Saturday, April 10, 2021

President Lincoln’s Office: Favors & Requests

President (13 months) Abraham Lincoln, photographed in Washington D.C. by Mathew Brady, April 6, 1861.

Jobs and promotions were a frequent topic of conversation. A difficult early case was presented in March 1861 by fiery Kentucky politician Cassius M. Clay, who later recalled how protested his appointment as American Minister to Spain and ended up Minister to Russia: “I at once went on to Washington and told President Lincoln that I would not go to an old effete (degenerate) government like Spain. He seemed very reticent (restrained) but he asked me what office I would have. I said, since the Cabinet was full, I would go to England or France as Minister. He said Seward had promised those posts to Charles Francis Adams and William L. Dayton. ‘Then,’ said I, taking, my hat, ‘I will go home.’ Lincoln them said: ‘Clay, don’t go home; I will consider the matter.'” Clay later talked to Senator Edward Baker, who asked if he would accept the Russian post. Clay told Baker his political services were being maligned and rejected the offer, but Baker persisted: “You have made great sacrifices, but does not patriotism require still more? Lincoln thinks your return home would seriously injure the party and the country: and so do I.” When Clay reluctantly agreed, Baker insisted they immediately visit Lincoln in his office.

“He was alone and evidently awaiting us. He was quite sad and thoughtful. With his head bent down in silence, he awaited Baker’s report, who, without sitting down, said, Lincoln, our friend Clay will accept the Russian mission.’ Lincoln then rose up, and advancing rapidly toward me, firmly took my hand and said: ‘Clay, you have relieved me from great embarrassment,'” Clay wrote. The President’s unaffected manner quickly disarmed most visitors. One member of an 1863 Kentucky delegation reported: “Lincoln shook us cordially by the hand and received us in so natural and unostentatious (attempt to impress others) manner, and with that kind of unaffected and plain manner, and native urbanity, as to dispel all embarrassment, and cause us to feel entirely easy.” 

William O. Stoddard (1835-1925)
Presidential assistant Secretary William O. Stoddard [1] wrote that “it is no fault of Abraham Lincoln that [office-seekers] did not kill him, for he listened to them with a degree of patience and good temper truly astonishing. At times, however, even his equanimity (mental or emotional stability or composure, especially under tension or strain) gave way, and more than one public man finally lost the President’s goodwill by his pertinacity (the quality of being persistence) in demanding provision for his personal satellites.” Stoddard noted that Lincoln saw patronage, though important, often boomeranged on the giver. He told Stoddard that successful patronage patrons in Congress were digging their political graves: “You see, every man thinks he deserves a better office than the one he gets and hates his ‘big man’ for not securing it, while for every man appointed there are five envious men unappointed, who never forgive him for their want of luck. So there are half a dozen enemies for each success.” 

John M. Hay (1838–1905)
Aide John Hay [2], a private secretary, and assistant to Abraham Lincoln wrote about office seekers: “There were few who had not a story worth listening to if there were time and opportunity. But the numbers were so great, the competition was so keen that they ceased for the moment to be regarded as individuals, drowned as they were in the general sea of solicitation. 

Few of them received office; when, after weeks of waiting one of them got access to the President, he was received with kindness by a tall, melancholy-looking man sitting at a desk with his back to a window which opened upon a fair view of the Potomac, who heard his story with gentle patience, took his papers and referred them to one of the departments, and that was all; the fatal pigeonholes devoured them. As time wore on and the offices were filled, the throng of eager aspirants diminished and faded away.”

“Hard to refuse were the appeals that came from widowed mothers, pleading that they depended on a son in the army for their livelihood,” wrote historian William C. Davis. "‘Discharge this boy,’ or ‘Let this woman have her boy,’ Lincoln wrote time after time on such appeals, frequently overruling the Secretary of War, Edwin McMasters Stanton. Harder still to resist were the pleas that came from women whose husbands had been killed in the war, and who may have lost one or two sons as well, now begging for their last one to be sent home to them. ‘Let it be done,’ the president would order." Indeed, by 1863, something of a myth had already grown up about widowed mothers’ requests and how the president responded to them; in the later years of the war, it is quite probable that some of the widows’ pleas were from women whose husbands were very much alive.

