Presidential Patronage

The concept of friendship was never far from President Lincoln’s notions of patronage and military appointments. But dispensing patronage was a very delicate balancing act in order not to turn friends into enemies. Mr. Lincoln had written Secretary of the Navy William Preston in 1849 about the dangers to a political party of not rewarding one’s friends with patronage:

In 1840 we fought a fierce and laborious battle in Illinois, many of us spending almost the entire year in the contest. The general victory came, and with it, the appointment of a set of drones, including this same Butterfield, who had never spent a dollar or lifted a finger in the fight. The place he got was that of District Attorney. The defection of Tyler came, and then B. played off and on, and kept the office till after Polk’s election. Again, winter and spring before the last, when you and I were almost sweating blood to have Genl. Taylor nominated, this same man was ridiculing the idea, and going for Mr. Clay; and when Gen: T. was nominated, if he went out of the city of Chicago to aid in his election, it is more than I ever heard, or believe. Yet, when the election is secured, by other men’s labor, and even against his effort, why, he is the first man on hand for the best office that our state lays any claim to. Shall this thing be? Our whigs will throw down their arms, and fight no more, if the fruit of their labor is thus disposed of. If there is one man in this state who desires B’s appointment to any thing, I declare I have not heard of him. What influence operates for him, I can not conceive. Your position makes it a matter of peculiar interest to you, that the administration shall be successful; and be assured, nothing can more endanger it, than making appointments through old-hawker foreign influences, which offend, rather than gratify, the people immediately interested in the offices.”1

Historian Allan Nevins wrote about the situation in Illinois after Mr. Lincoln’s 1860 election to the Presidency: “Every Republican in Congress wished to strengthen his political organization; every editor coveted a post-office connection to swell his subscription list; every jobless politician wanted a salary. The Illinois members, for example, met in conclave to draw up a slate of appointments to be requested of Lincoln. After dividing marshalships, district attorneyships, and territorial posts, they demanded a slice of foreign-service pie. Senator Lyman Trumbull wanted two consulships. Representative Elihu Washburne one, and Representative W.P. Kellogg one. Joseph Medill of the Chicago Tribune, meanwhile wished one of his staff made the Chicago postmaster. ‘If Mr. Scripps has it,’ he explained, ‘the country postmasters of the Northwest would work to extend our circulation.’ And Illinois was but one State! Three-quarters of the March correspondence of the typical Senator, Representative, or Cabinet member in this hour of crisis pertained to jobs. A clamor of greed and grumbling filled the capital.”2

President “Lincoln initiated the most sweeping removal of federal officeholders in the country’s history up to that time,” according to historian Mark Neely. Of 1,520 presidential officeholders, 1,195 were removed; and since most Southern offices were left unfilled, that was almost a complete overturn. He appointed Republicans to almost all of the jobs. Lincoln’s administration, the President explained frankly in 1862, ‘distributed to its party friends as nearly all the civil patronage as any administration ever did.”3 Biographer Carl Sandburg wrote: “During four years and one month of presidential appointive powers, Lincoln, according to a later estimate rather carefully based, removed 1,457 out of a possible 1,639 officials. In this period some offices were vacated two or three times. Naturally to begin with hundreds of open secessionists, or sympathizers with secession, had to go. In many responsible wartime positions the strictest of loyalty was a requirement; all under doubt had to go. Also there was the young growing Republican-party organization with a genuine minimum of demands beyond denial. So the Lincoln broom had swept wide with removals from office.”4

Carl Schurz recalled a visit to Mr. Lincoln in July 1860: “He told me all about the letters and calls with which he was being overwhelmed, and said that he wasn’t answering the letters at all that asked for jobs and that sort of thing. ‘Men like you,’ he continued, ‘who have real merit and do the work are always too proud to ask for anything; and those who do nothing are the most clamourous for office, and very often get it, because it is the only way to get rid of them. But if I am elected, they will find a tough customer to deal with, and you may depend upon it that I shall know to distinguish men from the drones.” ‘All right, Old Abe, said I to myself.”5

Another Republican politician, Ward Hill Lamon, recalled: “After Mr. Lincoln’s election he was sorely beset by rival claimants for the spoils of office in his own State, and distracted by jealousies among his own party adherents. The State was divided so far as the Republican party was concerned into three cliques or factions. The Chicago faction was headed by Norman B. Judd and Ebenezer Peck, the Bloomington faction by Judge David Davis, Leonard Swett, and others, and that of Springfield by J. K. Dubois, O. M. Hatch, William Butler, and others; and however anxious Mr. Lincoln might be to honor state by a Cabinet appointment, he was powerless to do so without incurring the hostility of the factions from which he could not make a selection.” Bloomington lawyer Jesse Fell wrote President-elect Lincoln some remarkably dispassionate advice:

