All this is not opera bouffe, but serious history. It must have taxed Lincoln's sense of humor and strained his sense of the fitness of things to treat such nonsense with the tactful forbearance which he showed and to relegate it to the pigeonhole without making Seward angry. Yet this he contrived to do; and he also managed, gently but firmly, to make it plain that the President intended to exercise his authority as the chief magistrate of the nation. His forbearance was further shown in passing over without rebuke Seward's part in the affair of Sumter, which might so easily have been made to appear treacherous, and in shouldering himself with all responsibility for the failure of the Charleston expedition. In the wave of excitement following the surrender, even so debonair a minister as Seward must have realized how fortunate it was for him that his chief did not tell all he knew. About this time Seward began to perceive that Lincoln had a will of his own, and that it was not safe to trifle further with the President. Seward thereupon ceased his interference.
It was in the dark days preceding the fall of Sumter that a crowd of office-seekers gathered at Washington, most of them men who had little interest in anything but the spoils. It is a distressing commentary on the American party system that, during the most critical month of the most critical period of American history, much of the President's time was consumed by these political vampires who would not be put off, even though a revolution was in progress and nations, perhaps, were dying and being born. "The scramble for office," wrote Stanton, "is terrible." Seward noted privately: "Solicitants for office besiege the President.... My duties call me to the White House two or three times a day. The grounds, halls, stairways, closets, are filled with applicants who render ingress and egress difficult."
Secretary Welles has etched the Washington of that time in his coldly scornful way:
"A strange state of things existed at that time in Washington. The atmosphere was thick with treason. Party spirit and old party differences prevailed, however, amidst these accumulated dangers. Secession was considered by most persons as a political party question, not as rebellion. Democrats to a large extent sympathized with the Rebels more than with the Administration, which they opposed, not that they wished Secession to be successful and the Union divided, but they hoped that President Lincoln and the Republicans would, overwhelmed by obstacles and embarrassments, prove failures. The Republicans on the other hand, were scarcely less partisan and unreasonable. Patriotism was with them no test, no shield from party malevolence. They demanded the proscription and exclusion of such Democrats as opposed the Rebel movement and clung to the Union, with the same vehemence that they demanded the removal of the worst Rebels who advocated a dissolution of the Union. Neither party appeared to be apprehensive of, or to realize the gathering storm."
Seen against such a background, the political and diplomatic frivolity of the Secretary of State is not so inexplicable as it would otherwise be. This background, as well as the intrigue of the Secretary, helps us to understand Lincoln's great task inside his Cabinet. At first the Cabinet was a group of jealous politicians new to this sort of office, drawn from different parties, and totally lacking in a cordial sense of previous action together. None of them, probably, when they first assembled had any high opinion of their titular head. He was looked upon as a political makeshift. The best of them had to learn to appreciate the fact that this strange, ungainly man, sprung from plainest origin, without formal education, was a great genius. By degrees, however, the large minds in the Cabinet became his cordial admirers. While Lincoln was quietly, gradually exercising his strong will upon Seward, he was doing the same with the other members of his council. Presently they awoke--the majority of them at least--to the truth that he, for all his odd ways, was their master.
Meanwhile the gradual readjustment of all factions in the North was steadily going forward. The Republicans were falling into line behind the Government; and by degrees the distinction between Seward and Lincoln, in the popular mind, faded into a sort of composite picture called "the Administration." Lincoln had the reward of his long forbearance with his Secretary. For Seward it must be said that, however he had intrigued against his chief at Washington, he did not intrigue with the country. Admitting as he had, too, that he had met his master, he took the defeat as a good sportsman and threw all his vast party influence into the scale for Lincoln's fortunes. Thus, as April wore on, the Republican party settled down to the idea that it was to follow the Government at Washington upon any course that might develop.
The Democrats in the North were anti-Southern in larger proportion, probably, than at any other time during the struggle of the sections. We have seen that numbers of them had frankly declared for the Union. Politics had proved weaker than propinquity. There was a moment when it seemed--delusively, as events proved--that the North was united as one man to oppose the South.
There is surely not another day in our history that has witnessed so much nervous tension as Saturday, April 13, 1861, for on that morning the newspapers electrified the North with the news that Sumter had been fired on from Confederate batteries on the shore of Charleston Harbor. In the South the issue was awaited confidently, but many minds at least were in that state of awed suspense natural to a moment which the thoughtful see is the stroke of fate. In the North, the day passed for the most part in a quiet so breathless that even the most careless could have foretold the storm which broke on the following day. The account of this crisis which has been given by Lincoln's private secretary is interesting: