President Lincoln’s Cabinet

President Lincoln’s Cabinet

Civil War Treasures from the New-York Historical Society
Reference Number: ad04004

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Abraham Lincoln was “psychologically astute,” according to historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. He had “a first-rate emotional intelligence.” As President, Lincoln separated his personal feelings from his analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of colleagues. His own cabinet was a remarkable group – a spirited but often undisciplined set of horses which President Lincoln was expected to give rein to and rein in as well.

In Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin has “coupled the account of his life with the stories of the remarkable men who were his rivals for the 1860 Republican presidential nomination – New York senator William H. Seward, Ohio governor Salmon P. Chase, and Missouri’s distinguished elder statesman Edward Bates.”

Taken together, the lives of these four men give us a picture of the path taken by ambitious young men in the North who came of age in the early decades of the nineteenth century. All four studied law, became distinguished orators, entered politics, and opposed the spread of slavery. Their upward climb was one followed by many thousands who left the small towns of their birth to seek opportunity and adventure in the rapidly growing cities of a dynamic, expanding America.
Just as a hologram is created through the interference of light from separate sources, so the lives and impressions of those who accompanied Lincoln give us a clearer and more dimensional picture of the president himself. Lincoln’s barren childhood, his lack of schooling, his relationships with male friends, his complicated marriage, the nature of his ambition, and his ruminations about death can be analyzed more clearly when he is placed side by side with his three contemporaries.”1

The composition of Lincoln’s Cabinet had caused Lincoln almost as much trouble in the months after his election as did the secession of Southern states and the pending breakup of the Union. It was a difficult balancing act among the different factions of his party – which promoted their own and fought others. Historian Hans L. Trefousse noted: “Lincoln’s choice of cabinet met with a mixed reception. Justin S. Morrill thought it did not foreshadow an honest administration or a very Republican one, largely due to Seward’s influence. Radical Governor [John A.] Andrew of Massachusetts, on the other hand, heard that everyone admitted that the president had selected good and able men for ‘engineers,’ but that they did not all look the same way. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, however, this was no reason why the cabinet could not last. Charles W. Dennison of the United States Naval Gazette, expressing his gratitude that the president’s life had been preserved, shared his satisfaction at his choice of a cabinet. Criticism of the cabinet, however, tended to become a steady means of attacking the administration.”2

The selection of Pennsylvania Senator Simon Cameron presented the biggest problems. But noted Seward in a letter to his wife: “The President is determined that he will have a compound Cabinet; and that it shall be peaceful, and even permanent. I was at one time on the point of refusing – nay, I did refuse, for a time to hazard myself in the experiment. But a distracted country appeared before me; and I withdrew from that position.”3 Indeed, President Lincoln recalled composing his Cabinet on the day after the election — “before the sun went down, I had made up my Cabinet. It was almost the same as I finally selected.”4

All the Cabinet members on whom Goodwin focuses were lawyers. All were ambitious. They were egotistical. They were strong-minded. They wanted power. All were better educated than Abraham Lincoln. Unlike Lincoln, all were born in the East. They generally thought they were better prepared and better suited to be President At some point, especially early in the war, each man thought he knew better than the President. But Lincoln, as Goodwin makes clear, was a more skilled politician than the four. Goodwin concludes that, “His political genius was not simply his ability to gather the best men of the country around him, but to impress upon them his own purpose, perception, and resolution at every juncture.”5

While this team of rivals was determined to master Lincoln, he was determined to remain the country’s leader. He repeatedly imposed his will on them at critical junctures – including before Fort Sumter, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Cabinet crisis of December 1862. He even sent Cabinet nominations of Senate members to the Senate floor – without their knowledge or approval. That’s the way he replaced Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase with Maine Senator William P. Fessenden in June 1864.

Lincoln was the most consistent and most flexible of these rival political leaders. Chase, for example, moved around the political map. He “failed to appreciate that with each party shift, he betrayed old associates and made lifelong enemies. Certainly, his willingness to sever bonds and forge new alliances, though at times courageous and visionary, was out of step with the political custom of the times,” wrote Goodwin.6

Goodwin saw Lincoln’s 1860 nomination in Chicago as the culmination of Lincoln’s political growth. She wrote: “Chance, positioning, and managerial strategy – all played a role in Lincoln’s victory,. Still if we consider the comparative resources each contender brought to the race – their range of political skills, their emotional, intellectual, and moral qualities, their rhetorical abilities, and their determination and willingness to work hard – it is clear that when opportunity becked, Lincoln was the best prepared to answer the call. His nomination, finally, was the result of his character and his life experiences – these separated him from his rivals and provided him with advantages unrecognized at the time.”7