I am – as I think – reliably informed that serious efforts are being made, in influential quarters, to secure the appointment of our mutual friend, N. B. Judd, to a seat in the Cabinet; and as you once remarked to me that you would hear suggestions on subjects of this nature from every one, may I not crave your indulgence whilst I say a word on a matter of such vital importance, as affecting the future good feeling among your friends, here in Illinois. – From my long residence in the state, and connexion for more than a year with the Central Committee – during which time I visited more than one half of the Counties of the state – I may claim to know something about public sentiment in reference to our prominent men, and especially in regards to one who has recently occupied so large a share of public notice as the Chairman of our Com. Both personally and politically I think like Judd much, and I think our friends, who have heard me say any thing about him will sustain me in the assertion that I have tried to treat his pretensions with fairness. I have long since, however, discovered that there is throughout the state, particularly among the whig portion of our party, quite a bitter feeling against him. – There are numerous causes for this – prominent among which – is the cause he made a few others pursue in the first contest you made for the senatorship. I am not now sensuring him for that course, I am only alluding to it as one cause of the feeling alluded to.6

Lamon – who himself came from the Bloomington faction, wrote: “Harmony was, however, in large measure preserved among the Republican politicians by sending Judd as Minister to Prussia, and by anticipating a place on the Supreme Bench for Judge Davis. Swett wanted nothing, and middle Illinois was satisfied. Springfield controlled the lion’s share of State patronage, and satisfaction was given all round as far as circumstances would allow.”7 Fell took an especially reasoned position: “Illinois having the President, I feel quite confident that 99 hundredths of the politicians of the country – who have “no axes to grind,” would say “that’s enough – no first class appointments should be given her.” What I desire, however, most to say, in this connexion, is, dont, if you can well avoid it, increase the feuds, already too great between the two elements of which our party is mainly composed, by appointing to such a position the representative of either.”8

The factions also engaged in conflicts over which non-Illinois leaders should receive Cabinet posts. Davis and the Bloomington group were united with New York leader Thurlow Weed in backing William H. Seward and Pennsylvania’s Simon Cameron. Northern Illinois leaders like Congressman Elihu B. Washburne and the owners of the Chicago Tribune were unalterably opposed to Cameron and backed Salmon P. Chase. “Keep your shirt one. Cameron has not a place in the Cabinet and will not get one – that’s sure,” Tribune editor Charles Ray wrote Washburne in early January. After assuring him that Chase would get the Treasury Department, Ray wrote: “Lincoln was in my room this morning for a few minutes, apparently for a talk; but we were interrupted by a visitor and the chance went by.” I shall see him again as soon as practicable, and then will write you again. He praised Chase very highly, saying among other things, that ‘take him all in all he is the foremost man in the party.'” Unlike his own partner, Joseph Medill, who had recently been ranting about Mr. Lincoln, Ray was confident about the President-elect: “Now is conclusion let me say that you may trust Old Abe. He is rising every day in the estimation of all who know him best. He is wiser and more sagacious than I thought he would prove to be. Our cause is dearer to him that anything else; and he will make no mistakes. Depend on that.”9

Mr. Lincoln was sensitive the effect his appointments might have on others. This was a particular difficult in period when he was assembling his Cabinet in late 1860 and early 1861 when delegations of opposing factions descended on Springfield not only to promote their favorites but to damn their rivals. A problem was raised by the Cabinet prospects of Pennsylvania Senator Simon Cameron, whose candidacy split his own state – and other states as well. On January 7, 1861, President-elect Lincoln wrote Senator Lyman Trumbull about the Cabinet possibilities of Cameron:

Gen. C. has not been offered the Treasury, and I think, will not be. It seems to me no only highly proper, but a necessity, that Gov. Chase shall take that place. His ability, firmness, and purity of character, produce the propriety; and that he alone can reconcile Mr. Bryant, and his class, to the appointment of Gov. S to the State Department produces the necessity. But then comes the danger that the protectionists of Pennsylvania will be dissatisfied; and, to clear this difficulty, Gen. C. must be brought to co-operate. He would readily do this for the War Department. But then comes the fierce opposition to his having any Department, threatening even to send charges into the Senate to procure his rejection by that body. Now, what I would most like, and what I think he should prefer too, under the circumstances, would be to retain his place in the Senate; and if that place has been promised to another, let that other take a respectable, and reasonably lucrative place abroad. Also let Gen. C’s friends be, with entire fairness, cared for in Pennsylvania, and elsewhere.
I may mention before closing that besides the very fierce opposition to Gen. C. he is more amply recommended for a place in the cabinet, than any other man.10

Five days later, Mr. Lincoln wrote New York Senator William H. Seward about own his appointment as Secretary of State and potential nomination of North Carolinian John A. Gilmer. He again worried about “danger” and “friends.” President-elect Lincoln wrote: “I still hope Mr. Gilmer will, on a fair understanding with us, consent to take a place in the Cabinet. The preference for him over Mr. Hunt or Mr. Gentry, is that, up to date, he has a living position in the South, while they have not. He is only better than Winter Davis in that he is farther South. I fear if we could get, we could not safely take more than one such man – that is, not more than one who opposed us in the election – the danger being to lose the confidence of our own friends.”11

The President-elect told New York politico Thurlow Weed in December 1860 that “he was coming into office unembarrassed by promises. He owed, he supposed, his exemption from importunities to the circumstance that his name as a candidate was but a short time before the people and that only a few sanguine friends anticipated the possibility of his nomination. I have not…promised an office to any man, nor have I, but in a single instance, mentally committed myself to an appointment; and as that relates to an important office in your state, I have concluded to mention it to you, under strict injunctions of secrecy, however.”12

Mr. Lincoln himself solicited requests from some friends, including his law partner William Herndon. “Just before he left for Washington, Mr. Lincoln, for the first time, brought up the subject of an office under his administration,” wrote Herndon. “He asked me if I desired an appointment at his hands, and, if so, what I wanted. I answered that I had no desire for a Federal office, that I was then holding the office of Bank Commissioner under appointment of Governor [William H.] Bissell, and that if he would request my retention in office by [newly elected Governor Richard] Yates, the incoming Governor, I should be satisfied. He made the necessary recommendation, and Governor Yates complied.”13 Most friends and acquaintances were not so easily satisfied.

Mr. Lincoln was acutely sensitive to the distribution of patronage appointments in Illinois. In March 1861, President Lincoln wrote to his former law partner, Democrat John T. Stuart, who was also Mary Todd Lincoln’s cousin: “You see I have already appointed William Jayne a territorial governor and Judge Trumbull’s brother to a land office – Will it do for me to go on and justify the declaration that Trumbull and I have divided out all the offices among our relatives? Dr. [William H.] Wallace, you know, is needy, and looks to me; and I personally owe him much”14 (Wallace was only one of Mary Todd Lincoln’s relatives who sought administration positions.) Still, he understood that there were clear limits to friendship. William Herndon wrote that when “a delegation of gentlemen who called to press the claims of one of his warm personal friends for an important office,” Mr. Lincoln refused because he “did not regard it as just to the public to pay the debts of personal friendship with offices that belonged to the people.”15

Patronage involved a balancing act between personal debts and political reality. “Lincoln’s usual practice was to get the views of State delegations, Senators and Congressmen, before making appointments of importance for their States,” wrote biographer Carl Sandburg. “Besides the political leaders in his Cabinet, who were in touch with their localities, the President gave ready hearing to such party men as Thurlow Weed, John W. Forney, Joseph Medill, old Frank P. Blair, various editors, lawyers, clergymen. Always, too, the governors of the States must have respectful hearing.”16 According to Sandburg, “He aimed appointments so far as possible to smooth, lubricate, and strengthen the Federal organization for carrying on the war. The exceptions were usually for the sake of a friend or a personal attachment.”17

Mr. Lincoln understood the need to take care of special friends – a category in which he included German-American Republicans. Lieutenant Governor Gustave Koerner was an important vehicle for this purpose. On January 15, 1862, President Lincoln wrote General Henry W. Halleck: “This will introduce Gov. G. Koerner, of Illinois, who is my personal friend, and who calls on you at my particular request. Please open the sealed letter he will hand you before he leaves you and confer with him as to its contents.” At the time Koerner already held the rank of colonel and had served in a staff capacity under General John C. Frémont:

The Germans are true and patriotic, and so far as they have got cross in Missouri it is upon mistake and misunderstanding. Without a knowledge of its contents Governor Koerner, of Illinois, will hand you this letter. He is an educated and talented German gentleman, as true a man as lives. With his assistance you can set everything right with the Germans. I write this without his knowledge, asking him at the same time, by letter, to deliver it. My clear judgment is that, with reference to the German element in your command, you should have Governor Koerner with you; and if agreeable to you and him. I will make him a brigadier-general, so that he can afford to so give his time. He does not wish to command in the field, though he has more military knowledge than many who do. If he goes into the place he will simply be an efficient, zealous, and unselfish assistant to you. I say all this upon intimate personal acquaintance with Governor Koerner.18

Mr. Lincoln understood that appointments did not just solve problems. They also created them. On August 27, 1862, President Lincoln appointed Wait Talcott as Collector for the Department of the Treasury Department in Illinois. In an earlier letter to Salmon Chase, he had described Talcott as “one of the best men there is.” He apparently was not the most diplomatic of individuals, however. The President wrote Talcott: “I have determined to appoint you Collector. I now have a very special request to make of you, which is that you will make no war upon Mr. [Elihu] Washburn[e] who is also my friend, and of longer standing than yourself. I will even be obliged if you can do something for him if the occasion presents.”19