Stoddard, wrote that Lincoln’s “manner with the softer sex was kind and courteous, and he had a great deal of that chivalrous deference for women which is the invariable characteristic of a strong and manly nature, but here his disposition to yield special privileges terminated. In his eyes, a lady who called upon him in the prosecution of business, public or private was simply 'a lady in business,' and she was little if anything more. Indeed, it seemed an unpleasant and irksome thing to him to have a lady present a petition for any favor when the same duty could as well have been performed by a man; and if there was anything contrary to propriety or policy in the matter presented, or if the petitioner presumed upon her feminine prerogative to press too far upon his good-nature, she was very likely to receive an answer in which there was far more of truth and justice than flattery.”

Writing of women who sought reprieves for sons or husbands sentenced to death for falling asleep on sentry, Stoddard wrote that Lincoln was invariably solicitous and merciful: “I do not think that these petitioners gained their cases much quicker simply because they were women, but they had less trouble in securing an audience, and Lincoln was always glad enough to find a good reason for exercising the pardoning power. The only men whom he seemed to have very little sympathy for were the spies, and such deserters from our ranks as were afterward taken with arms in their hands fighting their old comrades. Such men got their hanging, or whatever it was, with very little interference on the part of the President, as a general thing.” On the other hand, wrote Stoddard, the President was particularly solicitous to those women who worked as nurses to wounded soldiers: “To such women, Lincoln’s whole heart opened at once, come when and why they would.”

Industrialist Andrew Carnegie often told a story related to him by Congressman Daniel J. Morrell of Pennsylvania. It concerned a young constituent who left the army in winter encampment to return home to supported his widowed mother, intending to return to the army in the spring. The soldier was arrested and sentenced to be shot. His mother asked Congressman Morrell to take her to the White House to beg for her son’s life. Morell did so, leaving the woman in the reception room while he went to President Lincoln’s office and explained the situation. “Now, Dan, that is not kind of you. You know I ought not to see her, but the son did give all his earnings to his mother, and he was a good boy?” asked Lincoln. “Yes, President, I am sure he did and that he is a good boy and ought not to be shot,” Morrell replied. The woman was duly brought into the President’s office and told her her story. After observing that the young man went home to 'save his mother,' Lincoln said to her, “I do not think it would do him any good to shoot him, do you?” He then wrote out a note instructing the soldier to be sent to his regiment at the front and instructed Congressman Morrell not to tell Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton of his action.

According to historian Davis, “Every day that he held open office hours, the line of callers and petitioners coursed through the hallways of the White House, sometimes down to the front door itself, and in every line, there were soldiers, officers and enlisted men alike. Though neither he nor his secretaries ever had the time or inclination to prepare a tally, it is certain that Lincoln must have given brief private interviews to at least two thousand soldiers during the war, and probably substantially more.” The President insisted that common soldiers be treated with the same courtesy as their superiors. But he himself sometimes turned their pleas into humor, noted Davis. “When a soldier who had lost a limb in the war called to ask for a job in the capital, Lincoln asked to see his discharge papers and, told there were none, teased the fellow: ‘What, no papers, no credentials, nothing to show how you lost your leg? How am I to know that you lost it in battle, or did not lose it by a trap after getting into somebody’s orchard?'”

A young woman from Pennsylvania married her soldier boyfriend while he was a patient at a Washington army hospital and then decided to seek a furlough for him from Lincoln. A friend related the story of Mrs. Anna McGee:

“We waited just a few moments when we entered the hallway, for we were told that Lincoln was busy. As I remember there were not a great many people waiting there to see him. Possibly the heat of the day had kept them away. I did not speculate upon that at the time, nor did my friend. Now that we had made the long drive and actually gotten near our goal, Mrs. McGee’s nervousness had increased, and she was a little overawed by her own audacity. The attendant soon told us that the President was disengaged and would see us now.

He showed us into the office where Lincoln was seated behind his desk. Rising as we came in at the door, the President came forward to shake hands with us. I had, of course, seen him before, for I had lived in Washington during most of the time he had been in the White House. But my friend had never, and I think his height overawed her—that and the fact he was President. He was so very plain, though you could approach him without any difficulty whatever. His face was dark and serious as he invited us to be seated, returned to his desk, then asked what he could do for us.

Mrs. McGee was very nervous when she began her story of running away from school to see her John. But she saw that little twinkle that came into the President’s eye, she quickened her story, telling finally of the marriage and of the furlough from active campaigning which she desired for her husband."

I saw the twinkle in the President’s eyes deepening, and when she got to the story of how she and John were afraid of being separated if it was found out that they were not brother and sister and had, therefore, determined to marry, Lincoln laughed out loud.

He started to tease her, asking her if she thought it a nice thing to run away from people who were caring for her and pretending to scold her for doing it. His attitude was so like that of any fatherly man that she was entirely at her ease and answered him quite pertly. And he, still smiling, said he supposed it was no more than could be expected of young people.

