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So Little Previous Preparation

“Let me not be understood as desiring to say a word in a spirit of derogation from the memory of Abraham Lincoln.  He afterward proved himself before the world a pure, brave, honest man, faithful to his arduous task, and laying down his life at the last as a penalty for his country’s safety.  At the same time, it is the duty of history, in dealing with all human action, to do strict justice in discriminating between persons, and by no means to award one honors that clearly belong to another.  I must, then affirm without hesitation that, in the history of our Government down to this hour, no experiment so rash has ever been made as that of elevating to the head of affairs a man with so little previous preparation for his task as Lincoln.”

That’s what Charles Francis Adams said about Abraham Lincoln on April 18, 1873.  Adams was giving an address to the New York state legislature in memory of Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Seward.  Although Seward had a litany of accomplishments that could stand on their own, Adams thought he also needed to claim Seward was the reason for Lincoln’s success.

If Adams’s sentiments were stripped of all pretense, he might as well have said:  We must give Lincoln grudging respect despite his obvious deficiencies.  After all, he was assassinated, poor fellow.  Still, how did he ever get elected instead of Seward?  Thank God he asked Seward to be in the Cabinet! 

 What exactly did Adams mean when he said Lincoln was a President who had received “so little previous preparation?”  Obviously, that Lincoln did not have a resumé like Seward’s.  But Adams was thinking inside the box, regarding a certain type of training as essential preparation for the Presidency, while discounting the real world experience of the man who became the 16th President.

Not everyone agreed with Adams’s assessment of Lincoln.  Gideon Welles, Lincoln’s Navy Secretary, was furious.  So were Lincoln’s private secretaries.  Eventually, they would set the record straight.



Establishment Bias

The first Thanksgiving was observed not in Plymouth, Massachusetts but in Jamestown, Virginia.  The Jamestown celebration happened in 1610, eleven years before the Pilgrim Thanksgiving.  The Plymouth observance got all the recognition because the people of Massachusetts preceded the Virginians in the founding of schools and the publishing of books.  They were the first to write American history, and they wrote about what they knew.  The Pilgrims were an important part of colonial history, but their role has been inadvertently exaggerated in comparison to the other colonies.

Although Charles Francis Adams was born two hundred years after the founding of Jamestown, he accepted the conventional wisdom regarding his own section of the country.  It did not matter that four of the first five Presidents had been Virginians.  Two of the first six, his father and grandfather in particular, were from Massachusetts.  Now that the South had disgraced itself by fighting for slavery, the North would have the preeminence in determining what happened in the West.  There may be a Westerner in the White House, but, thankfully, there was a Northerner among the senior Cabinet members.  William Seward was not from Massachusetts, but he had the right ideas about what to do and how to do it, and his position as Secretary of State gave him access to President Lincoln.

The passage of time did little to change Adams’s opinion of Lincoln.  After Lincoln had been in his grave seven years, Secretary Seward died.  In his eulogy of Seward, Charles Francis Adams found it convenient to exaggerate Lincoln’s perceived deficiencies in order to honor his friend.  Seward, who had seen Lincoln up close and recognized his greatness, would not have been pleased with the comparison.





The Key Man in the Administration

The Siege of Vicksburg ended with Confederate surrender on July 4, 1863, but Lincoln probably never considered giving a speech at Vicksburg.  Who would be in the audience besides the victorious Union Army?  No, Gettysburg was the place to go.  That battle had ended the day before Vicksburg.  The town was not far from Washington, D.C., and the civilian audience would be friendly.  Also, a national cemetery was to be dedicated that November.

Charles Francis Adams did not hear Lincoln give the Gettysburg Address.  He was still at his post in England.  Perhaps he would have liked what Lincoln said.  The President had connected the war with the founding of the nation.  He cited the founding document when he affirmed the nation’s dedication “to the proposition that all men are created equal.”  Those words were penned by Thomas Jefferson, but Charles’s grandfather had been a member of the committee assigned to write the Declaration of Independence.  Lincoln could not go wrong by affirming Charles’s grandfather.

Perhaps Charles would have enjoyed Edward Everett’s massive oration which preceded Lincoln’s abbreviated remarks.  Charles Francis Adams and Edward Everett traveled in the same circles.  Each had run for Vice President as third party candidates, Adams in 1848 and Everett in 1860.  They were also brothers-in-law.

Still, Charles may have considered Lincoln’s speech to be the superior one.  But if he did think that, he probably would have attributed its worth to the influence of Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Seward.  Surely Seward was the key man in the Administration, even more important than the President himself.  At least that’s what Charles Francis Adams was inclined to believe.