Attorney Leonard Swett later wrote that all Factions “had access to him; they all received favors from him; and they all complained of ill-treatment; but while unsatisfied, they all had ‘large expectations,’ and saw in him the chance of getting more than from any one else – they were sure of getting in his place.” In January 1861 Law partner William H. Herndon wrote to Illinois Senator Lyman Trumbull: “Lincoln is in a fix. [Simon] Cameron’s appointment to an office in his Cabinet bothers him. If Lincoln do appoint Cameron he gets a fight on his hands, and if he do not he gets a quarrel deep, abiding, & lasting. What a world we live in! The game of politics is a pure game, full of honesty and true deep gratitude. Three fourths of the political world — those who lead especially — are corrupt — fish — dollar — power seekers — mud hunters — scoundrels. So this political world wags. Poor Lincoln! God help him! Pshaw what a scramble for office! What angry looks & growls for bones that have fat & meat on them. Dogs fight away !”20

Swett was contributing to the problem – if a letter can be trusted originating from Congressman Elihu B. Washburne, who was one of the President-elect’s primary agents in Washington before his inauguration. At the end of January, he wrote Mr. Lincoln about the consternation that the proposed nomination of Cameron was having with Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, a master of indignation and invective:

Mr. Thad. Stevens of Penn. has authorized me to send you the enclosed letter. It discloses an extraordinary State of things as connected with this Cameron matter. Stevens’s indignation knows no bounds, since he has learned that Cameron is again pressing himself upon you, and if he should now go in, it would intensify the fight in Pennsylvania to a degree little thought of. Stevens says he should now make it a personal matter, and of course, you are well aware of his power and influence in his own state and in the country.
You will learn that if Cameron now goes into the Cabinet, it will inaugerate an “irrepressible conflict” in the party at the threshhold of your administration which will break it down. You will learn all by Fogg, and will see that what I wrote you in the first instance was true.
The performance of Swett here have excited an extraordinary disgust. His mysterious givings out; his pretences that he was your confidential agent and friend; that you was to be reached thro’ him, &c. have come near disgracing us. He has been playing the part of “grand almoner to the King.” Oh! God. I am sick.21

Swett himself argued that Mr. Lincoln figured an important intangible into the way he doled out patronage in order to preserve his delicate coalition: “He never wasted anything, and would always give more to his enemies than he would to his friends, and the reason was, because whenever had anything to spare, and in the close calculation of attaching the factions to him; he counted upon the abstract affection of his friends as an element to be offset against some gift with which he must appease his enemies. Hence, there was always some truth in the charge of his friends that he failed to reciprocate their devotion with is favors. The reason was that he had only just so much to give away – ‘He always had more horses than oats.'”22 And President Lincoln always had more friends than jobs. And those friends usually had great expectations for the jobs they believed they deserved.

Mr. Lincoln was accustomed to White House visitors wanting something from him. Actor James Hackett visited the White House and discussed Shakespeare with the President. The President frequently visited Ford’s Theatre when Hackett was playing. On one occasion, Hackett successfully sought and secured the release from the Army of an in-law of Hackett’s son. On another occasion, Hackett sought unsuccessfully a diplomatic post in London. Presidential aide William O. Stoddard came upon the actor encamped outside the President’s office one night. On hearing that Hackett was outside, President Lincoln signified his impatience: “Oh, I can’t see him; I can’t see him. I was in hopes he had gone away.”

Mr. Lincoln continued: “Now, this just illustrates the difficulty of having pleasant friends and acquaintances in this place. You know how I liked Hackett as an actor, and how I wrote to tell him so. He sent me that book, and there I thought the matter would end. He is a master of his place in his profession, I suppose, and well fixed in it. But just because we had a little friendly correspondence, such as any two men might have, he wants something. What do you suppose he wants?” When Stoddard disclaimed any idea, Mr. Lincoln replied: “Well, he wants to be consul to London. Oh, dear!”23 Journalist Noah Brooks recalled the same incident and wrote that President ” Lincoln almost groaned as he said that it seemed impossible for him to have any close relations with people in Washington without finding that the acquaintance thus formed generally ended with an application for office.”24

Presidential aide John Hay wrote: “A hundred times this experience was repeated; a man whose disposition and talk were agreeable would be introduced to the President; he took pleasure in his conversation for two or three interviews, and then this congenial person would ask some favor impossible to grant and go away in bitterness of spirit.”25 President Lincoln “liked to provide for his friends, who were often remembered gratefully for services given him in his early struggles in life,” wrote journalist Brooks. “Sometimes he would ‘break the slate,’ as he called it, of those who were making up a list of appointments, that he might insert the name of some old acquaintance who had befriended him in days when friends were few.”26

