Sign up for our e-newsletter:

Abraham Lincoln Visiting the House of Representatives

Isaac Newton Arnold

George Ashmun

Edward D. Baker

Orville H. Browning

James Harlan

John B. Henderson

William Kellogg

J A. McDougall

Charles Sumner

Lyman Trumbull

Elihu B. Washburne

Members of Congress

"The gossip around the Capitol in Washington among Senators and Representatives is a very poor gauge of public sentiment in the country toward a President," observed Illinois politician Shelby M. Cullom. "I was in Washington a few months before the second nomination. I talked with numerous Representatives and Senators, and it really seemed to me as if there was hardly any one in favor the renomination of Mr. Lincoln. I felt much discouraged over the circumstance."1

Cullom paid a call at the White House and told the President:"I had been visiting in Washington, and spent considerable time around Congress, talking with members and senators, and it seemed to me that scarcely any of the strong men were in favor of the President. I was greatly impressed and concerned on account of the number of adverse criticisms I had heard. "I asked him, "Mr. Lincoln, do you allow anybody to talk to you about yourself?' He said, "Certainly; sit down.' I told him that I wanted to talk with him a little about what I had seen and heard around Congress since coming here, and said that it seemed to me that most of the strong men were against him. He replied, with a smile, 'It is not quite so bad as that,' and with that he took up a copy of the Congressional Directory,' with the remark that there were many congressmen on his side, and turning to the list of senators and representatives he went over it for my benefit. I saw that nearly every name was marked, and as he went down the list he commented on each, as, for instance: 'This man is for me'; 'The best friend I have'; 'He's not for me now, but I can win him over,' and so on. I found that he knew almost positively how every man stood, and the great majority of them were for him."2

It was a continuing process. "I must do something for Grimes. I have tried hard to please him from the start, but he complains, and I must satisfy him," President Lincoln once said of Iowa Senator James W. Grimes.3 Mr. Lincoln tried to reach such men, but was not always rewarded by reciprocal loyalty. On election night in 1864 Mr. Lincoln discussed some of his congressional opponents while awaiting election returns. He said that "my greatest disappointment of all has been with Grimes. Before I came here, I certainly expected to rely upon Grimes more than any other one man in the Senate. I like him very much. He is a great strong fellow. He is a valuable friend, a dangerous enemy. He carried too many guns not [to] be respected in any point of view. But he got wrong against me, I do not know how, and has always been cool and almost hostile to me. I am glad he has always been the friend of the Navy and generally of the Administration."4

Mr. Lincoln understood the mentality members of Congress from his one term there in 1847-1849. Several of those with whom he had served from Illinois played a continuing role in his life. Orlando Ficklin became a strong Democratic supporter of Senator Stephen A. Douglas. So did William A. Richardson, who championed Douglas' interests in the 1860 presidential campaign and later succeeded Orville Browning in 1863 in the old Douglas Senate seat. John A. McClernand was also a Democrat but he became a strong War Democrat who served as a Union General. Chicago's John Wentworth, another Democrat, joined the Republican Party and served as the city mayor.

The range of Mr. Lincoln's relations with the Senate was indicated by three old colleagues from the Illinois State Legislature - Edward Baker, Orville Browning and Lyman Trumbull. Baker was virtually a member of the Lincoln family; the Lincolns' second son had been named for him. Browning was a longtime political ally whose relationship dated back two and a half decades. Although personally friendly with the President and a frequent White House visitor, Browning was more conservative than the President on the issue of emancipation.

Trumbull, on the other hand was more radical than the President on Emancipation and reconstruction issues. Trumbull was touted by newspapers as the likely voice of the President in the Senate. He had been close to Mr. Lincoln in the weeks after his presidential election, but then felt alienated by the President's appointments. Trumbull lost his fight to keep William H. Seward and Simon Cameron out of the Cabinet and his fight to bring Norman B. Judd in. It did not help that his wife and Mrs. Lincoln, once close friends, had become bitter enemies. His presence at the White House would not have been as welcome as that of Browning, with whom Mrs. Lincoln occasionally went for a ride. Trumbull quickly grew petulant, saying in mid-March 1861 that "he would not step inside the White House again during Mr. Lincoln's four years, unless he changed his course."5

