The Journalists: Thurlow Weed (1797-1882)

Thurlow Weed
Thurlow Weed
Thurlow Weed

Thurlow Weed was not an easy friend for the President to keep. He was often out of sorts with Mr. Lincoln on patronage, policy, political or personal reasons – and took umbrage even when Mr. Lincoln thought he had given none. Within two months of taking office, President Lincoln wrote Weed’s close ally, Secretary of State William H. Seward: “You astonish me by saying Mr. Weed understands there is some alienation or enmity of feeling on my part toward him. Nothing like it. I shall be glad to see him any time, and have wondered at not having seen him already.”1

Weed’s friendship – although problematic – was important. He was close to Seward and many conservative Republicans. He was a major force in Republican politics in New York. And he was a newspaper editor. “The President was ever careful to preserve friendly relations with the canny and resourceful Thurlow Weed,” wrote historian Don Seitz. “Weed’s Albany Journal was the organ of New York up-State Republicanism and he was a master wirepuller. Before the Emancipation Proclamation, Weed had been much consulted. Lincoln’s carrying this through alone caused a coolness on the part of the editor; perhaps lack of patronage control was also responsible for his iciness.”2

Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg wrote: “When Weed for a time dropped out of the habit of calling at the White House or of writing to the President, Lincoln in October [1863] had written him that he feared somehow he had given a degree of pain to Weed, where ‘I have never entertained an unkind feeling or a disparaging thought toward you; and if I have said or done anything which has been construed into such unkindness or disparagement, it has been misconstrued. I am sure if we could meet we would not part with any unpleasant impression on either side.’ And Weed’s answer had been a personal call and the submission of a drastic, hazardous plan to end the war.”3

Weed’s greedy reputation as the “Wizard of the Lobby” in Albany carried a bad odor and his political enemies were quick to think the worst of him. German-American politician Carl Schurz later wrote that Weed “had acquired the reputation of the most skillful political manager – others called it ‘wire puller’ – of his time. While everybody recognized his extraordinary ability, the opinions about his political virtue were divided. His opponents denounced him as a selfish and utterly unscrupulous trickster, while his friends emphasized the fact that he secured offices for ever so many friends, but never any for himself, except a public printer’s place which was profitable in revenue, but very modest in rank. In this respect, therefore, his ambition passed as disinterested.”4 Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, whose nomination to the cabinet was opposed by Weed, noted: “The Whig lobbyists who hung around and debauched the legislatures of that State were controlled and managed by a notoriously unscrupulous politician styled King of the Lobby, who was an intimate friend and companion of Mr. Seward. This unscrupulous man and his vicious adherents were obnoxious to sincere and genuine Republicans in all quarters.”5

Welles was a bit biased since Weed opposed his appointment. And Weed wasn’t obnoxious to those who wanted to win the 1860 election. “Although the great New York City mercantile interests supported the anti-Lincoln ticket, the Republicans had the advantage of better organization. Weed in his day had few if any equals in the election craft,” wrote historian Reinhard H. Luthin.6

After the 1860 Convention in Chicago, most Republican leaders “passed to their homes direct and by other routes,” observed Gideon Welles,who was ever suspicious of others’ motives. “Mr. Weed, who like others, had been invited after the nomination to visit Springfield and make the friendly acquaintance of Mr. Lincoln, greedily availed himself of the courtesy, but deemed it polite to postpone his visit for a few days until after the first rush from Chicago was over and the members of the convention had dispersed. Without letting his intention be known and in order to deceive and kill suspicion, Weed instead of returning to Albany or going south to Springfield, left Chicago for the great Northwest under the pretense of visiting that interesting portion of the country.7

Mr. Lincoln’s first experience with Weed when he arrived in Springfield was relatively benign. “Weed was here, and saw me; but he showed no signs whatever of the intriguer. He asked for nothing,” Mr. Lincoln wrote to Senator Lyman Trumbull on June 5, 1960.8 Seven months later when Weed had again visited Springfield, Mr. Lincoln told Weed himself: “Some gentleman, who have been quite nervous about the object of your visit here, would be surprised, if not incredulous, were I to tell that during the two days we have passed together you have made no application, suggestion or allusion to appointments.”9 The President-elect said: “I was warned to be on my guard against you, and the joke of the matter is, that those who gave the warning are after offices themselves, while you have avoided the subject.”10 For the next several months, Weed acted Mr. Lincoln’s emissary to eastern politicians like Seward and Simon Cameron and forcefully pushed his favorites and opposed his enemies.

