Inspired by the wisdom of Abraham Lincoln, President-elect Barack Obama is considering appointing a "team of rivals" to his Cabinet. But there's more mythology than history in the idea that Lincoln showed exceptional political skill in offering Cabinet positions to the men he had beaten in the race for the 1860 Republican nomination.
For one thing, there was nothing new in what Lincoln did. By tradition, presidents-elect reserved a Cabinet position, often secretary of state, for the leading rival in their party. John Quincy Adams inaugurated the practice by appointing one of his presidential rivals, Henry Clay, to that post. It was a controversial move in 1824; enemies of Adams denounced the appointment as a corrupt bargain.
By the 1850s, the practice had become a tradition. In that decade, Presidents Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan installed in their Cabinets men who had been major rivals for their party's nomination. Daniel Webster, who lost the Whig Party nod in 1848, became Fillmore's secretary of state. William Marcy, after failing to win the 1852 Democratic nomination, took the same position in Pierce's Cabinet. Lewis Cass, the Democratic nominee in 1848 and a man whose presidential dreams never diminished, was appointed Buchanan's secretary of state in 1857. These were not notably successful administrations.
Most historians agree that Pierce and Buchanan rank among the worst presidents in American history. There was nothing particularly unusual, or even impressive, when Lincoln followed this well-established practice.
Nor is it quite correct to say that Lincoln installed his "enemies" in the Cabinet. Rivals for his own party's nomination are not the same thing as political "enemies." It would have been inconceivable, for example, for Lincoln to offer a Cabinet appointment to his Democratic opponent, Stephen Douglas.
In the months after his election, Lincoln tried to find a Southerner as a symbol of national unity. But he drew sharp limits. He would appoint no one who did not endorse the Republican platform. What was the point, Lincoln asked, in naming someone who did not share the president's basic principles? "Does he surrender to Lincoln," the president-elect wondered, "or Lincoln to him?"
Limiting his appointments to like-minded Republican rivals was no guarantee of a harmonious administration either. The worst of Lincoln's Cabinet appointments was Simon Cameron, a senator from Pennsylvania. Cameron had been one of Lincoln's major rivals for the Republican nomination. He eventually threw his support to Lincoln at the convention and fully expected to be paid back with a Cabinet position.
Cameron had a reputation as corrupt, and he had made a lot of enemies over the years. Nevertheless, against his better judgment Lincoln appointed him secretary of war. Soon enough, charges of irregularity in the awarding of military contracts were flying. Within a year Lincoln had to get rid of his former rival by offering him a diplomatic post in Russia.
The rest of the "team of rivals" spent the war years scheming and squabbling. The Cabinet never really functioned as a cohesive group. Lincoln replaced Cameron with Edwin M. Stanton, a former Democrat who had never been one of his political rivals. But Stanton quickly grew so suspicious of leaks by his fellow Cabinet officers that he stopped bringing important questions to the table, reserving such discussions for private audiences with Lincoln.
He was not the only Cabinet secretary who preferred back-channel communication to full discussion with the Cabinet. Secretary of State William Seward, Lincoln's main rival for the nomination, eventually gained so much private access to Lincoln that he didn't bother attending most Cabinet meetings. Most of the other Cabinet secretaries became jealous of Seward's close relationship with the president.
No one was more suspicious of Seward than Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase, another rival for the Republican nomination. Chase was competent but never really loyal to Lincoln. His double-dealing eventually provoked a "Cabinet crisis" that left Chase humiliated. He grew so disgusted that he rarely attended regular Cabinet meetings. But Chase kept scheming, and in 1864 he ran a barely concealed campaign to deprive Lincoln of the party's renomination. As soon as Lincoln had secured the Republican nod he accepted Chase's resignation.
Attorney General Edward Bates, another of the rivals Lincoln appointed, grumbled throughout his tenure about Lincoln's incompetent handling of the Cabinet. Envious of his more influential colleagues, Bates resigned in 1864, still complaining that Lincoln never really relied on his Cabinet for its collective wisdom. There was something to Bates' complaint. The most momentous decision of Lincoln's presidency was whether to issue an Emancipation Proclamation. But Lincoln made the decision pretty much on his own, and he presented it to his Cabinet as a fait accompli.
There is little doubt that Abraham Lincoln was a great president. But not much of what made him great can be discerned in his appointment of a contentious, envious and often dysfunctional collection of prima donnas to his Cabinet.
James Oakes, a professor of history at the CUNY Graduate Center, is the author of "The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics." He wrote this article for the New York Times.