Whenever a president begins a second term, changes among his advisers are inevitable. Barack Obama soon will have new secretaries of state, treasury, and defense, and a new CIA director. His choices have inspired criticism for being all white men and supposedly in ideological lockstep with him.
Obama’s choices might also inspire comparisons to Abraham Lincoln. By the beginning of Lincoln’s second term in 1865, all but two members of his original cabinet had departed — sometimes involuntarily. And what happened in Lincoln’s cabinet is actually fairly analogous to what’s happening today in Obama’s.
Underscoring this comparison is Hollywood’s recent attention to Lincoln’s political genius. The movie “Lincoln” is based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book “Team of Rivals.” Screenwriter Tony Kushner has said that Goodwin’s “magnificent account of Lincoln as a master politician” influenced his general approach more than the particular details in the movie. Goodwin main theme is how Lincoln appointed his competitors for the 1860 presidential nomination to his cabinet and then brilliantly managed them and the Civil War.
Though Goodwin is correct up to a point, it is possible to overemphasize the rivalries among Lincoln’s advisers during his first term, and by the beginning of his second term most of the rivalry and the rivals themselves were gone.
Lincoln’s initial cabinet members either had sought the presidential nomination or had played important roles in the party’s founding and growth. They often disagreed, much as today’s liberals, moderates, and conservatives within a party might, yet generally they were loyal to the Republican Party and, as it evolved during the war, the Union Party. Some simply disliked or distrusted one another. In those cases, personal differences outweighed policy disputes, and Lincoln met less often with his full Cabinet than many other presidents have.
Similarly, Obama welcomed into his inner circle his early opponents, most notably Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. From all accounts, they have developed good relationships, much as Lincoln did with his greatest rival, Secretary of State William Henry Seward. Like Clinton, Seward had been a senator from New York and a front-runner for the nomination that Lincoln won.
Unlike Clinton, Seward stayed in the cabinet for a second term. But while Clinton leaves as the presumptive front-runner for the 2016 nomination, Seward lost his political capital. He had been Lincoln’s closest adviser and bore the blame from fellow Republicans for the North’s early military failures and Lincoln’s decision not to support emancipation until more than a year into the war. In December 1862, after the Union’s embarrassing defeat at Fredericksburg, all but one Republican senator demanded Seward’s ouster.
That Seward remained in the cabinet testifies to Lincoln’s political genius. Lincoln realized that Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase had been encouraging the anti-Seward senators, and he managed to maneuver Chase into offering his resignation. Lincoln kept both men in his Cabinet. Seward understood that, in the unlikely event he were to seek the presidency in the future, Lincoln would be his base of support. By contrast, Chase continued to thirst for the presidency and ultimately left the cabinet when, to his surprise, Lincoln accepted one of his threatened resignations.
The only other original cabinet member still there in 1865, was Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, who had been a Connecticut politician and had helped build the Republican Party in his state. He had no national ambitions and his management of the Navy Department had prompted another prominent Republican, Sen. John P. Hale of New Hampshire, to target him for removal. Welles had little trouble withstanding Hale’s assault and retained Lincoln’s support.
As Lincoln’s second term began, the cabinet was a far cry from a “team of rivals.” In 1862 the first departure, Secretary of War Simon Cameron, a Pennsylvanian who had hoped for the White House, had given way to unionist Democrat Edwin Stanton, a Lincoln critic-turned-admirer.
As other leading politicians left, less powerful figures replaced them. Chase was gone from the Treasury, replaced briefly by Sen. William Pitt Fessenden and then by Hugh McCulloch, an Indiana banker who had been comptroller of the currency. While Postmaster General Montgomery Blair of Maryland had been an important border state politician, his replacement, William Dennison, had been prominent in Ohio politics but not nationally.
In addition to Seward and Welles, the rest of the Cabinet had close personal ties to the president. With Secretary of the Interior John Usher leaving, his replacement, James Harlan, was a senator from Iowa whose daughter was engaged to marry Robert Todd Lincoln, the president’s son. Attorney General James Speed was the brother of Joshua Speed, the closest friend Lincoln ever had.
Just how Lincoln would have handled the postwar Reconstruction cannot be known, and neither can the advice his cabinet would have given him. Seward, Welles, and McCulloch became loyal to Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, who pursued more racist, pro-southern policies than Lincoln would have pursued. Dennison, Harlan, and Speed left the cabinet over disagreements with Johnson’s positions. Stanton shared their views but refused to resign despite President Johnson’s efforts to get rid of him, which led to the president’s impeachment in 1868.
Like Lincoln, Obama won a second term. Like Lincoln, he no longer needs to worry about building electoral support for a future campaign. And, like Lincoln, his “team of rivals” has ended up more of a team, with fewer rivals.
Michael S. Green is a professor of history at the College of Southern Nevada and the author of “Lincoln and the Election of 1860” (2011).