But President Lincoln didn’t like patronage difficulties to be the cause of conflict among friends. On the day before he was assassinated, President Lincoln wrote to Judge David Davis about a former Illinois attorney: “Seeing your letter was about our friend Sam. Parks, I handed it to Mr. Speed without reading into it far enough to discover that you were a little sharp on him. He answers, however, in good temper, & I send it to you. It will never do for you and Mr. Speed to be on other than good understanding.”27

Another young journalist who worked as an assistant secretary to Mr. Lincoln had a different perspective on Mr. Lincoln’s attitude toward the patronage preferences owed friends. “Mr. Lincoln regarded the federal appointments at his disposal as in the nature of a public trust, and not at all as his private property or to be apportioned among his friends, relatives, or personal adherents,” wrote William Stoddard, who watched the process from a nearby office on the second floor of the White House. But Stoddard was surely exaggerating when he wrote: “There was to be little advantage to any man in the fact that he had known Mr. Lincoln for many years; or had exchanged small favors with him; or employed him in law-business; or said ‘Good-morning’ to him, daily.”28

An old Illinois colleague, Robert L. Wilson visited Washington and recalled later that President Lincoln “had started out with the determination to make no improper appointments, and to accomplish that result he imposed upon himself the labor of an examination of the qualifications of each applicant. He found to his surprise that members of his Cabinet, who were equally interested with himself in the success of his administration, had been recommending parties to be appointed to responsible positions who were often physically morally and intellectually unfit for the place.” Wilson added that Mr. Lincoln “said he was so badgered with applications for appointments that he thought sometimes that the only way that he could escape from them would be take a rope and hang himself on one of the trees in the lawn of the Presidential house – looking out at the trees through the window at the same time.”29

The President’s comments to Wilson came after House Speaker Galusha Grow berated President Lincoln about his failure to appoint Grow’s brother-in-law to a territorial judgment. “Mr. Lincoln excused himself by saying that he had forgotten his Brother-in-law, at the time the appointment was made, but assured him that his friend Should have an appointment at any early day. Mr Grow was very angry, and talked, as it looked to me, impertinently. Mr. Seward came in, and took part [in] defending Mr Lincoln. Mr Grow used threats that surprized me.”30

Mr. Lincoln’s patronage problems were unceasing and unrelenting. When Mr. Lincoln arrived in Washington, Stoddard reported, “There was something almost phenomenal in the crowd of hungry office-seekers. They filled the hotels and boardinghouses. They thronged the passages and anterooms of public buildings. Hundreds of anxious politicians, large and small, came pouring in by every train, so ignorant of public affairs that they hardly knew what to apply for, and still less for what duties they were prepared. They came from every nook and corner of the country, and they brought at least one unmistakable comfort to Mr. Lincoln. Their very coming assured him that people they represented had an undisturbed confidence in the stability of the government.”31

Journalist Noah Brooks wrote that “with all his good-humored and cheerful manner towards those who came, it soon became evident that he did not intend to promise places as readily as a spendthrift, newly come into an inheritance, might spread abroad his gold. He was sublimely wise in his treatment of all who came to him, listening to their ‘claims’ (for all had these) and always manifesting the native kindness that distinguished him. But men who had been on familiar terms with him, who had met him ‘riding the circuit,’ had listened to his unfailing good stories, had done his party real service in the late fight, or had been friendly neighbors, soon learned that these were not sufficient to extort from him the promise of a good office when he should be in the place where offices were to be given out.”32

Brooks recalled: “An old acquaintance of the President, whom he had not seen for many years, visited Washington. Lincoln desired to give him a place. Thus encouraged, the visitor, who was an honest man, but wholly inexperienced in public affairs or in business, asked for a high office. The President was aghast, and said: ‘Good gracious! Why didn’t he ask to be Secretary of the Treasury and have done with it?’ Afterward he said: ‘Well, now, I never thought M. had anything more than average ability, when we were young men together – and he wants to be superintendent of the mint?’ He paused, and added, with a queer smile: ‘But, then, I suppose he thought the same thing about me, and – here I am!'”33

Stories abound about Mr. Lincoln’s weakness for providing for long and long-lost friends. One is the story of a story of George Clark, whom Mr. Lincoln met in Illinois before he moved back to Lawrence, Massachusetts. Clark bragged to friends that based on his friendship, “I can have any office I want.” His friends raised his fare to Washington to see if Clark could prove his point. Clark presented himself at the White House during a reception was kept away from the President until out of patience, he raised such a ruckus that he drew the President’s attention. “Make way for my friend!” proclaimed the President and greet Clark effusively. He later told Clark: “You don’t know how glad I am to see you. The face of an old friend is like a ray of sunshine through dark and gloomy clouds. I’ve shook hands till I am tireder than I ever was splitting rails.” Although Mr. Lincoln declined to give Clark the Lawrence postmastership he coveted, he gave him a letter to take to the Collector of the Port of Boston.” The letter told the Collector to give Mr. Lincoln’s friend George Clark “the best position he can fill. If he fails in one place, give him another.”34

