How We Got Lincoln

Every presidential election is exciting when it happens. Then the passing of time usually makes the outcome seem less than crucial. But after more than a century and a quarter, the election of 1860 retains its terrible urgency.

In the crowded months between the beginning of the 1860 presidential campaign and the attack on Fort Sumter, it is easy now to see the emergence of Abraham Lincoln as something preordained, as though the issues had manufactured a figure commensurate with their importance. Or at the least, one might imagine a dramatic, hard-fought campaign with Northern and Southern states rallying around their respective candidates. But that’s not quite how it happened. Read more »

Matters Of Fact

Vidal’s Lincoln

WHEN ABRAHAM LINCOLN’S wartime secretaries, John Hay and John G. Nicolay, serialized their life of the President in Century magazine in 1885, Lincoln’s old friend and law partner William H. Herndon did not like it. The articles were too reverential, he thought, too Republican, too everlastingly long. But worse than that, he added, the authors “handle things with silken gloves & a ‘cammel hair pencil’: they do not write with an iron pen.” Read more »

Targets Of Opportunity

MATTERS OF FACT

“ASSASSINATION IS NOT an American practice or habit,” wrote Secretary of State William H. Seward on July 15, 1864, “and one so vicious and so desperate cannot be engrafted into our political system. This conviction of mine has steadily gained strength. Read more »

Lincoln’s Life Preserver

To stave off despair, the President relied on a sense of humor that was rich, self-deprecating—and surprisingly bawdy

A great “intensity of thought,” Abraham Lincoln once counseled his friend Joshua Speed, “will some times wear the sweetest idea thread-bare and turn it to the bitterness of death.” No aspect of Lincoln’s character has become more tangibly real in the literature than his melancholy.Read more »

What If?

Conjectural or speculative history can be a silly game, as in “What if the Roman legions had machine guns?” But this historian argues that to enlarge our knowledge and understanding it sometimes makes very good sense to ask …

What if any of the pre-Civil War Presidents had gone mad?

What if Andrew Johnson had been successfully impeached?

What if William McKinley had not been assassinated?

What if there had been no tape-recording system in Nixon’s White House? Read more »

The Ten Best Secretaries Of State…

When the first Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, took office in 1790, his entire staff consisted of just six people, including himself and a part-time translator. The current Secretary presides over almost fifteen thousand employees scattered around the globe. During the intervening years, of course, the challenges facing Jefferson’s successors have changed dramatically as the infant republic has grown into a world power. Read more »

Garibaldi And Lincoln

Would the great fighter come over for the Union? Italian freedom and lead troops Lincoln hoped so

In the summer of 1861, when the newspaper generals in New York clamored for a clash of arms to put down the Confederate rebellion, the battle and the recriminations came sooner than expected. The people of Washington loaded up picnic baskets in buggies and carriages and drove across the bridges of the Potomac to watch the fun. Under the southern sunlight the sabers of the Union cavalry glistened, and the hope of a quick and punishing victory was in the smoking air.Read more »

The Relief Of Fort Pickens

WAR WAS DAYS AWAY, A UNION STRONGHOLD WAS THREATENED, AND THROUGH A FOG OF RUMOR, DOUBT, CONTRADICTORY ORDERS, AND OUTRIGHT LIES THE ARMY AND NAVY SET OUT TO HELP

A good place to start the story is the Republican convention in Chicago in May, 1860. By long odds the leading candidate, and on form and experience the best qualified, was of course Senator William H. Seward of New York. He was eminent in the legal profession. He had served with distinction as governor of his state before going to the Senate. He had been a leader of the antislavery Whigs and had brought them into the recently created Republican Party.Read more »

Tales From The Black Chambers

THE MAKING AND BREAKING OF CODES AND CIPHERS HAS PLAYED AN EXCITING AND OFTEN CRUCIAL PART IN AMERICAN HISTORY

By choice, cryptographers are an unsung and anonymous lot. In war and peace they labor in their black chambers, behind barred doors, dispatching sheets of secret symbols and reading encoded messages from the innermost councils of foreign governments. Few tales have leaked from those rooms. Read more »

“Frozen Asset” Or Forty-ninth State?

(Congress debates acquiring Alaska, 1867)

R EPRESENTATIVE C ADWALLADER C. W ASHBURN (on whether to make an appropriation)

“All the evidence we have in regard to the country goes to show its inhospitable and worthless character.… [It] will always be a source of weakness.… It is proposed to pay $7,200,000 for a country where none but malefactors will ever live, and where we are likely to be at constant war with the savages.”

 
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