Asking her husband’s full name and the number of his regiment, he wrote them down upon a piece of paper on his desk and said he would see what could be done about the desired furlough.

He asked if we would call again upon a certain day about a week later, and this, of course, we gladly agreed to do. He was a man of few words, not at all lavish in his talk but he smiled as he bade us good-day, and rose and walked with us to the door of the office. The heavy, serious look seemed to have lifted from his face, and he had proved to us that he could laugh and make a joke as well as the next.

When the two women returned to pick up the furlough, Lincoln told Mrs. McGee: “I am very glad that it was in my power to make you happy." Doorkeeper Thomas Pendel told the story of another female supplicant:

"She was well advanced in years and was accompanied by her little daughter. She took a seat and waited for the President until he had finished with the other visitors. She then came forward with her daughter. She was tidy and neat in her person, and very modest in manner. She said, ‘President, my husband is down sick at the hospital in Fredericksburg, and I would like to have him discharged, for years have my husband and two sons, all three, in the army, and I need the help of one of them, either one of my sons or my husband’. The President said, ‘You make an affidavit to that effect and bring it back to me.’ In the course of a day or so she returned again, and the president so arranged it that she could go down and take the order for the husband’s or son’s discharge. She had been gone probably three weeks when one day she returned to the White House. When she came to speak to the President her voice was full of sorrow, and she was nearly crying as she said, ‘Mr. President, when I got down there he was dead. Now yers have two sons yet. I want to see if yer won’t discharge one to help me get along, and yers can have the other one’. Then the President said to her as he had done before: ‘You make an affidavit to that effect and bring it to me. She did so and returned with the affidavit to the President. After he had arranged it so that she was to get one of her sons back, she stepped up to him and said, ‘Mr. President, may God bless you, and may you live many long years. After she had left the room and there was nobody in the office with the President but me, he said to me, looking up into my face, ‘I believe that old woman is honest ”

Wisdom was not a prerequisite to seeking the President’s help. William Stoddard related another story of a woman from Michigan who needed to raise cash to pay her mortgage so she journeyed with her four children to Washington to solicit the President’s help. Lincoln was annoyed but not unmoved. “He did not say much, only muttering ‘children and fools, you know,’ but put his name on a subscription paper for a moderate sum. The subscription so started rapidly swelled to the desired amount, and the poor woman was ticketed homeward over the Government routes, puzzled and yet satisfied. She had spent more money, going and coming, than the whole of her debt twice over.” 

Among those hapless souls who sought the President’s assistance were those who sought to minister to the souls of soldiers: “While many worthy and truly pious men were anxious to serve in that capacity, such men did not always seem able to secure the necessary political endorsement and support, while an endless train of broken down ‘reverends,’ long since out of the ministry for incompetency or other cause, men who could not induce any respectable church to place itself under their charge, crowded forward, clamorous to be entrusted with the spiritual interests of the grandest of all congregations—men going out to die,” observed Stoddard. They so discouraged President Lincoln that he said “I do believe that our army chaplains, take them as a class, are the very worst men we have in the service.” One day, a clergyman came to the White House to complain to the President about the number of battles that were being fought on Sunday. “I think you had better consult with the Confederate commanders a little,” responded Lincoln. 

Other supplicants had even less luck. Maunsell B. Field, an assistant secretary of the Treasury, told about a Treasury Department clerk who decided to go to the President directly with a request for a clerkship for his brother. He was very much angered by the way that Lincoln handled the interview.

Lincoln received him kindly and listened to his request. ‘Why don’t you go directly to the Secretaries?’ he asked. ‘I have been to them all, and failed with all,’ was the answer. ‘Hasn’t your brother sufficiently recovered his health to enable him to return to the Army?’ inquired the President. ‘No sir, he has not,’ was the reply. ‘Let me see,’ continued Lincoln, ‘I believe that you yourself are a clerk in one of the Departments—which one is it? ‘The Treasury Department, sir.’ ‘I thought so. Has your brother as good clerical capacity as you possess?’ ‘Yes, sir.’ ‘I think that I have somewhere met your father. Doesn’t he hold an office in Washington?’ ‘Yes, sir; he is chief of the _______ bureau in the War Department.’ ‘Oh, yes; I now recollect him perfectly well. Has your brother good references as to character?’ ‘Yes, sir; the very best.’ ‘Is there any other of your family hold office the Government?’ ‘Yes, sir; I have a younger brother in the Interior Department.’ ‘Well, then, all I have to say to you, Mr. ________, is that there are too many hogs and too little fodder.’ 