Not being a friend of the President was no cause to dismiss a patronage employee. Ward Hill Lamon told the story of an interview at the White House between a prominent politician of New York and Mr. Lincoln, in reference to the removal of an office-holder in New York. Every reason that could be thought of was urged in favor the removal, and finally it was urged that this office-holder abused Mr. Lincoln personally. Mr. Lincoln at last got out of patience, and ended the interview as follows: ‘You cannot think ___ to be half as mean as I know him to be; but I cannot run this thing upon the theory that every office-holder must think I am the greatest man in the nation, and I will not.’ The man, notwithstanding his meanness to Mr. Lincoln, remained in office as long as Mr. Lincoln was President.”35 Journalist Noah Brooks that once “when remonstrated with upon the appointment to place of one of his former opponents, he said: ‘Nobody will deny that he is a first-rate man for the place, and I am bound to see that his opposition to me personally shall not interfere with my giving the people a good officer.'”36

Massachusetts Congressman John B. Alley noted that Mr. Lincoln “never failed in obtaining a confirmation by the Senate of any of his nominations, or in carrying through Congress any measure that he cared much about. He used his patronage where he thought it ‘would do the most good,’ in accomplishing the object desired, if that object was an important one to the country.”37

Mr. Lincoln has often been criticized for the amount of time he devoted to patronage. But, according to historian Richard Carwardine, Mr. Lincoln was an “experienced and skillful party manager, who possessed a potent combination of tenacity, patience and command of detail.” The President “devoted an enormous slice of his time to disposing of these posts. It was a wearisome and even draining exercise, as he sought to avoid gratuitously upsetting the competitors for office while yet remaining even-handed towards the various party factions, including his critics. But his attentiveness and refusal to be bullied undoubtedly paid off. He built a bank of congressional indebtedness, by meeting the patronage requests of interceding Congressmen, and created such highly effective cadres of supporters at state level that he easily outmanoeuvred those who had hoped to prevent his running for a second term.”38

Mr. Lincoln’s patience sometimes ran out when dealing with patronage matters. A particular source of aggravation was a member of his own Cabinet, Salmon P. Chase. On four occasions, the difficulties led to Chase’s written resignation, which Mr. Lincoln customarily rejected. The final occasion was in June 1864, Mr. Lincoln accepted it. On an earlier occasion, Chase had pushed a patronage appointment in Connecticut which was opposed by state officials. Mr. Lincoln wrote Chase: “After much reflection, and with a good deal of pain that it is adverse to your wish, I have concluded that it is not best to renominate Mr. Howard for Collector of Internal Revenue at Hartford, Connecticut. Senator Dixon, residing at Hartford, and Mr. Loomis, Representative of the district, join in recommending Edward Goodman for the place; and, so far, no one has presented a different name. I will thank you, therefore, to send me a nomination for Mr. Goodman.”39 In response, Chase drafted a letter of resignation – although he did not send it because Senator [James] Dixon arranged for a compromise.

This did not wholly mollify Chase who wrote Mr. Lincoln: “My only object – and I think you so understand it – is to secure fit men for responsible places, without admitting the rights of Senators or Representatives to control appointments, for which the President and the Secretary, as his presumed adviser, must be responsible. Unless this principle can be practically established, I feel that I cannot be useful to you or the country in my present position.”40

Sometimes, Mr. Lincoln’s response to such pressure was simple procrastination. President Lincoln was pressed in December 1862 to appoint Hiram Walbridge as military governor of the District of Columbia. He wrote Walbridge, whose qualifications for the job were minimal at best: “I have twice declined to see you on the ground that I understood the object of your desired interview, and that it was a matter of embarrassment to me. My real respect and esteem for you makes me unwilling to leave the matter in quite so abrupt a form. My embarrassment is that the place you seek not selfishly I think, is greedily sought by many others; and there is sure to be opposition both fierce and plausible to the appointment of any one who up to this time has not been in the military service. What answer to it will I make? Shall I say I did it for political influence? That will be the more loudly objected to. I need not point out to you where this objection will come from. It will come from your competitors; it will come from party spirit; it will come from indignant members of Congress who will perceive in it an attempt of mine to set a guardian over them.” Mr. Lincoln concluded: The longer I can get along without a formal appointment the better.”41

Historian Richard Current wrote “Lincoln was especially active in hiring and firing government job-holders so as to meet the necessities of the campaign. At the New York Customs House he changed the top officials, removing men who were insufficiently enthusiastic themselves or incapable of arousing sufficient enthusiasm among New Yorker voters. He approved the dismissal of Brooklyn Navy Yard workers who would not swear they were loyal ‘Union men.”42

David Davis biographer Willard L. King explained the dilemma which New York patronage posed for the President in 1864: “In late March, [Thurlow] Weed’s wrath reached its peak when Lincoln, at Chase’s behest, promoted John T. Hogeboom to the office of General Appraiser at the New York Customs House. ‘I informed Mr. Lincoln, when I saw him in November, that the infamies of the Appraiser’s Office required the Removal of Hogeboom and Hunt, men whose appointments, originally, we in vain resisted…It is not alone that these men are against Mr. Lincoln, but they disgrace the office – a Department everywhere spoken of as a ‘Den of Thieves.’ Mr. Lincoln not only spurns his friends…but Promotes an enemy who ought to be removed!”43

Weed wrote Davis: “After this outrage and insult I will cease to annoy him; and tho’ ever remembering how pleasant my acquaintance is with you. I will not more trouble you with matters which make us both unhappy.’44 According to King: “Again, Davis showed Weed’s letters to the President. ‘He said he was much pained by them,’ the Judge told Weed. ‘He spoke of you in the highest terms: of your ability & disinterested patriotism & of the great friendship that you had always shown him.’ But to Orme, Davis declared: ‘Mr. Lincoln annoys me more than I can express, by his persistence in letting things take their course – without effort or organizations when a combined organization in the Treasury Dept is in antagonism.”45

Although patient, Mr. Lincoln’s patience could be severely tried by patronage. Legal colleague Stephen T. Logan said that “when he was roused,” Mr. Lincoln had “a very high temper. He controlled it then in a general way, though it would break out sometimes – and at those times it didn’t take much to make…him whip a man.”46 Mr. Lincoln’s patience could be especially tried by importunate seekers of patronage. Congressman Alley recalled: “I have often seen him placed in the most provoking and trying positions, and never but once knew him to lose his temper. That was the day after he had received very bad news from the army. A couple of office-seekers who knew him well, intercepted him, on his way from the White House to the War Department, and teased him for an office which he told them he could not give. They persisted in their importunity until it was unbearable. The President, evidently worn out by care and anxiety, turned upon them, and such an angry and terrific tirade, against those two incorrigible bores, I never before heard from the lips of mortal man.”47

Alley himself was not immune to the congressional vice of fishing for patronage. “Senator Sumner and myself called upon him, one morning, to urge the appointment of a Massachusetts man to be Secretary of Legation, chiefly upon the ground of his superior qualifications. We urged the appointment somewhat persistently, but Mr. Lincoln said emphatically, ‘No;’ that he should give the place to an applicant from another State, who was backed by strong influence, although he acknowledged that he did not think him fit for the position. We were naturally indignant, and wished to know if one of the acknowledged fitness was to be rejected because he was a Massachusetts man, and one whom he was willing to say was not fit, was to be appointed. ‘Yes,’ said the President, ‘that is just the reason’ – and facetiously added, ‘I suppose you two Massachusetts gentlemen think that your State could furnish suitable men for every diplomatic and consulate station the Government has to fill.’ We replied that we thought it could. He appeased our displeasure by saying he thought so too, and that he considered Massachusetts the banner State of the Union, and admired its institutions so much that he had sent his ‘Bob,’ meaning his son Robert, to Harvard for an education. He said he could no nothing further in the way of appointments for Massachusetts because he could not afford to and she did not need it. Massachusetts, he said, was intelligent and patriotic. The people would do right and support his administration, even if he offended scores of her most esteemed public men.”48

Patronage could split political allies. It hardened differences among political opponents. When practiced feuders like newspapers editors Thurlow Weed and Horace Greeley agreed on an appointment for New York, President Lincoln was amazed and gratified. On May 8, 1861, President Lincoln wrote Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase:

I am told there is an office your department called “the Superintending Architect of the Treasury Department, connected with the Bureau of Construction,’ which is now held by a man of the name of Young, and wanted by a gentlemen by the name of Christopher Adams.
Ought Mr. Young to be removed, and if yea, ought Mr. Adams to be appointed? Mr. Adams is magnificently recommended; but the great point in his favor in that Thurlow Weed and Horace Greeley join in recommending him. I suppose the like never happened before, and never will again; so that is now or never. What say you?49


