David Bromwich, who lectured on Lincoln's legacy last week in Colorado, responds to a post by Phil Weiss on Lincoln's failed 1849 effort to get a presidential appointment, commissioner of the Land Office:
Why do people grasp at dirty straws on the subject of Lincoln for the sake of making him "more human?" A dubious undertaking; and not well rewarded in this instance. The insinuation of official political chasteness, accompanied by a deceptive economy-of-truth in his correspondence over the appointment to the Land Office under President Taylor, can only be achieved by stringing together several inferential jumps.
First, the article to which you give a link, by Thomas F. Schwartz in the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Society, on Butterfield, Lincoln, and Illinois Whiggery, contains this apparently unobjectionable passage: "Lincoln knew Butterfield both as an accomplished attorney and fellow Whig." But that is not quite right. In his letter to Josiah M. Lucas of April 25, 1849, Lincoln writes; "As to Butterfield, he is my personal friend, and is qualified to do the duties of the office; but of the quite one hundred Illinoisians, equally well qualified, I do not know one with less claims to it." He means (if you are used to Lincoln's understatement): Butterfield is technically qualified and he, Lincoln, being his friend, must speak less ill of him than an impartial judge would do; but even so, he is compelled to say that Butterfield is no more than technically qualified; and he implies that, for both general intelligence and probity, Butterfield would not be close to the top of anyone's list. Lincoln in fact seems to have thought him the reverse of "accomplished."
In a subsequent letter, to William B. Preston on May 16, Lincoln casts some doubt on Butterfield's likely honesty by saying that he "is well qualified, and, I suppose, would be faithful in office." Lincoln was a deliberate, dry and logical writer of exact prose who took care with every word. The words, "I suppose," stand out because they were meant to. In this second letter, he goes on to remind Preston that when loyalty mattered, around the nomination of General Taylor, the same Butterfield had shown conspicuous disloyalty and heaped ridicule on the very idea of Zachary Taylor as a candidate.
Lincoln's next letter on the subject, to Duff Green on May 18, takes a stronger line. Of Butterfield's impending appointment he now says: "This ought not to be." The office is Illinois's only "crumb of patronage" and it will be wasted on such a man. He concludes by asking whether Green cannot somehow "get the ear of Gen. Taylor" and set things right. A fourth letter, to Joseph Gillespie on May 19, is written in the just the same key, but it is more urgent: "Not a moment's time is to be lost." A fifth, to Elisha Embree on May 25, goes a step further. It is now clear that Lincoln sees the appointment of Butterfield as a disaster for the Illinois Whigs; and he asks Embree to write to General Taylor and request that either Lincoln, or the man Lincoln recommends, will receive the appointment as Commissioner of the General Land-Office. To Josiah B. Herrick on June 3 he writes again saying that there is not a moment to lose and that he himself will gladly be named in preference to Butterfield.
A letter to Thomas Ewing, on June 22, looks back on the confusion created by Lincoln's urgency and his stratagem, and requests that an impression of selfish and unfriendly conduct which his friend Cyrus Edwards has taken from rumor and partial evidence, be corrected by giving Edwards to understand that, in the end, Lincoln withheld his own name for Edwards's benefit. Finally comes the last letter in this sequence, another to Thomas Ewing, on October 13, 1849. Here Lincoln writes to dispel the rumor "that there was a clique in Springfield determined to prevent Butterfield's confirmation; and, that Lincoln would give a thousand dollars to have it done." In short, he utterly disclaims knowledge of such a clique; and he adds that he does not believe it existed without his knowledge.
That ought to be enough. But, from the fact that he does not disclaim the offer of a bribe, you conclude that Lincoln may have been concealing a bribe he did, in fact, offer ad hoc, without the assistance of any clique. Look again at the grammar of the sentence and you will see how wire-drawn this theory is. The charge of instigating the corrupt actions of a clique governs everything that is said about the bribe. If there was no clique, there was no party to issue the bait for corrupt proceeding.
You have tried to outwit Lincoln as a lawyer; does not Lincoln's defense speak for itself? The true moral of this episode seems to be the surprising prevalence in the mind of Lincoln of the sentiment of party loyalty. As Mark Neely observes, in a sentence quoted by Schwartz, the Butterfield affair "strengthened Lincoln's realization that patronage must go to the party faithful to keep the party from falling apart." And we may know, by other evidence--most of all, the House Divided speech and the Lincoln-Douglas debates--that Lincoln recognized that party and principle could go hand in hand; just as "bipartisanship" and a thoroughly slack inattention to principle may go hand in hand. If there is a complex message in Lincoln's career for President Obama to take notice of, this may be a substantial part of it.
For the rest, why seek to rob yourself of a hero when the hero is genuine? This seems a fallacy on which too much of our human-interest journalism and human-interest history writing ultimately rests. Better, surely, to appreciate Lincoln by taking the pains to know exactly what it is we are appreciating. We may then come to admire his "coolness, forecast, and capacity" (to borrow words he applied to Jefferson) even more than his well-founded respect for the close relationship between party loyalty, consistency of opinion, and conscience.
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