Principalities & Powersrnby Samuel FrancisrnAbraham the Unreadyrn(This column is based in part on an addressrndelivered at a “Colloquium on Lincoln,rnReagan, and National Greatness”rnsponsored by the Claremont Institute inrnWashington, D.C., on February 12,rn1998.)rnL’affaire l^winsky was the obsession ofrnthe headlines and conversations ofrnWashington throughout February, obscuringrneven the jolhness promised byrnanother airborne stomping of Iraq andrnthe possible obliteration of the Americanrneconomy by the Asian stock marketrncrash. All through the month, onernfemme after another seeped from thernwoodwork of the Clinton administrationrn—not only the lovely and talentedrnMonica but also her mother, her literaryrnagent, her friend Mrs. Tripp, the president’srnsecretary, the elusive Miss Willey,rnthe interminable Paula Jones, and, ofrncourse, the fat-mouthed First Lady herself,rnwho on national television fabricatedrnfantastic conspiracy theories to preservernher husband’s office and thernillusion of a normal marriage a few daysrnlonger. On top of these eruptions camernMrs. Albright bellowing for blowing SaddamrnHussein out of his combat boots,rnthe solemn Janet Reno, and the gigglyrnDonna Shalala. Never in American historyrnhas John Knox’s horrid regiment ofrnwomen waxed so prominent and so vocal,rnand all that was missing was formerrnSurgeon General Joycelyn Elders haranguingrnthe public on the virtues of tutoringrnpre-schoolers in bondage fantasies.rnOne would have thought the public,rneven without Dr. Elders, would at lastrnhave had enough, but according to opinionrnpolls they only craved more. Thernpresident’s popularity not only survivedrnbut appeared to flourish, and even thosernwho said they believed he had an affairrnwith the former intern also reported that,rnas long as the stock market held, theyrndidn’t much care. How is it that we haverncome to this sad passage in the history ofrnthe nation and its president? Is it too farfetchedrnto suggest that the indifference ofrnthe American people to the moral characterrnof the chief executive is in fact thernchiefl egacy of Abraham Lincoln?rnIn a recent article in Chronicles, Irncharacterized Lincoln as not only not arngreat President but “an ill-prepared manrnwho has a stiong claim to being the mostrnincompetent President in American history.”rnYet, despite his incompetence andrnthe immediate disasters his administrationrnwreaked on those Americans whornhad the misfortune to live (and thosernwho did not succeed in living) throughrnit, he did leave an important legacy thatrnis not unconnected to the present contentmentrnwith the present occupant ofrnLincoln’s office that a majority of Americansrnseem to harbor.rnOf the 15 Presidents who precededrnLincoln in the White House, Lincolnrnenjoyed less preparation for high officernthan any. He had served in the militiarnduring the Black Hawk War but saw nornaction; he served only one term as a congressmanrnand four as a state legislator.rnBy I860, he had twice run for the U.S.rnSenate and had been defeated bothrntimes. In the same year, nominated asrnthe candidate of a new splinter partyrnwidely regarded as eccentric if not extremist,rnhe was elected to the WhiternHouse as a fluke, because of the splitrnwithin the Democratic Party, with lessrnthan 40 percent of the popular vote. It isrnquite tiue that Lincoln was a skilled localrnpolitician and that he had become arnprominent lawyer in Illinois, but he wasrnnot a nationally known lawyer, and mostrnof his cases seem to have been rather ordinaryrnones.rnIn fact, Abraham Lincoln displayed allrnhis life the world view of a small-townrnpolitico, and it was the immediate sourcernof the disaster of his administiation thatrnhe carried this mentality into the WhiternHouse at the greatest crisis in Americanrnhistory.rnLincoln’s small-town political mentalityrnis clear in the period between his electionrnand his bungled resolution of thernFort Sumter crisis. Lincoln simply couldrnnot bring himself to believe that Southernersrnfelt stiongly enough about the issuesrnthat animated them to secede; hernwas temperamentally unable to recognizernthat some people engage in politicsrnfor reasons of high principle and do notrnregard politics merely as a bottomlessrnbucket of pationage.rnThose who heard Lincoln talk aboutrnsecession during this period confirmrnthat, once Lincoln was inaugurated, itrnwas to dispensing pationage that he devotedrnhis immediate and almost total attention,rndespite the formation of thernConfederacy and the looming specter ofrnFt. Sumter. His most recent biographer,rnDavid Donald, recounts how “The newrnPresident allowed office-seekers to takernup most of his time. From nine o’clockrnin the morning until late at night, hisrnWhite House office was open to all comers,rnand sometimes the petitioners werernso numerous that it was impossible tornclimb the stairs.” Indeed, when CharlesrnFrancis Adams, recently appointed ambassadorrnto Great Britain by the administration,rncame to the White House withrnSeward to thank Lincoln and expected torndiscuss Anglo-American diplomacy at arncritical moment when it was imperativernfor the Union to prevent British recognitionrnof the Confederacy, Lincolnrnshowed no interest. He dismissed himrnwith the rude remark, “Very kind of yournto say so, Mr. Adams, but you are not myrnchoice. You are Seward’s man,” and hernchanged the subject to what he was reallyrninterested in: “Well, Seward, I havernsettled the Chicago Post Office.”rnLincoln betrayed no indication ofrnwhat he planned to do about the crisis ofrnthe Union that confronted him by therntime of his inauguration, the secession ofrnseven states and the formation of thernConfederate government. He repeatedlyrninsisted that neither he nor his partyrnhad any intention of interfering with slaveryrnas it legally existed and that his solernpurpose was to preserve the Union. Yet,rngiven that goal, he issued no statementrnafter his election or his inauguration thatrnmade clear what he would do. Had herndone so, his statement could have meantrncrucial support for Southern Unionistsrnand avoidance of war.rnThroughout the crisis Lincoln tookrnhis stand on formalities and evasions —rnthat as President-elect he had no authority,rnthat compromise proposals were onlyrnefforts to subvert the Constitution orrncompromise with revolutionaries, thatrnany meeting with Confederate representativesrnwould imply recognition of Con-rnMAY 1998/39rnrnrn