On September 5, 2018, the New York Times took the extraordinary step of publishing an anonymous op-ed from a supposedly high level administrator in President Trump’s government. The anonymous author claimed he or she was a member of the resistance who was working behind the scenes to thwart the worst impulses of President Trump. “It may be cold comfort in this chaotic era, but Americans should know that there are adults in the room,” the anonymous author claimed. “We fully recognize what is happening. And we are trying to do what’s right even when Donald Trump won’t.” The author went on to claim that members of this loose coalition of insider conservatives was not the so-called “Deep State” but instead the “steady state.”
In response, President Trump called it “a gutless editorial” as well as “a total piece of fiction.” Later on Twitter, President Trump tweeted simply: “TREASON?” Shortly thereafter, he tweeted: ““If the GUTLESS anonymous person does indeed exist, the Times must, for National Security purposes, turn him/her over to government at once!” In private, President Trump allegedly raged furiously at this act of insubordination within his own administration.
President Trump is far from alone, though, in struggling with rogue members of an administration. Numerous American presidents were frustrated and sometimes bamboozled by members of their own staff. One notable episode comes to mind, however, from the early days of Abraham Lincoln’s administration.
In the spring of 1861, almost immediately following his inauguration, Abraham Lincoln was vexed over what to do about the remaining federal forts and armories in the South. The two most important forts: Pickens in Florida and Sumter in South Carolina were still in federal hands but surrounded by fledgling Confederates. Robert Anderson, the federal commander of Sumter, was dangerously low on supplies and had requested to be re-supplied. These were dangerous times, and Lincoln knew it. By March, six other southern states had already followed South Carolina and formally seceded from the Union. Lincoln was aware that re-supplying Sumter risked igniting a war. But he also knew that failure to re-supply the fort, or evacuating Anderson and his detachment, would backtrack on what he had promised northerners in his inaugural address, to “hold, occupy, and possess” all properties in federal hands. Surrender would essentially be waving the white flag of humiliation at a time when Lincoln needed to strike a bold stance of resistance. After soliciting the advice of his nascent administration, President Lincoln decided to re-supply the fort with provisions only. Lincoln reckoned in this way he was honoring his pledge to hold existing federal properties, while also fulfilling his promise to southerners that the “government will not assail you.”
William Seward, Lincoln’s new Secretary of State, was horrified by Lincoln’s decision. Seward, former Governor and Senator from New York, had been the early favorite going into the Republican Party primary convention in Chicago. However, with secession and possibly war on the horizon, Republican Party officials were keen for a moderate on the slavery issue. Seward’s words (he had talked of a higher law than the constitution that made slavery wrong) and his actions (he had vigorously defended runaway slaves who had escaped to New York from re-enslavement in Virginia); painted him as a radical on the slavery issue. Because of his perceived radicalism, he lost the nomination to Lincoln in a surprise upset. Despite being former rivals, Lincoln invited him to join his administration. Things only got worse for Seward when he subsequently attempted to tack to the right. Following secession, Seward delivered a speech in the Senate, warning that secession would result in “perpetual civil war.” To avoid war, Seward offered compromises which included a constitutional amendment that would prevent Congress from interfering with slavery where it already existed, and proposed a Convention to consider even more changes to the Constitution. His speech, however, had almost no impact in the Deep South, and served only to alienate many of his friends and allies, who had fought with him against slavery.
Now, Seward faced the prospect of watching helplessly as Lincoln charted a course he fervently opposed. Seward believed that a mission to resupply Fort Sumter would serve only to provoke the South, encourage more states to secede and launch a Civil War. Seward had already successfully convinced Lincoln to soften the tone of his inaugural address. Lincoln’s original draft promised he would “reclaim” federal properties, Seward had prevailed upon Lincoln to drop that aggressive posture in favor of “hold, occupy, and possess” all properties already in federal control.
Furthermore, Lincoln’s decision threatened to tarnish the promises Seward had already secretly advanced to southerners. Seward had, unbeknownst to Lincoln, reached out to John Campbell, the Alabama born Supreme Court Justice, to relay a message to his southern friends: Sumter would be abandoned. Seward hazarded this secret message because he believed Lincoln would follow his sage advice. At this point in time, Seward was operating under the illusion that he was actually the man in charge, operating a shadow administration of sorts. This belief had been reinforced by the letters and words of people who hoped and believed this were true. Flattering letters poured into Seward’s office telling him he was the leader of the administration and only he could save the country. Seward had privately confided in a friend that he believed Lincoln was not equal to the moment. Friends told him he was the only hope. Embarrassed, Seward decided to take an extraordinary risk to try to push through his plan.
On April 1, Seward scribbled an extraordinary memo to Lincoln. He criticized Lincoln for failing to put forth a coherent “policy either domestic or foreign.” He went on to suggest that Lincoln should, in an effort to deflect attention from the secession crisis, call foreign nations to account for their meddling in the Western Hemisphere. Seward intimated that perhaps Lincoln should even declare war on European nations to unite North and South. Furthermore, Seward had told a foreign diplomat that essentially there was no major difference “between an elected president of the United States and an hereditary monarch.” In Seward’s reckoning, the President was a figurehead, his cabinet carried out his agenda, much like a prime minister. Seward, then, believed himself the administration’s prime minister.
Lincoln scribbled a written reply that he never sent (a habit of his) and probably rebuked Seward in person. Seward, though, was undismayed and pushed forward with his secret plan. Working behind Lincoln’s back, Seward drafted orders for the warship Powhatan to chart a course for Fort Pickens to relieve the fort. He sent those orders in the hands of his son Fred for Lincoln to sign. Fred Seward remembered Lincoln asking him: “Your father says this is all right, does he?” Fred nodded and Lincoln signed. Lincoln failed to peruse the orders, for if he had, he would have noticed the Powhatan was ordered to Pickens, which conflicted with his own orders that the Powhatan would accompany the relief ships to Fort Sumter. It seems that Seward hoped to delay the Sumter relief mission and substitute his own plans instead.
Perhaps predictably, Seward’s plan backfired. Captain Montgomery Meigs learned of the conflicting orders for the Powhatan and contacted Seward for an explanation. The jig was up and Seward knew he would have to come clean to the Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles. He visited Welles at the Willard Hotel and showed him Meigs telegram about the conflicting orders. Welles was stupefied, he had ordered the Powhatan to accompany the relief ships to Sumter, why was it charting a course for Pickens? Welles insisted they visit President Lincoln. Lincoln was still awake when the two cabinet secretaries visited him and made him aware of the conflicting orders. Lincoln told Seward to contact the Powhatan and order it to return to the Sumter expedition. Amazingly, Seward apparently made one last ditch effort to convince Lincoln to delay the Sumter re-supply and instead focus on Fort Pickens. Lincoln refused.
Despite the fact that Seward had knowingly and purposely worked to undermine Lincoln’s policy, Gideon Welles remembered that Lincoln claimed “it was carelessness, heedlessness on his part—he ought to have been more careful and attentive.” Essentially, Lincoln took the blame for the embarrassing mix up. Lincoln went on to say that he “and not his Cabinet” was “in fault for errors imputed to them.” Lincoln took the blame for Seward’s purposeful designs to undermine his plans. He was magnanimous to a fault, and protected his administration from any rumors of infighting or designs. This, in part, was the job of the President of the United States.
Perhaps President Trump could learn a thing or two from Mr. Lincoln.