He did not rush to conclusions. He thought over things carefully – sometimes well in advance of events. He used available tools. Goodwin wrote: “Although his grim beginnings held no fascination for him, Lincoln was astute enough to capitalize upon this invaluable political asset.”8

Contrary to the image created by Francis B. Carpenter’s painting of the Emancipation Proclamation, noted presidential aide William O. Stoddard: “When that half-dozen of overworked and anxious men did get together, it was not their habit, dignified as they were, and however important their business, to collect in studied stiffness around the table; but several times when I have been called in – to be sent for papers – I have seen one stretched on the sofa with a cigar [in] his mouth, another with his heels on the table, another nursing his knee abstractedly, the President with his leg over the arm of his chair, and not a man of them all in any wise sitting for his picture.”9

Mr. Lincoln was the most informal – and informed of all. He also had the more insight into human relations. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote: “Lincoln’s abhorrence of hurting another was born of a more than simple compassion. He possessed extraordinary empathy – the gift or curse of putting himself in the place of another, to experience what they were feeling, to understand their motives and desires.”10 She attributed it to “his years of travel on the circuit through central Illinois, engaging people in taverns, on street corners, and in shops, [during which] Lincoln had developed a keen sense of what people felt, thought, needed, and wanted.”11

Navy Secretary Gideon Welles wrote: “Measures and important movements of each of the departments were generally, but not always, submitted to the Cabinet. The President was invariably consulted, but the Secretary of State stood in this respect like his colleagues, and his opinion and judgment, like theirs, was taken as were the others for what, in the estimation of Mr. Lincoln, they were worth. The policy of the President and the course of administration were based on substantial principles and convictions to which he firmly adhered. Mr. Seward relied less on fixed principle than expedients, and trusted to dexterity and skill rather than the rightfulness of a cause to carry him through emergencies.”12

The diaries of Welles, Chase and Edwin Bates give important insights into how the President operated. “Mr. Bates’s Diary is full of entries which show how closely the cabinet members were watching each other,” wrote Helen Nicolay, daughter of presidential assistant John G. Nicolay. “He recorded a rumor, brought him by a great lover of gossip, that the Secretary of the Interior was in danger of being indicted for bribery. ‘One charge is that he took $400 from a person appointed to a 2d. class clerkship – salary $1400 per an[num]: I cannot believe this of Mr. Smith…’ At times he took a very dim view of the morals of the whole administration. On one such occasion he wrote:

“Each one, statesman or General, is secretly working, either to advance his ambition, or to secure something to retire upon.”
“There is now no mutual confidence among the members of the Govt. – and really no such thing as a C.[abinet] C.[ouncil]. The more ambitious members, who seek to control – Seward – Chase – Stanton – never start their projects in C.[abinet] C.[ouncil] but try first to commit the Prest., and then, if possible, secure the apparent consent of the members. Often, the doubtful measure is put into operation before the majority of its know that is proposed.”13

By mining such sources as Bates diary and the letters of Cabinet members and their families, Goodwin traces the conflicting and shifting attitudes of Lincoln’s Cabinet toward slavery in the years before and during the Civil War. She wrote of the 1848: “During the [Free Soil Party] deliberations, a Buffalo delegate wrote to Bates asking if his name could be entered as a candidate for the vice presidency. That Bates would even be considered illustrates the fluidity of parties at this juncture, for even though he opposed slavery’s expansion, he himself remained a slaveowner, his belief in the inferiority of the black race reflecting his Southern upbringing. In contrast to Seward and Chase, he supported Northern codes that prevented blacks from voting, sitting on juries, or holding office. When one of his female slaves escaped to Canada, he had been incredulous, ‘Poor foolish thing,’ he wrote in his diary. ‘She will never be as well off as she was in our house.’ She had left behind three daughters, whom he promptly sold, ‘determined at once to be no longer plagued with them.”14

Never the most astute politician, Bates’ prejudices helped doom his presidential candidacy in 1860. Despite these attitudes, it was Bates who was one of the most supportive Cabinet members when Lincoln announced his intention to issue an emancipation proclamation.
Goodwin notes: “When the president read his first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation to the cabinet in July 1862, Bates had been one of the first to speak favorably. Though Bates never fully escaped from the racial prejudices formed in his early years – he continued to believe until the end of his life that emancipation should be accompanied by colonization – his ideas had evolved to the point where he supported some very progressive measures.”15 The Cabinet’s range of opinions concerning slavery and emancipation was striking. He listened to his Cabinet but the advice he most often took was his own.