Years later, however, Navy Secretary Gideon Welles disputed Weed’s account: “In his very curious Autobiography, Mr. Thurlow Weed, the friend and confidant of Mr. Seward, professes to give an account of his interview with Mr. Lincoln, and the part taken by himself in assisting and advising the President in regard to the formation of his cabinet. There is something of fact but much more of fiction in his narrative, with a good deal of suppression of truth. He was intrusive to impertinence in presenting and pressing his schemes. These are characteristics of the autobiographer, Mr. Weed, as the representative of Mr. Seward and chief engineer of the Albany policy, was astounded and overwhelmed with the result at Chicago, but he was too much of a partisan to surrender and abandon the contest though greatly discouraged and discomfited by what had taken place. The Illinois friends of Mr. Lincoln were polite and conciliatory towards all were disappointed and were at special pains to make friends of the gentlemen from New York. It was known that Mr. Seward had left his seat in the Senate in May and repaired to Auburn where he awaited the committee which it was expected would be appointed to announce to him his nomination. There was no such committee, and his intimate associates who expected to see and congratulate him in his home at Auburn had no heart to meet the disappointed statesman and politician under his reverses.”11

President-elect Lincoln wrote Weed in mid-December 1860 to tell a meeting of northern governors that “you judge from my speeches that I will be inflexible on the territorial question; that I probably think either the Missouri line extended, or Douglas’ and Eli Thayer’s Pop. Sov. would lose us every thing we gained by the election; that filibustering for all South of us, and making slave states of it, would follow in spite of us, under either plan.” He added: “I believe you can pretend to find but little, if any thing, in my speeches, about secession; but my opinion is that no state can, in any way lawfully, get out of the Union, without the consent of the others; and that it is the duty of the President, and other government functionaries to run the machine as it is.”12

Weed left on a mission to deliver a message to Senator Lyman Trumbull and to Seward as well. Historian David M. Potter wrote: “When Weed took the eastbound train from Springfield, his was a less cheerful prospect than when he started west. He had begun the trip with the intent win Lincoln’s endorsement for territorial compromise, and with some prospect of securing, for Seward and himself, control over the new administration. He returned, if was wise, with the consolation of being one of the first to learn that Mr. Lincoln intended to be President in fact as well as in name. He returned, moreover, with a commission for Seward to sponsor a stated program, and to report at frequent intervals – a commission which Seward could not accept without becoming Lincoln’s mere agent, and which he could not reject without jeopardizing his paramount influence in the new administration.”13

In addition to the secession problem, Weed was at the center of a major controversy over Weed’s New York enemies favored Salmon P. Chase for Secretary of the Treasury while Weed favored Pennsylvania’s Simon Cameron. The New Yorkers deputized a “Committee of Ten” including merchant-politician George Opdyke, attorney Hiram Barney, and Judge John T. Hogeboom to visit President-elect Lincoln. Donnal V. Smith wrote: “The Committee of Ten from New York stopped at Columbus on January 10, en route to Springfield, to discuss matters fully and freely with Governor Chase and to hear, no doubt, all that had been said during Chase’s conference with Lincoln. Arrived in Springfield, the committee was cordially received by the President-elect but politely informed that no further appointments would be made until he reached Washington. Lincoln indicated, however, that if the Pennsylvanians could be placated, he expected to name Chase as Secretary of the Treasury. Failing in their efforts to persuade the President to make the appointment at once, the committee returned to New York. After hearing the report of the committee, Bryant, Greeley, Opdyke and others wrote to Lincoln, urging him to appoint Chase at once. They feared that unless Chase got into the Cabinet soon, Weed, acting through Seward, would gain control of the administration.”14