Not Like His Fathers Before Him

Abraham Lincoln was elected President the same year Charles Francis Adams was re-elected to Congress.  Since Lincoln was also a Republican and had served with Adams’s father in the 30th U.S. Congress, Charles hoped to be appointed to an important position in the executive branch.  He couldn’t expect to be appointed Secretary of State because William Seward was the obvious choice for that office.  However, Seward was an old friend of the Adamses and had Lincoln’s ear.  Given the advantages of sentiment, politics, and breeding, Adams hoped to become a member of Lincoln’s Cabinet.  But it was not to be.

It seemed as though Adams would not be appointed to any office in the executive branch.  He returned to Massachusetts disappointed.  His father had once served the entire nation as President and then served his neighbors as their Representative in Congress.  Charles had been elected to represent the same Congressional district in 1858.  He had just been re-elected and would have to be content with serving his neighbors as well.

One morning in March 1861 his breakfast was interrupted by a telegram from Washington, D.C.  He had been appointed minister to England.  Adams was not pleased with the news.  Still, he must respond to the call of duty.  He would accept his appointment in person and discuss some of the issues with Lincoln.  Besides, both his father and grandfather had served in that office.  He must assure Lincoln that he would do just as well.

But Lincoln did not want to discuss foreign policy when Adams appeared to receive his portfolio.  He informed Adams that he had chosen him as a political favor to Seward.  Then Lincoln put his feet on the desk, turned to Seward, and changed the subject.  Adams was mortified.  What sort of leader was this?  Obviously, Lincoln was not like Adams’s father and grandfather, men who had preceded Lincoln as President.








Like His Fathers Before Him

Charles Francis Adams was the son and grandson of Presidents.  In 1848 he ran for Vice President on the doomed Free Soil ticket.  It was the least he could do to honor his antislavery father who had died earlier that year.  Like his father, he was eventually elected to Congress after having lost a national election.

The year that Charles Francis Adams was re-elected to Congress, a former one-term Congressman who had served with his father was elected President.  Surely the new Administration would recognize the Cabinet needed the services of the current patriarch of the Adams family.  After all, the incoming President had been a member of the committee which made the funeral arrangements for Congressman and former President John Quincy Adams.  If the new President did not have the ability to discern talent, at least he would be bound by sentiment.

So, what Cabinet post would be offered?  Secretary of State?  No, that would go to William Seward; but then Seward would probably recommend Adams for another post, perhaps Treasury Secretary.  That might put him in line to be Seward’s successor.  He might even be President himself someday.    His father had been Secretary of State before he was elected President.  Perhaps he would follow the same path.

But Charles Francis Adams was not going to be a member of the Cabinet.  Instead, he would receive an altogether different appointment.  It was not what he had hoped for, but it was an appointment that both his father and grandfather had received and accepted in their day.

The Obscure Originator of a Perennial Policy

Secretary of State is a demanding enough job, but when war came, this individual continued in that office and was also Secretary of War for a few months.  Only after the war concluded did he surrender the War Department portfolio.

Twice his state had honored him with the governorship.  He had also served them as U.S. Senator.  His résumé included military and diplomatic service.

He was elected President by a significant majority.  He was re-elected with 99.6% of the Electoral College vote.  Unlike most Presidents, he had a very successful second term.  Like two of his predecessors, he died on the 4th of July.

We know a lot about all his predecessors, but certain facts about him have escaped us.  When were his parents born?  What exactly were his religious beliefs?  How much of his success was due to luck and how much was due to political craft?

There are two phrases associated with his Presidency: one is an eponymous policy which persists to this day; the other pertains to the unusual national harmony that prevailed during his second term.

The war he saw to conclusion was the War of 1812.  His personal military service had been during the Revolution.  The state which elected him governor and U.S. Senator was Virginia.  The Era of Good Feeling, that period of national harmony that prevailed during his second term, did not last; but the foreign policy precept that bears his name has stood the test of time.  Most people know little about the man, but nearly everyone has heard of the Monroe Doctrine.

The May and June Born Presidents in Rhyme

Because some thought he lacked acumen

They coined the phrase “To err is Truman.”

Harry proved he was not stupid,

And now his smarts are undisputed.


Jack lost his boat in the Blackett Strait

But bested Nixon in debate.

Khrushchev dared to test his gumption

But found he made a wrong assumption.


When his torpedo plane was hit,

George decided not to quit.

When Saddam occupied Kuwait,

George did not procrastinate.


Donald wants to build a wall.

He doesn’t back down from a brawl.

He also is the oldest yet

In a first term as President.