On February 6, 1864, Orville H. Browning, a longtime friend of Lincoln, came in search of a favor—as he often did and often received. This time, he was distinctly unsuccessful, as he related in his diary that night:

“At night went to see the President on behalf of Mrs. Fitz, a loyal widow of Mississippi owning a cotton plantation there, and from whom the U.S. Army had taken all her slaves amounting to 47, and 10,000 bushels of corn—She is now a refugee in St Louis, reduced to indigence. She asks no compensation for her slaves, but wishes the government to give her a sufficient number of negroes out of those accumulated upon its hands to work her farm the ensuing season, and enable her to raise a crop of cotton, she to pay them out of the proceeds the same wages which the government pays those it employs. I made the proposition to the President thinking it was reasonable and just, and worthy at least of being considered. He became very much excited, and did not discuss the proposition at all, but said with great vehemence he had rather take a rope and hang himself than to do it. That there were a great many poor women who had never had any property at all who were suffering as much as Mrs. Fitz—that her condition was a necessary consequence of the rebellion, and that the government could not make good the losses occasioned by rebels. I reminded him that she was loyal and that her property had been taken from her by her own government, and was now being used by it, and I thought it a case eminently proper for some sort of remuneration, and her demand reasonable, and certainly entitled to respectful consideration. He replied that she had lost no property—that her slaves were free when they were taken, and that she was entitled to no compensation."

I called his attention to the fact that a portion of her slaves, at least, had been taken in 1862, before his proclamation, and put upon our gunboats, when he replied in a very excited manner that he had rather throw, than to do what was asked and would not do anything about it. I left him in no very good humor.

Presidential aide Stoddard observed: “The prevailing rage was for ‘cotton permits,’ and I believe the President is responsible for a few of those queer affairs, given before the business of collecting cotton was reduced to a system, and the ‘cotton-thieves,’ as they were not inaptly called, became salaried officers of Government. Her afterward expressed his regret that he had ever meddled with it, at the same time that he admitted the force of the arguments on the cotton side of the question.”

“President Lincoln, when a Congressman came to bore him for an appointment or with a grievance, had a pleasant way of telling a succession of stories, which left his visitor no chance to state,” wrote journalist Ben Perley Poore. “Storytelling was often with Lincoln a defensive weapon, which he employed with great skill. Frequently, when he was unwilling to grant a request, he would tell a story,” noted Maunsell Field. He recalled how President Lincoln once received “a call from a delegation of bank Presidents, at one of the gloomiest periods of the war, when depression and even discouragement prevailed in many places. One of the financial gentlemen asked the President if his confidence in the future was not beginning to be shaken. ‘Not in the least,’ Lincoln answered. ‘When I was a young man in Illinois,’ he continued, ‘I boarded for a time with a deacon of the Presbyterian Church. One night I was aroused from my sleep by a rap at my door, and I heard the deacon’s voice exclaiming ‘Arise, Abraham, the day of judgment has come!’ I sprang from my bed and rushed to the window, and there I saw the stars falling in a shower. But I looked beyond those falling stars, and far back in the heavens I saw—fixed, apparently, and immovable—the grand old constellations with which I was so well acquainted. No, gentlemen; the world did not come to an end then, nor will the Union now!'” Still, noted one Washington newspaper in June 1863, “It is one of the tribulations which must greatly add to the fatigues of office at this juncture, that our amiable President has to give so much of his time and attention to persons who apparently having no business of their own, expend a large degree of their surplus energy in benevolently minding the business of the President.” 

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.

[1] William O. Stoddard (1835 – 1925) was assistant secretary to Abraham Lincoln during his first term. He first served as a clerk in the Interior Department. On July 15, 1861, he was appointed Secretary to the President to sign land patents. He personally made the first draft copy of the Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862. After two bouts of typhoid fever (a bacterial disease spread through contaminated food and water or close contact), Stoddard left his White House post in July 1864.

[2] John Milton Hay (1838–1905) When Lincoln was sworn in on March 4, 1862, John Hay and John Nicolay (signing Nicolay's appointment was President Lincoln’s first official act after inauguration) moved into the White House, sharing a shabby bedroom. As there was only authority for payment of one presidential secretary (Nicolay), Hay was appointed to a post in the Interior Department at $1,600 per year ($42,100 today) to the White House. They were available to Lincoln 24 hours a day. As Lincoln took no vacations as president and worked seven days a week, often until 11 pm (or later, during crucial battles) the burden on his secretaries was heavy.

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