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So Little Previous Preparation

July 18, 2018

“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.


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