In early February 1861, Weed complained about allegations that Mr. Lincoln was directing patronage in New York through someone allied with Horace Greeley, who was seeking unsuccessfully to gain the Senate nomination in New York. A day before Greeley arrived in Springfield to press his case, Mr. Lincoln wrote Weed that “it perhaps will surprise you to learn, that I have information that you claim to have my authority to arrange that matter in N.Y. I do not believe you have so claimed; but still so men say. On that subject you know all I have said to you is ‘justice to all,’ and I beg you to believe I have said nothing more particular to any one.”15

Weed began to be nervous about his influence – even more so after an unproductive train ride from Albany to New York City on President-elect Lincoln’s way to Washington. Historian Robert Gray Gunderson wrote: “Thurlow Weed feared that Lincoln would not be guided by this counsel. ‘I had an hour with Mr. L. yesterday,’ Weed wrote Seward from the Astor House on February 21st. ‘The conversation was confined to a single point, in relation to which I have no reason to suppose that he listened with profit.'”16 Seward and Weed fought bitterly against inclusion of former Democrats Welles, Chase and Montgomery Blair in the Cabinet up to the eve of the inauguration, when they threatened to withdraw Seward’s own name from the Cabinet.

Historian Allan Nevins wrote: “Lincoln was actually ready to break his slate at the top – or to use the threat of such action to bring Seward to terms. Meeting George G. Fogg, who as secretary of the campaign committee had won his confidence, the morning after Seward’s ultimatum, he described the situation. With a humorous twinkle, he remarked: ‘We must give up both Seward and Chase, I reckon; and I have drawn up here a list of the Cabinet leaving them both out.’ He showed Fogg a new slate which assigned the State Department to William L. Dayton of New Jersey and the Treasury to a New Yorker hostile to Seward. ‘I am sending this to Mr. Weed,’ dryly announced Lincoln.”17 The new President was determined to be president in fact as well as name. Lincoln biographer William Barton wrote:

On the night of the inaugural ball, Stephen Fiske, the Washington correspondent of the New York Herald, asked Mr. Lincoln if he had any message to send to James Gordon Bennett, editor of that paper. Bennett was frankly antagonistic to Lincoln and his administration. ‘Yes,’ answered Lincoln. ‘you may tell him that Thurlow Weed has found out that Seward was not nominated at Chicago.

Not for some time did the correspondent understand that this was one of Lincoln’s jokes. It was a very serious joke; it was Lincoln’s declaration that he was master of the situation. Thurlow Weed, who had been endeavoring to crowd Chase out of the Cabinet, and Seward, who had declined a secretaryship on the very eve of the nomination, had both discovered that Weed had not succeeded either in the nomination or in the control of the executive.18

With difficulty, Mr. Lincoln managed to keep the cantankerous Weed on his side. Weed was frequently out of sorts about Mr. Lincoln’s handling of war policies, the Emancipation Proclamation and patronage in New York. He shared complaints with Supreme Court Justice David Davis. In March 1864, Weed wrote Davis: “I beg you to say to the President, distinctly and emphatically, that if this Custom House is left in custody of those who have, for two years, sent ‘aid and comfort’ to the enemy his fitness for President will be questioned.”19

Presidential aide John G. Nicolay was sent to New York City in late March 1864 to check on political conditions there and try to patch up differences among the Republican factions over patronage. Nicolay reported to President Lincoln on a conversation with Thurlow Weed: “His only solicitude he said, was for yourself. He thought that if you were not strong enough to hold the Union together through the next Presidential election, when it must necessarily undergo a great strain, the country was in the utmost danger of going to ruin.” According to Nicolay,”His desire was to strengthen you as much as possible and that you should strengthen yourself. You were being weakened by the impression in the popular mind that you hold on with such tenacity to men once in office, although they prove to be incapable and unworthy. This feeling among your friends also raises the question, as to whether, if re-elected, you would change your Cabinet. The present Cabinet is notorious weak and inharmonious – no Cabinet at all – gives the President no support. Welles is a cypher, Bates a fogy, and Blair at best a dangerous friend.”20

Mr. Lincoln tried to pacify Weed by careful attention to the distribution of patronage in New York. He blocked Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase that spring when Chase tried to appoint a new assistant secretary of the treasury for New York who was opposed by Weed and his allies, especially Senator Edwin D. Morgan. The conflict eventually led to Chase’s resignation at the end of June. President Lincoln embarked on phase two of his political pacification program in New York when he arranged for the dismissal of the radical Collector of the Port of New York, Hiram Birney, and his replacement in late summer with the more moderate Simeon Draper, an ally of Weed and his political friends.