Senator Baker's death in the Battle of Ball's Bluff in October 1861 was a personal and political blow to Mr. Lincoln. Baker was a charismatic leader on and off the battlefield and would have been a major presidential ally in the Senate. Contemporary biographer Isaac Arnold wrote that by the time the Senate convened for the regular December 1861 session of Congress, "three of Lincoln's old associates at the bar in Illinois (if Baker had been alive, there would have been four), occupied seats in the Senate: Trumbull and Browning from Illinois, and [James A.] McDougall from California. There was something very beautiful and touching in the attachment and fidelity of these his old Illinois comrades to Lincoln. They had all been pioneers, frontiersmen, circuit-riders together. They were never so happy as when talking over old times, and recalling the rough experiences of their early lives. Had they met at Washington in calm and peaceful weather, on sunny days, they would have kept up their party differences as they did at home, but coming together in the midst of the fierce storms of civil war, and in the hour of supreme peril, they stood together like a band of brothers. Not one of them would see an old comrade in difficulty or danger, and not help him out."6

McDougall was most distant from Mr. Lincoln - politically and geographically. He was a Democrat and former attorney general of both Illinois and California. He frequently battled Secretary of State William H. Seward although he generally supported the war. President Lincoln learned that virtually no Senator was completely beyond influence. Noah Brooks wrote: "Of the relations of a senator to him he said, 'I think that Senator ___'s manner is more cordial to me than before.' The truth was that the senator had been looking for a sign of cordiality from his superior, but the President had reversed their relative positions."7 McDougall, as a Democrat, needed more work of the Illinois-based trio - but even he was not beyond the President's attempt at persuasion on issues such as compensated emancipation. In March 1862, President Lincoln wrote the California Senator a detailed letter:
As to the expensiveness of the plan of gradual emancipation with compensation, proposed in the late Message, please allow me one or two brief suggestions.
Less than one half-day's cost of this war would pay for all the slaves in Delaware at four hundred dollars per head:


Thus, all the slaves in Delaware,by the Census of 1860, are1798
 400
 _________
Cost of the slaves,$ 719,200.
One day's cost of the war$ 2,000,00.
 
Again, less than eighty seven days cost of this war would, at the same price, pay for all in Delaware, Maryland, District of Columbia, Kentucky, and Missouri.
Thus, slaves in Delaware1798
" " Maryland87,188
" " Dis. of Col.3,181
" " Kentucky225,490
" " Missouri114,965
 ________
 432,622
 400
 
Cost of the slaves$173,048,800
Eightyseven days' cost of the war$174,000,000


Do you doubt that taking the initiatory steps on the part of those states and this District, would shorten the war more than eight-seven days, and thus be an actual saving of expenses?
A word as to the time and manner of incurring the expence. Suppose, for instance, a State devises and adopts a system by which the institution absolutely ceases therein by a named day - say January 1st. 1882. Then, let the sum to be paid to such state by the United States, be ascertained by taking from the Census of 1860, the number of slaves within the state, and multiplying that number by four hundred - the United States to pay such sum to the state in twenty equal annual installments, in six per cent. bonds of the United States.
The sum thus given, as to time and manner, I think would not be half as onerous, as would be an equal sum, raised now, for the indefinite prossecution of the war; but of this you can judge as well as I.
I inclose a Census-table for your convenience.8

Frequently, the old Illinois comrades did not act very comradely. Browning began the war as comparatively radical on the slavery question but became more conservative with time. Trumbull was a hardliner on the South, opposing any compromise on Slavery, and a strong proponent of emancipation. Baker was tough on the South but more inclined to pragmatic legislation. In March 1861, Trumbull found an excuse to attack Baker in a Senate debate. Trumbull biographer Ralph Roske wrote: "The occasion for the attack was the Oregonian's public pronouncement favoring a constitutional amendment permitting perpetual slavery in New Mexico. Baker, a polished orator, refused to back down. The two influential Republican senators treated the country to a war of words on the Senate floor. Piqued by the Oregonian's burgeoning influence with Lincoln, who was Baker's old personal friend, Trumbull had seized the first pretext to lash out at him."9