  1. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, p. 48-49 (Letter to William B. Preston, May 16, 1849).
  2. Allan Nevins, The War for the Union: The Improvised War, 1861-1862, p. 34.
  3. Mark E. Neely, Jr., The Abraham Lincoln Encyclopedia, p. 234.
  4. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Volume IV, p. 105.
  5. “The Lincolns at Home”, The Abraham Lincoln Quarterly, p. 91-92.
  6. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois (Letter from Jesse W. Fell to Abraham Lincoln1, January 2, 1861).
  7. Ward Hill Lamon, Recollections of Abraham Lincoln, p. 27-28.
  8. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois (Letter from Jesse W. Fell to Abraham Lincoln1, January 2, 1861).
  9. Jay Monaghan, The Man Who Elected Lincoln, p. 205-206.
  10. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume IV, p. 171 (Letter to Lyman Trumbull, January 7, 1861).
  11. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume IV, p. 173 (Letter to William H. Seward, January 12, 1861).
  12. Don E. and Virginia Fehrenbacher, editor, Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, p. 461 (From Thurlow Weed, “Mr. Lincoln and Three Friends in Council,” Galazy, 11, Feb. 1871, P. 255.).
  13. William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Herndon’s Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 391.
  14. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume IV, p. 303 (Letter to John T. Stuart, March 30, 1861).
  15. William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Herndon’s Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. xxx.
  16. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Volume II, p. 31.
  17. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Volume II, p. 53.
  18. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume V, p. 99-100 (Letter to Henry W. Halleck, January 15, 1862).
  19. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume V, p. 379, 397 (Letter to Wait Talcott, August 27, 1862).
  20. Harry E. Pratt, Concerning Mr. Lincoln, p. 45 (Letter from William H. Herndon to Lyman Trumbull, January 27, 1861).
  21. (Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois (Letter from Elihu B. Washburne to Abraham Lincoln, January 20, 1861)).
  22. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 165 (Leonard Swett’s letter to William H. Herndon, January 17, 1866).
  23. Emanuel Hertz, Lincoln Talks, p. 248-249 (William O. Stoddard).
  24. David Chambers Mearns, Largely Lincoln, p. 133 (Noah Brooks).
  25. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 401 (John Hay, Century Magazine, November 1890).
  26. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, First Supplement, p. 286 (Letter to David Davis, April 13, 1865).
  27. William O. Stoddard, Abraham Lincoln: The Man and the War President, p. 184.
  28. Michael Burlingame, editor, Noah Brooks, Lincoln Observed: The Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks, p. 216-217 (from Noah Brooks, “Personal Recollections of Abraham Lincoln” first published in The Harper’s Monthly Magazine, May 1865).
  29. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 33-34 (Robert F. Wilson).
  30. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 33-34 (Robert F. Wilson).
  31. William O. Stoddard, Abraham Lincoln: The Man and the War President, p. 203-204.
  32. Noah Brooks, Abraham Lincoln: The Nation’s Leader in the Great Struggle Through Which was Maintained the Existence of the United States, p. 204.
  33. Noah Brooks, Abraham Lincoln: The Nation’s Leader in the Great Struggle Through Which was Maintained the Existence of the United States, p. 425.
  34. Francis Fisher Browne, The Every-day Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 474-475.
  35. Ward Hill Lamon, Recollections of Abraham Lincoln, p. 213-214.
  36. Michael Burlingame, editor, Noah Brooks, Lincoln Observed: The Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks, p. 217.
  37. Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 586 (John B. Alley).
  38. Susan-Mary Grant and Brian Holden Reid, editor, Richard Carwardine, “Abraham Lincoln, the Presidency, and the Mobilization of Union Sentiment”, The American Civil War: Explorations and Reconsiderations, p. 79.
  39. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume VI, p. 122 (Letter to Salmon P. Chase, March 23, 1863).
  40. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume VI, p. 122-123 (Letter from Salmon P. Chase to Abraham Lincoln, March 2, 1863).
  41. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume VI, p. 21-22 (Letter to Hiram Walbridge, December 28th. 1862).
  42. Richard N. Current, The Lincoln Nobody Knows, p. 209.
  43. Willard L. King, Lincoln’s Manager, David Davis, p. 216-217 (David Davis to Thurlow Weed, April 4, 1864, Weed papers and Davis papers; Davis to Orme, March 30, 1864, Orme papers).
  44. Willard L. King, Lincoln’s Manager, David Davis, (Thurlow Weed to Davis, March 29, 1864, Davis papers; Davis to Lincoln, March 30, 1864, RTL papers).
  45. Willard L. King, Lincoln’s Manager, David Davis, p. 216-217 (David Davis to Thurlow Weed, April 4, 1864, Weed papers and Davis papers; Davis to Orme, March 30, 1864, Orme papers).
  46. Michael Burlingame, editor, An Oral History of Abraham Lincoln, John G. Nicolay’s Interviews and Essays, p. 36 (Conversation with Stephen T. Logan, July 7, 1875).
  47. Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 589 (John B. Allen).
  48. Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 577-579 (John B. Allen).
  49. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, p. 373 (Letter to Salmon P. Chase, May 18, 1861).