Facing Tyranny: The Patronage is the Thing.
In his new book “Lincoln on the Verge,” author Ted Widmer has already taught me something new about Abraham Lincoln and the origins of the Civil War in its first 100 pages.
Anyone who thinks the garment of American democracy is already burst at the seams — that our sense of national purpose and unity is so threadbare that it is not worth reweaving — should read Widmer’s retelling of the Buchanan-Lincoln interregnum.
For in 1860–1861, the United States still had a “lame duck” period between presidential administrations: from November (1860) to March 4 (1861).
As Widmer explains, the period we now describe as the presidential transition period was far more than that in the nineteenth century. By 1860 the Nation stretched from New York, Philadelphia and the District of Columbia all the way to Texas and California.
A new president who had been elected from Ohio, or as Lincoln was, Illinois, must deal with more than the nearly four months of waiting to assume office — but also the rugged journey to simply arrive at the capital alive and well. By 1861, the journey was made more treacherous by the simmering crisis of secessionism.
As we all know, by the time of Lincoln’s election the South was convinced that Lincoln held as his primary purpose the abolition of slavery.
And with the advent of the nineteenth century internet — the national connection of the telegraph — known by its nickname of the “Lightning,” rumors quickly abounded of Lincoln’s intentions upon taking office.
These rumors were of the most virulent and racist variety; but just as today, their hysterical falsity made them no less current. Lincoln and the Republicans it was rumored, planned to advocate for that deepest fear of the white slaveholder: violent slave revolt accompanied by sex between former slaves and white women.
But while the claims for racial separatism and Southern slave-based agrarianism may have been those publicly proclaimed by Southern politicians, Widmer suggests that their fears about Lincoln may have been less grand and more than likely never spoken on the floors of the Capitol.
As Widmer details, the outgoing Administration of James Buchanan was a fetid sinkhole of corruption and patronage.
And this patronage within the Washington of President Buchanan was itself based on the political power of slavery. That political power was, of course, anchored in the South and its potentates in the House and Senate. It was not only white supremacy and the slave economy that white Southerners were desperately seeking to preserve: it was a system of corrupt federal patronage that had served their interests for decades in this Republic.
With Abraham Lincoln’s election from this new Republican Party —a party of midwestern tradesmen and farmers and New England reformers — the South’s stranglehold on national federal patronage would be broken.
This loss of the White House meant that Washington and its patronage would no longer belong to the South and to the system of corruption that Buchanan seemed so helpless to cleanse. His presidency as a force for unity had openly failed — and as a force against depravity and rot, it was as meek as a small kitten.
Lincoln must have watched as best he could from a distance — connected only by the long distance of railroad travel and the dispatches on the “Lightning.”
He would have to face not only the open hostility of the pro-slavery forces — forces who either exaggerated or misunderstood Lincoln’s direct opposition to slavery itself — but he must potentially rebuild a corrupted federal bureaucracy riddled by the patronage the South has used so effectively.
Moreover, there were threats not only of disunion, but on Lincoln’s very life itself. And he had not even arrived at the seat of government.
His journey to Washington would begin as a struggle all of its own.
-Albert Turner Goins