One of the recurring causes for differences with members of the Senate was patronage. President Lincoln deliberately sought their advice and counsel but could not honor all their requests. While still a member of the House of Representatives, Ohio Senator John Sherman called on the President. He "seemed to be in excellent humor. I proceeded to complain of some of his appointments in Ohio and as I progressed the expression of his face changed to one of extreme sadness. He did not say a word, but sank in his chair, placing his feet upon the table, and looking, as I thought, the picture of despair. I proceeded with my complaint until I began mentally to reproach myself for bothering the President of the United States with so unimportant a matter as the choice of persons to fill local offices in Ohio, when the whole country was in the throes of revolution. Finally I told him I felt ashamed to disturb him with such matters and would not bother him again with them. His face brightened, he sat up in his chair and his whole manner changed, until finally he almost embraced me."10

Historian Fawn M. Brodie noted that although President Lincoln had a rough relationship with the radical Republicans in Congress in 1864 when they "were opposing his reconstruction policies as too hurried and too lenient...these same men were also fighting passionately to carry through Congress the legislation he most wanted - a Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery." Radical Senator Zachariah Chandler wrote Lyman Trumbull that President Lincoln "is stubborn as a mule when he gets his back up & it is up now on the proclamation Seward and Weed are shaky but this peculiar trait of stubbornness (which annoyed us so much 18 months ago) is now our Salvation."11

"At every turn," wrote historian David Donald, the "Radicals harassed the President. They meddled with military affairs and prolonged the war. They interfered with civilian administration and tried to wreck the Cabinet. They forced through brutal measures of confiscation which retarded the progress of pacification." However, wrote Donald, "To picture Lincoln at swords' points with the Radical leaders of his own party...is an error." President Lincoln "tried to win their support. He worked with these men politically, and he got along with most of them personally."12

Many of these Senators, however, did not understand the nature of his responsibilities. Mr. Lincoln engaged in this exchange with Michigan's Chandler:
Senator Chandler: "The important point [in the bill] is that one prohibiting slavery in the reconstructed States."
President Lincoln: 'This is the very point on which I doubt the authority of Congress to act."
Chandler: 'It is no more than you have done yourself!"
President Lincoln: "I conceive that I may in an emergency do things on military grounds which cannot be done constitutionally by Congress."13

When Maine Senator Lot Morrill visited President Lincoln in the White House, Mr. Lincoln jokingly asked him: "Well Governor, who has been abusing me in the Senate today? Morrill replied: Mr. President I hope not any of us abuse you knowingly & wilfully." Mr. Lincoln replied in turn: O well, I don't mean that - personally you are all very kind - but I know we don't all agree as to what this administration should do, and how it ought to be done."14

As with Senators, Mr. Lincoln had to concern himself with patronage and promotion requests from members of Congress. For this, if no other reason, Representatives could hardly turn their backs on the President. But members of Congress sometimes put political interest above the public interest. In responding to one request for an appointment as an Indian Agent, President Lincoln told the requesting Congressman: "I don't know this man that you recommend so highly, and I have no means of finding out, except by inquiring of some one, and I know of no more proper persons to consult in such matters than those whom the people have selected to look after their interests in Congress. Now I will tell you what I will do. If you will sit down at the table, and write out what you have told me about this man, and recommend his appointment, and sign your name to it, I will appoint hm, and if your man proves unworthy I will hold you responsible."15 There was no memo written and no appointment made because President Lincoln consistently insisted on holding member of Congress responsible for their questionable requests.

