early 1865, the Harlan was appointment was generally considered a fait acomplis in Iowa and Washington.

“That James Harlan had long and seriously considered the probability of a call from President Lincoln to serve in his Cabinet is evident from a letter written early in January to James Wright, then Secretary of State in Iowa,” observed biographer Brigham. “‘If Governor Grimes desires the position of Secretary of the Navy,’ Harlan writes, ‘I would rejoice to see him in that position – but not otherwise. If the position of Secretary of the Interior should be formally tendered to me by the President, I would then consider seriously the question of my duty in the premises. If I should conclude that I would be more useful to my country in that position, than in the one I now hold, I would resign the latter and accept the former; but I would not, I think, permit personal considerations to influence me in the least.'”10

Harlan himself had doubts about giving up his Senate seat for the Cabinet most. “I would much prefer to remain the residue of my term of two years in the Senate than to serve in the Cabinet,” Harlan wrote. Nothing but a sense of public duty would induce me to change. There is however a pressing necessity for a renovation in the Interior Department which may possibly control my decision, contrary to my own personal wishes.”11 A little later, he wrote: “I now intend to accept the office of Secretary of the Interior if I find I can get the pack of thieves now preying on the Govt. under its auspices out of power, otherwise I will not.”12

On April 11, 1865, Senator Harlan was at the White House when President Lincoln delivered a major address on reconstruction from a second floor window. Biographer Brigham said he had “a vivid recollection of the event – the gloom of the night, the funereal aspect of the umbrella-canopied throng, the forced hilarity of many during the long wait for the President’s appearing, and the enthusiasm with which the audience followed the argument.” After Mr. Lincoln’s speech, onlooker called first for Senator Charles Sumner and when he did not appear, demanded Senator Harlan speak. “He made a short speech in which he stated that two principles had been settled by the war then nearing its close, namely, that the American people had decided that a majority of the voters of the Republic should control its destinies, and that no part of the Republic should ever be permitted to secede.”13 When Harlan asked, “What shall we do with the rebels,” somebody yelled: “Hang them!” Young Tad Lincoln rejoined “No, no, papa, Not hang them. Hang on to them!” President Lincoln responded: “That’s it – Tad has got it. We must hang on to them!”14

Harlan’s relationship to the President was recognized when he became president of the Lincoln Monument Association. After serving as Secretary of the Interior in 1865-1866, he returned to the Senate for another term. Then his political luck turned bad and he lost races for the Senate and Governor of Iowa.


  1. Johnson Brigham, James Harlan, p. 158-159.
  2. Thomas F. Pendel, Thirty-Six Years in the White House, p. 15.
  3. Johnson Brigham, James Harlan, p. 337.
  4. James A. Rawley, Edwin D. Morgan, 1811-1883: Merchant in Politics, p. 199.
  5. James G. Randall, Lincoln the President: Last Full Measure, p 252.
  6. Johnson Brigham, James Harlan, p. 337-338 (Speech at Iowa Wesleyan University, April 28, 1898).
  7. Robert D. Clark, The Life of Matthew Simpson, p. 229.
  8. Johnson Brigham, James Harlan, p. 185.
  9. Reinhold H. Luthin, The Real Abraham Lincoln, p. 556-557.
  10. Johnson Brigham, James Harlan, p. 192-193.
  11. Johnson Brigham, James Harlan, p. 194.
  12. Johnson Brigham, James Harlan, p. 195.
  13. Johnson Brigham, James Harlan, p. 197.
  14. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Volume IV, p. 232.