Henry Adams upon his graduation from Harvard, 1858
If you are the grandson of a U.S. President and the great-grandson of another, your early adulthood is all mapped out. You know, the usual. Go to Harvard, try not to mess up. Get your degree, then go to Europe for a couple of years of seasoning. Take some heat from the old man for slacking. Return to Boston, do a little job shadowing at a local law firm. When your father, Charles Francis Adams, Sr., gets re-elected to Congress for a third term in 1860, you follow along to Washington as his private secretary, now anointed as the next in a lengthening lineage of notable public servants. You are not yet 23 years of age.
So it went for Henry Adams, who later admitted to some ambivalence at this juncture in his life. "[I] had little to do," he would reveal in his autobiographical The Education of Henry Adams, "and knew not how to do it rightly." One thing Henry could do rightly was write. During his brief stay in Washington, he moonlighted as an anonymous correspondent for the Boston Advertiser. While his father served on the House "Committee of Thirty-Three," Henry observed from a unique vantage point the political jockeying going on in the lame-duck Congress prior to Abraham Lincoln's inauguration on March 4, 1861. He captured the proceedings in a commentary, "The Great Secession Winter of 1860-61," intended for publication in the Atlantic Monthly. Not quite satisfied with the piece, Henry mailed it instead to his brother, in whose desk drawer it sat unpublished for many years.
Henry Adams described the first days of January, 1861, as "the blackest our country had seen since the adoption of the constitution." President James Buchanan's aborted attempt to relieve Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor ratcheted up concern among Southern secessionists that the federal government would resort to force to preserve the Union. So cotton-state militias preemptively seized federal forts and arsenals to defend against such a prospect. And why stop there? Washington's rumor mill foretold marches on the national capital itself, which was geographically engulfed by the Upper South. The buzz was all about a Slave Power conspiracy to disrupt either the February 11 Electoral College vote or, failing that, Lincoln's inauguration three weeks later.
Reliable information was hard to get. Southern postmasters withheld delivery of Northern newspapers, while reporters for those papers dared venture south only under cover. Death threats against both the sitting President and the President-elect were a dime a dozen. To make matters worse, the Cabinet official most responsible for national security was an avowed disunionist. War Secretary John B. Floyd (no relation to Johnny B. Goode) had been siphoning federal arms southward while neglecting Washington's defenses, earning the undying scorn of one Henry Adams. A "most unscrupulous tool," Adams wrote of Floyd. "Long known to be dishonest, and long suspected of being a traitor, his course during this winter would, in any other country or time, have cost him his life." Floyd resigned on December 29 when Buchanan refused to abandon Fort Sumter. For Adams, it was good riddance.
In the fractious atmosphere of that secession winter, when legislators were more heavily armed than the home guard, Henry Adams expected little from a U.S. Congress that was "too unwieldy and unreliable" for anything more than "further embroilment." (Thankfully, Congress has evolved in the 150 years since!) Adams saw profuse signs of sectional partisanship, few of effective leadership. "Of all the members of the Thirty-Sixth Congress," observed Adams, "three or four names only can be picked out, of men who grew during this winter."
One of those names was that of William Henry Seward. The senator from New York was coming off a tough year. In May, Seward had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory at the Republican national convention, yielding the presidential nomination to Lincoln on the third ballot. It had taken months for that hurt to go away. Seward nevertheless had pulled himself back into the saddle and campaigned vigorously for the Lincoln-Hamlin ticket. Arriving in Washington at year's end, Seward found a power vacuum. The President was exhausted, counting down the days until his retirement. The President-elect remained in Illinois, where he was besieged by office-seekers and celebrity-stalkers. Someone was needed to hold the government together. Seward stepped up.
As Henry Adams later described it, Seward was "the virtual ruler of this country" during the transition. Needing some eyes and ears in the outgoing administration, Seward found a source: the newly appointed Attorney General, Edwin Stanton, who would later serve in Lincoln's Cabinet as well. The no-nonsense Stanton leaked intelligence to Seward while stiffening Buchanan's stance vis-à-vis the secessionists. Seward also opened a pipeline to the Union's General-in-Chief, Winfield Scott, who was being largely ignored by Buchanan. Seward tasked Scott with ensuring Lincoln's safe arrival in the nation's capital in late February.
On Capitol Hill, Seward worked to keep peace talks going in both chambers. He served on the Senate's Committee of Thirteen, where the so-called Crittenden Compromise was on life support. When the Committee failed to report out a bill for debate, Seward switched his attention to the House. Using Charles Francis Adams as his proxy, he pushed before the Committee of Thirty-Three a series of resolutions, including a proposal for New Mexico's statehood, that effectively drove a wedge between border-state congressmen and their cotton-state colleagues. The aim was to keep the border states in the Union.