Mr. Lincoln was very careful to cultivate whatever gratitude he could whenever patronage was concerned. In that quest, he did not always have the cooperation of Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, who had his own agenda. California journalist Noah Brooks wrote in March 1863 about the distance to which President Lincoln went to preserve political peace:
When I last alluded to the unpleasant state of things which is likely to result in some radical changes in official positions in the above named institutions, the papers in the case and the new slate of Secretary Chase had been submitted to the President for his review. Since that [time] a very unexpected change of programme has occurred...The California delegation, seeing that nothing more could be done than to submit to the somewhat arbitrary ruling of Chase in the premises, left Washington and were stopping in New York for a few days before leaving for California, when the President discovered what had occurred. He was at once greatly exercised at what he considered to be an unfair and ungenerous treatment of the California Congressmen by the Secretary, and he directed that they be recalled to the Capital, if possible, informing them that their preferences in the matter should be regarded. [Congressman Frederick F.]Low and [Congressman Aaron A.] Sargent returned to Washington a day or two since, [Congressman Timothy G.] Phelps having sailed for California in the meantime. The President expressed his regret at the hasty and somewhat arbitrary action which had deprived them of any opportunity of having a voice in the selection of the new appointees for the Federal positions to be made vacant by dismissal, and then asked them to submit names for Executive action....16

Still, it could be difficult to find Lincoln loyalists in Congress. Writing about the political condition in Washington in the late spring of 1863, biographer Carl Sandburg wrote: "One of the three Republican Congressmen - three and no more - who defended Lincoln on the floor of the House was Albert G. Riddle of Ohio. For weeks the denunciations of the President by his own party men had flowed on and one, mixed with clamor and sniping criticism, Riddle interposing that 'the just limit of manly debate' had been 'brutally outraged.'" While challenging his colleagues to present their case against the President openly, Riddle himself called Mr. Lincoln "an unimpassioned, cool, shrewd, sagacious, far-seeing man, with a capacity to form his own judgments, and a will to execute them; and he possesses an integrity, pure and simple as the white rays of light that play about the throne."17

Like Senators, Congressmen wanted information as well as jobs. Sometimes, he gave them information. Sometimes he didn't. Treasury Department official Chauncey Depew related this story about how the President evaded issues he did not want to discuss: "John Ganson of Buffalo, was the leader of the bar in western New York. Though elected to the House of Representatives as a Democrat, he supported the war measures of the administration. He was a gentleman of the old school, of great dignity, and always immaculately dressed. He was totally bald and his face also devoid of hair. It was a gloomy period of the war and the reports from the front very discouraging. Congressman [John] Ganson felt it his duty to see the president about the state of the country. He made a formal call and said to Mr. Lincoln: 'Though I am a Democrat, I imperil my political future by supporting your war measures. I can understand that secrecy may be necessary in military operations, but I think I am entitled to know the exact conditions, good or bad, at the front.' Mr. Lincoln looked at him earnestly for a minute and then said: 'Ganson, how clean you shave!' That ended the interview."18

Congressmen were an important source of political and military information for the President. After the Battle of Fredericksburg, General Herman Haupt returned to Washington, where he told his friend and fellow Pennsylvanian, Congressman John Covode, about the state of the Union army in Virginia. Haupt, who was in charge of the Army's railroad operations, had gone to Washington via train and steamboat. There he consulted with Covode, who insisted on taking General Haupt to White House. Haupt reported:
The President was much interested in my report, and asked me to walk with him to General Halleck's quarters...When we arrived he requested Covode and the others present to step into the next room, as he desired to have a private conference, and then asked me to repeat the substance of my report to him, which I did.
On its conclusion, the President asked General Halleck to telegraph orders to General Burnside to withdraw his army to the north side of the river. General Halleck rose and paced the floor for some time, and then stopped, facing the President, and said decidedly: 'I will do no such thing. If we were personally present and knew the exact situation, we might assume such responsibility. If such orders are issued, you must issue them yourself. I hold that a General in command of an army in the field is the best judge of existing conditions.'
The President made no reply, but seemed much troubled. I then remarked that I did not consider the situation to be as critical as the President imagined, and proceeded to describe more in detail the topographical configuration....
When I finished, the President sighed and said: 'What you say gives me a great many grains of comfort.'19

Congressional relations with President Lincoln were also affected by the President's popularity and the success of Union armies in the field. Pennsylvania Congressman William D. Kelley won his reelection campaign in 1862 but many of Kelly's Republican colleagues did not. "Kelley, you know how sincerely I congratulate you," said President Lincoln when they next met. "Come, sit down and tell me how it is that you, for whose election nobody seemed to hope, are returned with a good majority at your back, while so many of our friends, about whom there was no doubt, have been badly beaten."

