Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Lincoln and the Decision for War by Russell McClintock

Awhile back a good friend asked me to make a list of pre-Civil War books, books that explore the growing conflict. I selected The Coming Fury by Bruce Catton, Uncle Tom's Cabin, Freehling's Road to Disunion: Secessionists Triumphant, Lincoln: President Elect by Holzer, Cry Havoc by Nelson Lankford, Lincoln and the Decision for War by McClintock, Outbreak of the Rebellion by Nicolay and Fires of Jubilee by Oates. This list was being used to create a display at the Barnes and Noble he works at so I kept the list to recently published books or things I was sure would still be in print. No sense saying a book last published in 1959 was a must have, they could not stock it.

For some books I also said what I knew of it, what period of time it covered or whatever else seemed important to tell. For McClintock’s Lincoln and the Decision for War I wrote that I had heard from several other sources that this was one of the better books to come out in 2008 but that I had not read it. A day or so later I finished Grierson’s memoirs (my review of which was posted here two days ago) and I remembered my own words on the book, so since I did not have anything lined up to read next I started McClintock’s book. I don’t think I’d say it was the best book of 2008 but I did enjoy it.

McClintock follows the various political factions in the North from Lincoln’s election through his call for volunteers following the firing on Fort Sumter. He does a good job of explaining how the various Republican factions came together to win the election and then how Lincoln had to hold them together until Inauguration Day when he could wield firmer control. He ran the very real risk of elements of his party working together with the Democrats for peace at any cost, which he certainly did not want.

He desired peace but there were certain things he would not waver on. The main thing he wouldn’t waver on was if any agreement was reached that made it seem he had to concede things to be allowed to be inaugurated. The Republicans had won an election fairly and if they now had to concede things it would be a backward step for democracy. The unhappy minority could not be allowed to dictate how things would happen, that would completely undermine the foundations of representative democracy. This prevented most forms of compromise from happening at all. This was also partly because the Democrats, mostly Southern Democrats, were not just happy with a promise of an extension of the Missouri Compromise Line, they wanted a much harsher fugitive slave law, or they wanted slavery protected in the Constitution, or some other promise that the Republicans could not agree to without abandoning the platform they ran on.

So how did Lincoln keep all these factions in line well enough that nothing was agreed upon that he could not live with? Through old fashioned party politics. He pressured state party leaders to keep their senators and representatives in line. He kept quiet enough that no one really knew what he was going to do, so they stuck to the party line to keep their own prospects bright. An example is that Lincoln kept his cabinet choices quiet much longer than he needed to partly because the various factions would not step out of line thinking it might cost their part of the party from a choice cabinet post when often the decision was already made. When the state party leader told them what was expected of them they mainly behaved because they didn’t want to mess up their faction’s, or their own, prospects.

McClintock does give President James Buchanan some praise, mainly by pointing out that it really was a very tricky situation and there was very little Buchanan could really do alone after the election. If Lincoln wanted to wait til he was president to make things happen, to work on a peaceful compromise there really was little Buchanan could do with the make up in Congress he faced then. There is one place that McClintock really points out a weak side of Buchanan, but doesn’t skewer him as savagely as he could have. Buchanan’s attorney general, Jeremiah S. Black, told him that he could not fill the vacant posts in South Carolina, such as customs collector, unless the local federal officers requested assistance. Since all the federal officers resigned in South Carolina there was no one there to request assistance so Buchanan could not send anyone down there to fill the abandoned posts. This is just nonsense. Basically Black was saying that since all of South Carolina’s federal employees quit there could be no federal presence there anymore. If one man had stayed on the job then he could ask for help but if he didn’t there would be no new appointees sent to South Carolina. But in reality these men just switched their allegiance to South Carolina. The duties were still collected but the money went directly to the state and not the federal government. Black envisions a federal government so weak that any state anytime could just have its federal employees resign in mass and the federal government could do nothing about it. Buchanan accepts this opinion. McClintock should have skewered this opinion as idiotic. He doesn’t do that but he puts the facts out there well enough that the rest of us can see how silly Black’s opinion was and think less of Buchanan for accepting such an opinion.

Cry Havoc covered some of the same ground as McClintock, although the focus of Cry Havoc was from the inauguration to the opening shots. And I’m sure Holzer’s Lincoln: President Elect also covers similar ground. I enjoyed Cry Havoc and have recently started President Elect. I definitely think there is enough new in McClintock’s book to recommend it.

I've read a review of Holzer's book that says he challenges the commonly held belief that Lincoln did not do much during the secession winter. I think McClintock does a good job too of showing that Lincoln did much but it was behind the scenes. Keeping the various factions together was a big job plus he also had to deal with early office seekers and crafting his inaugural address. Perhaps though Holzer spends more time on Lincoln as McClintock's goal was more of what was happening in the North while the South started to secede. Lincoln is definitely part of that equation but McClintock spends quite a bit of time discussing aspects from all areas of the North.
From what I've read so far of President Elect my initial opinion is that Holzer is providing more details than McClintock did. McClintock would report that Lincoln went to Chicago and met with Hamblin to discuss cabinet possibilities. Holzer gives more details like who Lincoln traveled with, who else he met with, who he had dinner with, etc. And there is value in all that but on the other hand a wealth of details can sometimes draw the focus away from the message. If I could only keep one of the two books I'm not sure which one I'd keep, not yet.

A slightly different version of this review appears in the July issue of Civil War News.

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