President Lincoln continued to try to pull Weed back into his political circle. “Weed was by no means an unqualified Lincoln man, for he often felt that the President had gone too far on the matter of emancipation and not far enough when dispensing patronage to the Weed faction. He was angry because Lincoln refused repeatedly to replace Hiram Barney as head of the New York Custom House, and he became even more so when the President appointed another Chase man, John Hogeboom to the customs house,” wrote historian William Frank Zornow in Lincoln & the Party Divided. “But though Weed growled about Lincoln’s shortcomings, he was astute enough never to complain publicly. He realized that Lincoln was too popular to be denied the renomination, and he had no intention of straying to far from the patronage fount.21 But complain privately he did. In April 1864, Weed wrote Supreme Court Justice David Davis that “why the President prefers his Enemies over his Friends, in this State, is a Problem too deep for my solution.”22

Weed combined his interest in politics, journalism and business throughout the Civil War. He saw no reason why the war should not make him a richer man. In 1861, he was delegated by President Lincoln to go to Europe with Episcopal Bishop Charles P. McIlvaine and Roman Catholic Archbishop John Hughes to visit European capitals on behalf of the Union cause.


  1. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume IV, p. 337 (Letter to William H. Seward, April 18, 1861).
  2. Don Seitz, Lincoln the Politician, p. 41.
  3. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Volume II, p. 457-458 (Letter to Thurlow Weed, October 14, 1863).
  4. Carl Schurz, Reminiscences of Carl Schurz, Volume II, p. 4.
  5. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 350 (Gideon Welles).
  6. Reinhard H. Luthin, The First Lincoln Campaign, p. 217.
  7. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 351-355 (Gideon Welles).
  8. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume IV, p. 71 (Letter to Lyman Trumbull, June 5, 1860).
  9. Thurlow Weed, Autobiography of Thurlow Weed, p. 613.
  10. Don E. and Virginia Fehrenbacher, editor, Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, p. 463 (Thurlow Weed, “Mr Lincoln as a Cabinet-Maker,” Appleton’s Journal, Volume 3, January 16, 1870, p. 437).
  11. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 351-355 (Gideon Welles).
  12. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume IV, p. 154 (Letter to Thurlow Weed, December 17, 1860. Also see letter of December 13, 1860).
  13. David M. Potter, Lincoln and his Party in the Secession Crisis, p. 169.
  14. Donnal V. Smith, “Salmon P. Chase and the Election of 1860”, Ohio Archaelogical and Historical Quarterly, July 1930, p. 535-536.
  15. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume IV, p. 185 (Letter to Thurlow Weed, February 4, 1861).
  16. Robert Gray Gunderson, “Lincoln and Governor Morgan: A Financial Footnote”, Abraham Lincoln Quarterly, Volume VI, No. 8, December 1951, p. 436.
  17. Allan Nevins, The Emergence of Lincoln: Prologue to Civil War 1859-1861, Volume II, p. 454.
  18. William E. Barton, The Life of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, p. 38.
  19. Willard L. King, Lincoln’s Manager, David Davis, p. 216 (Letter from Thurlow Weed to David Davis, March 24, 1864, Davis Papers).
  20. Michael Burlingame, editor, With Lincoln in the White House: Letters, Memoranda, and Other Writings of John G. Nicolay, 1860-1865, 1860-1865, p. 132 (Memorandum to President Lincoln, March 30, 1864).
  21. William Frank Zornow, Lincoln & The Party Divided, p. 41-42.
  22. Willard L. King, Lincoln’s Manager, David Davis, p. 217 (Thurlow Weed to David Davis, April 11, 1864, RTL papers).