Kelley later wrote that he told President Lincoln "that I would have been beaten had the election occurred six months earlier. I said that my triumph was due to my loyalty to him and his administration, coupled with my known independence of both in demanding the substitution of a fighting general for McClellan. Without pausing for a reply, I continued: It is the desire to secure this change that has brought me here at such an early hour this morning. I am, as you know, not a soldier, and have rendered no military service, yet it happens that as one of a squad of emergency men, I was in charge of the spare guns and sick horses of a battery of regular artillery in a camp between Hagerstown and Sharpsburg, and heard the fire of musketry that opened the battle of Antietam in the gray dawn of the morning...."

Kelley's war story was interrupted by the entry of fellow Pennsylvania Congressman Edward McPherson, who had not been as fortunate in the 1862 elections. McPherson explained his loss in terms which Kelley described as "specious reasons." Kelley grew impatient and said, "Mr. President, my colleague is not treating you frankly: his friends hold you responsible for his defeat." Mr. Lincoln asked McPherson to explain:: "Well, Mr. President...I will tell you frankly what our friends say. They charge the defeat to the general tardiness in military movements, which result, as they believe, from McClellan's unfitness for command. The enforcement of the draft occurred during the campaign, and course our political enemies made a great deal of capital out of it; but, in my judgment, not enough to change the complexion of the district. McPherson ascribed defeat to " the persistent refusal of McClellan and his engineers to protect our borders from invasion..."

McPherson then was interrupted by the arrival of Congressman J. K. Moorhead, another Pennsylvania Republican. When the President asked how he had survived the Democratic tide, Moorhead responded: "I am sorry to say it was not your fault that we were not all beaten;' Moorhead continued: "Mr. President, I came as far as Harrisburg yesterday, and passed the evening with a number of the best and most influential men of our State, including some of those who have been your most earnest supporters, and they charged me to tell you that when one of them said, 'he would be glad to hear some morning that you had been found hanging from the post of a lamp at the door of the White House,' others approved the expression."20

These were Mr. Lincoln's friends and supporters, but he was not affronted. When the President admitted the possibility of such an occurrence, Kelley broke in and commanded Mr. Lincoln never again to admit such an eventuality. Kelley said Mr. Lincoln "had but to assert his position by showing himself master of the military department, as he did of all other departments of the administration, to command a following in the Northern States such as even Andrew Jackson had never had; that he enjoyed a greater share of the personal affection of his fellow-citizens than any public man but Washington had done.." The other two congressmen agreed. They then discussed the potential successors to [George B.] McClellan. Within days, McClellan had been replaced by Ambrose Burnside as commander of the Army of the Potomac.21

Even those members of the House who were persistent critics - like Pennsylvania's Thaddeus Stevens - needed and sometimes praised the President's benevolence. House Speaker Schuyler Colfax recalled that Stevens "used to tell, with great gusto, this story of his own personal experience. Mr. Stevens had gone with an old lady from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania (his district), to the White House, to ask the pardon of her son, condemned to die for sleeping on his post. The President suddenly turned upon his cynical Pennsylvania friend, whom he knew had so often assailed him for excessive lenity, and said, 'Now, Thad, what would you do in this case if you happened to be President?' Mr. Stevens knew how many hundreds of his constituents were waiting breathlessly to hear the result of that old woman's pilgrimage to Washington. Of course, Congressmen who desired to be re-elected liked to carry out the desires of their constituents. Stevens did not relish the President's home-thrust, but replied that, as he knew of the extenuating circumstances, he would certainly pardon him. 'Well, then,' said Mr. Lincoln, after a moment's writing in silence, 'here, madam, is your son's pardon.' Her gratitude filled her heart to overflowing, and it seemed to her as though her son had been snatched from the gateway of the grave. She could only thank the President with her tears as she passed out, but when she and Mr. Stevens had reached the outer door of the White House she burst out, excitedly, 'I knew it was a lie! I knew it was a lie!' 'What do you mean' asked her astonished companion. 'Why, when I left my country home in old Lancaster yesterday, the neighbors told me that I would find that Mr. Lincoln was an ugly man, when he is really the handsomest man I ever saw in my life.' And certainly, when sympathy and mercy lightened up those rugged features, many a wife and mother pleading for his intervention had reason to think him handsome indeed."22