Seward saw that there was no single South. But inoculating a "soft" South against the secession virus would require some TLC from Northern moderates. The President-elect was not helping. A move on January 16 to bring the Crittenden Amendments to the Senate floor failed narrowly, 23 to 25, when Lincoln urged fellow Republicans to stay in line. "Mr. Lincoln is perfectly firm," reported Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts. "He says that the Republican party shall not with his assent become 'a mere sucked egg, all shell and no meat, the principle all sucked out.'"
Sumner, a fierce abolitionist, was well satisfied by the impasse. His Bay State constituents, in his judgment, "would see their state sink below the sea and become a sandbank before they would adopt propositions acknowledging property in man." While agreeing with Sumner in principle, Seward disagreed on tactics. Where Sumner was antagonistic, Seward was accommodative. "Each," noted Henry Adams drily, "was created only for exasperating the other."
Adams was partial to Seward. The policy of radicals like Sumner favored "violent destruction of the slave power" either by war or slave insurrection. "The policy of the other wing," as Adams wrote of moderates like Seward, "was to prevent a separation in order to keep the slave power more effectually under control, until its power for harm should be gradually exhausted, and its whole fabric gently and peacefully sapped away." Preserving a peaceful union, seen in this light, was not an abandonment of principle. It was simply another way toward the same end, the ultimate elimination of slavery, without the heavy human cost of a civil war.
Secessionist fever spiked when Buchanan tried to reinforce Fort Sumter. Mississippi delegates convened as the Star of the West steamed toward Charleston. Only 40% had been pledged to immediate separation at the time of the December election. But on January 9, the day that the Star was turned away at the harbor entrance, Mississippi's convention adopted a secession ordinance by a majority of 85%. The next day Florida's convention voted 62-7 to secede. The day after that, Alabama went out, 61-39.
On January 16, all eyes were on Georgia as her convention got under way. Georgia was considered a crucial cornerstone for any new breakaway republic. In fact, Florida's convention had paused to consider a motion to delay its secession vote until after Georgia's, a motion that had fallen short by just five votes. Similarly, a motion before Alabama's convention to wait for a pan-Southern convention in Nashville had also fallen five votes short. So the campaign for regional secession was not without its challenges. Georgia would be a critical test because of strong unionist sentiment there.
Speaking eloquently against disunion was a diminutive ex-congressman, Alexander Stephens [right]. Stephens had served for eight terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, but, dismayed at the increasing polarization in Congress, had decided not to run for re-election in 1858. At the convention, he described the United States as a leaky vessel that could be fixed. The Republicans were not yet a majority party in Washington, he pointed out, and would have to submit to the decades-old tradition of sectional compromise. Before seceding, Georgia might try issuing terms to Congress first. A motion to that effect failed 130-166. After that, the separatist impulse picked up steam. On January 19, Georgia voted 208-89 to secede.
Stephens was one of the 89 nays. Even after the final vote, Stephens held out hope that Georgia's departure from the Union would be only temporary. "Two-thirds at least of those who voted for the Ordinance of Secession," he insisted, "did so, I have but little doubt, with a view to a more certain Re-formation of the Union." For now, Stephens would go along with his fellow Georgians. Within a month he would be sworn in as the Vice-President of the new Confederate States of America.
The idea of a peaceful "re-formation" was gaining currency in many parts of the country. Different regions had different ideas of how to shuffle the deck. Cranky Southerners could be persuaded to stay in the Union, for instance, if those damned New Englanders would just go, just as they had threatened to do during the War of 1812. And take Ohio with you, with all those transplanted New Englanders in the Western Reserve counties. Uppity Midwestern states were free to leave as well. Expatriate the abolitionists, and all would be sweet.
Abolitionists like Sumner were not sorry to see the cotton states go. The United States could be reconfigured with a little northward expansion into lower Canada, another 50-year-old idea. By the same token, the Gulf Coast states, already launching pads for filibustering expeditions to points south, fantasized about consolidating a new Caribbean slave empire. The border states caught in the middle visualized their own slice of North America, a Mississippi Valley confederacy that could annex old states from the lower North and the Upper South as allegiances continued to shift. The admission on January 29 of Kansas as the 34th state was just the latest reminder that the United States remained a protean mass with plastic boundaries and a destiny still manifesting.
As January turned to February, Seward's efforts at damage control seemed to be bearing fruit. The War Department had just received a message from the commander at Fort Sumter, Major Robert Anderson, who was keeping a low profile to avoid hostilities. Anderson was prepared to sit tight for the time being without reinforcements. "I do hope that no attempt will be made by our friends to throw supplies in," the major advised. "Their doing so would do more harm than good." Back in Washington, a bill was introduced in the Senate on February 3 to submit the proposed Crittenden Compromise to a national referendum, which would buy time and possibly produce an outcome binding the nation back together again.