Historian Allen Guelzo noted the President’s distinct non-dependence on outside advice: “Even the colorless Caleb Smith complained ‘that Mr. Lincoln don’t treat a Cabinet as other President’s — that he decides the most important questions without consulting his cabinet.’ David Davis ‘asked him once about his Cabinet: he said he never Consulted his Cabinet. He said they all disagreed so much he would not ask them — he depended on himself — always.’ Leonard Swett ‘sometimes doubted whether he ever asked anybody’s advice about anything. He would listen to everybody; he would hear everybody, but he never asked for opinions.”16

Jealousy and access to the President were an issue for the Cabinet. Historian Glyndon Van Deusen wrote in his biography of Secretary of State William H. Seward: “From the beginning a sense of strain hovered over the meeting of the Cabinet, for all the members early developed real or fancied grievances. Each man was eager to obtain his full share of the patronage, and more if possible; all resented poaching by the others on what they regarded as their own preserves. Seward was peculiarly vulnerable to this accusation because the jurisdictional limits of the departments were poorly defined and State had developed a habit of assuming the duties not specifically assigned to others.”17

Goodwin’s admiration for Lincoln is clear and pervasive in the book. So is her admiration for the women who supported Lincoln’s Cabinet. She paints an especially sympathetic portrait of Frances Seward, the invalid wife of Secretary of State William H. Seward, who was more radical on the subject of slavery than her husband and a renaissance woman in her own right. Goodwin suggests that one reason that Frances Seward remained in Auburn, New York during the war was the likelihood that “they would argue about the purpose of the war. Frances, unlike her husband, had already decided that the principal goal was to end slavery.”18 Goodwin is easier on Mary Todd Lincoln’s personality and alleged corruptions in the White House than other historians like Michael Burlingame, who has criticized her temperament and intrigues.

Goodwin wrote: “Though a tranquil domestic union might have made Lincoln a happier man, the supposition that he would have been a contented homebody, like Edward Bates, belies everything we know of Lincoln’s fierce ambition and extraordinary drive – an ambition that drove him to devour books in every spare moment, memorize his father’s stories in order to captivate his friends, study law late into the night after a full day’s work, and run for office at the age of twenty-three.”19 An ambition that made him America’s greatest President.


Thomas Mallon, “No Ordinary Tome,” Atlantic Monthly, October 2005. Thomas Mallon observes that Doris Kearns Goodwin is a sympathetic biographer, but in the case of Abraham Lincoln, he wrote that Goodwin “would point out that she has put Lincoln up against strong men, not straw men. That the man she depicts is “uncommonly tenderhearted” may be emotionally convenient for the strikingly warm Goodwin, but it has a basic truthfulness nonetheless. I’m not sure I would want to turn Goodwin’s sympathies on, say, Woodrow Wilson, lest personal feeling claim a larger portion of her focus than the long-term calamitous consequences of a president’s good intentions; but cynicism doesn’t get anyone very far with Lincoln. If his kindnesses were often shrewd, they were no less kind: “All the things that he did that are the marks of a good man,” Goodwin says, “turned out to be those of a great politician.” There simply “aren’t as many flaws with him as there are with other people.” To make an effortful hunt for them is to introduce another kind of distortion: “You wouldn’t be true to at least the Lincoln that I saw. That’s just reality.”

More on the Author

has written biographies on a variety of 20th Century historical figures – including No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, The Home Front in World War II and Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream. Her web site is Dreamworks has bought rights to this book for a movie on Abraham Lincoln, starring Liam Neeson.


  1. Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, p. xv.
  2. Hans L. Trefousse, “First Among Equals” Abraham Lincoln’s Reputation During His Administration, pp. 20-21.
  3. Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, p. 318.
  4. Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles, Volume I,p. 82 (August 15, 1862) .
  5. Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, p. 701.
  6. Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, p. 136.
  7. Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, p. 254.
  8. Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, p. 266.
  9. Michael Burlingame, editor, Inside the War Times in War Times, p. 182 (Sketch 9).
  10. Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, p. 104.
  11. Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, p. 255.
  12. Gideon Welles, Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Seward, p. 47.
  13. Helen Nicolay, “Lincoln’s Cabinet”, The Abraham Lincoln Quarterly, March 1949, p. 279.
  14. Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, p. 126.
  15. Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, p. 674.
  16. Allen C. Guelzo, Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President, p. 274.
  17. Glyndon Van Deusen, William Henry Seward, p. 275.
  18. Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, p. 356.
  19. Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, p. 132.