Since complaints and demands were the customary currency of congressional visits, the smart congressmen - and constituents - brought President Lincoln something more palatable than trouble. New York Congressman Orlando Kellogg had served with Congressman Lincoln from 1847 to 1849 and returned to Congress in 1861. One day he went to the White House one day to see the President and was denied access because a Cabinet meeting was in session. He told the door-keeper: "You man, you go in and tell the President that Orlando Kellogg is at the door, and wants to tell him the story of the stuttering justice." When the door-keeper demurred, Kellogg insisted. The door-keeper went into the President's office and returned with an order to take Congressman Kellogg into the Cabinet session. "Gentlemen, said President Lincoln, "this is my old friend, Orlando Kellogg, and he wants to tell us the story of the stuttering justice. Let us lay all business aside, for it is a good story."23

Congressman Kellogg knew how to please Mr. Lincoln. He visited the President in early 1863, accompanied by a New York enlisted man. The President greeted him: "I am glad to see that you know the kind of company to keep. I hardly feel respectable these days if I haven't a soldier for a companion. Citizen's dress doesn't amount to much nowadays." As they left, Mr. Lincoln said to Kellogg: "I have enjoyed your call and this revival of our experiences in that Congress. We thought then that our responsibilities were considerable, but compare them with what confronts us now!" To the enlisted man, the President said: "I trust you will survive the war and see a reunited country and be happy in the fact that you did your part to make it so."24

 

Footnotes

  1. Shelby M. Cullom, Fifty Years of Public Service, p. 98.
  2. Nathan William MacChesney, editor, Shelby M. Cullom, Abraham Lincoln: The Tribute of a Century, 1808-1909, “Lincoln and His Relations with Congress”, p. 500-501 (In this account, he places the time after his own election to Congress in the fall of 1864–a time period which seems less likely than early 1864.).
  3. Don E. and Virginia Fehrenbacher, editor, Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, p. 320 (Richard C. McCormick in New York Post, May 3, 1865).
  4. Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner Ettlinger, editor, Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay, p. 245 (November 8, 1864).
  5. Ralph J. Roske, His Own Counsel: The Life and Times of Lyman Trumbull, p. 68.
  6. Isaac N. Arnold, The Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 240-241.
  7. Michael Burlingame, editor, Noah Brooks, Lincoln Observed: The Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks, p. xxx (from Noah Brooks, “Personal Recollections of Abraham Lincoln” first published in The Harper’s Monthly Magazine, May 1865).
  8. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume V, p. 160-61 (Letter to James A. McDougall, March 14, 1862).
  9. Ralph J. Roske, His Own Counsel: The Life and Times of Lyman Trumbull, p. 78.
  10. Don Seitz, Lincoln the Politician, p. 256 (from John Sherman, Recollections).
  11. Fawn M. Brodie, Thaddeus Stevens: Scourge of the South, p. 200-201.
  12. David Donald, Lincoln Reconsidered, p. 108-109, 126, 127.
  13. Allan Nevins, The Statesmanship of the Civil War, p. 135.
  14. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, p. 238.
  15. Francis Fisher Browne, The Every-day Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 491.
  16. Michael Burlingame, editor, Noah Brooks, Lincoln Observed: The Civil War Dispatches of Noah BrooksLincoln Observed: The Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks, p. 26-27 (April 17, 1863).
  17. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Volume II, p. 197-198.
  18. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 503 (from Chauncey M. Depew, My Memories of Eighty Years).
  19. Curt Anders, Henry Halleck’s War, p. 344 (ORD, 24 Series I, XVII, Part I, p. 466).
  20. Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 272-276 (William D. Kelley).
  21. Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 277-279 (William D. Kelley).
  22. Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 340-341 (Schuyler Colfax).
  23. Francis Fisher Browne, The Every-day Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 494-495.
  24. Don E. and Virginia Fehrenbacher, editor, Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, p. 125 (John L. Cunningham).