February 4 saw several important developments. In Montgomery, Alabama, delegations from the seceding states (now seven in number, as Louisiana and Texas had just voted) met to discuss forming a new government. But in Virginia, holding elections for its own convention, secessionists found themselves in the minority. Of the 152 delegates chosen, 122 were opposed to immediate secession. Furthermore, Virginia's voters insisted, by a better than 2-to-1 margin, on popular ratification of any later action proposed by the convention. Hitherto, only Texas had allowed a popular vote on secession.
Also on the 4th, delegates from 21 states arrived in Washington for a peace convention, conceived by former President John Tyler of Virginia and heartily endorsed by Seward. This would be one last attempt to resolve sectional differences without disunion. Three weeks of negotiations brought the conferees essentially back to the Crittenden Plan, which would not satisfy Republicans because it did not bar slavery in all new territories. The stalemate frustrated Tyler, who complained that Washington suffered from "an atmosphere where lunacy prevails." Plus ça change.
Seward's reaction to the gridlock? No problem. His job was simply to temporize--to keep a lid on things until his boss could get to town. Still, he had to keep Southern unionists at the table. With the Peace Convention grinding to a halt, Seward chose to revive a constitutional amendment that he had originally offered to the Senate's Committee of Thirteen, an amendment with enough Republican support to stand a chance of passage. Seward handed the amendment off to Ohio congressman Thomas Corwin, who introduced it in the House of Representatives. It read as follows
The amendment avoided the nettlesome issue of what to do about slavery in the territories. But it protected slavery in the existing states. On February 28, the House approved the Corwin Amendment, 133-65. Two days later the Senate did the same, 24-12, thus effectively sending it out to the states for ratification as a new Thirteenth Amendment.
By now Lincoln was safely in Washington. Alerted by General Scott to a possible assassination plot, Lincoln had altered his travel plans, arriving in the capital city on a night train from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to avoid public notice. Seward met Lincoln at his hotel early the next morning for breakfast and was at his side frequently during the next several days, introducing him to the town's movers and shakers. Seward's last major transition task was at hand; that was to help Lincoln fine-tune his inaugural address.
Lincoln, during a long whistle-stop tour from Springfield, Illinois, to Harrisburg, had broken a public silence dating all the way back to the previous year's Republican convention in Chicago. His prepared speeches and off-the-cuff remarks all along his itinerary had offered new clues to his latest thinking on the national crisis. To Seward's dismay, Lincoln had signaled neither a full appreciation of secessionist sentiment in the South nor any aversion to using force to recover federal property. Perusing a draft of Lincoln's inaugural address, Seward found more of the same.
Seward considered Lincoln's tone too bellicose. He spent hours working up a long list of suggested revisions to make the final product more conciliatory toward the South. Lincoln agreed to delete references to the hard-line Chicago platform. A pledge to recover seized forts and arsenals was narrowed to one merely protecting properties still in federal possession. Referring to both the seizures and secession ordinances, the word "treasonable" was replaced with the more palatable "revolutionary." Particularly important to Seward, an endorsement of the Corwin Amendment was added. Lastly, Seward offered some prose to make the ending less confrontational--and more evocative of patriotic sentiments shared across all regions, the oft-quoted "mystic chords."
All during the night before Inauguration Day, visitors walked the streets of Washington simply because there were not enough beds in the city. Dawn unveiled the heavy security that General Scott had put in place to deal with the crush of spectators. As Lincoln took the oath of office below the partially completed Capitol dome, Seward could take some satisfaction in successfully getting the new President to exactly this point. For one thing, Lincoln was not pushing up daisies, an accomplishment in and of itself. And the national government was still in place, as per Seward's mantra during the past several months: "The Government can be saved, if not betrayed before the Fourth of March."
Things were looking up. All was quiet in Charleston Harbor. Secessionists were getting stonewalled in the Upper South. Maryland, Delaware, and Kentucky did not even bother with conventions. Missouri's convention nixed secession, 89-1. Mid-February popular referenda in North Carolina and Tennessee had rejected conventions. The Arkansas convention adjourned after approving an August referendum. In sum, the Confederacy had not grown to a critical mass. Henry Adams saluted Seward's campaign as "a fight which might go down to history as one of the wonders of statesmanship."
Unfortunately, Lincoln's first full day on the job began with a sudden case of manure-meeting-fan. Word came from Fort Sumter that "provisions would be exhausted" before any expedition could bring relief. The new President had just promised the day before to "hold, occupy and possess." What now? Was there a way to avoid war on the one hand, humiliation on the other?