Abraham Lincoln’s hold on the American imagination remains as firm as ever. He routinely wins the top spot on those lists of “greatness” conducted by presidential historians, and the torrent of Lincoln scholarship continues unabated. There are dissenters, to be sure—mostly libertarians or unreconstructed Confederates, as well as some on the Left who question his civil rights bona fides. But Lincoln remains for most Americans an icon on par with George Washington. The accolades are well deserved, although there is an aspect of his presidency, albeit somewhat isolated, that Lincoln scholars tend to avoid, perhaps fearing damage to the great man’s reputation. In early 1863, at the absolute nadir of his presidency, Lincoln authorized a domestic covert operation designed to ensure that pro-war, Republican governors would win re-election in two key states.
The litany of Lincoln’s emergency measures is well known: suspending habeas corpus, blockading Southern ports, enlarging the army and navy—all unilateral actions sanctioned by Congress and the courts months after the fact. The allegations of a Lincoln “dictatorship” linger to this day, and not just in the fevered imagination of internet bloggers. Historians and political scientists have repeatedly addressed these events, with a consensus that Lincoln conducted himself with considerable moderation in the face of an unprecedented domestic insurrection. The 16th president’s defenders maintain that he never dealt with opposition to his policies from Northern Democrats and some Republicans—what he called the “fire in the rear”—by interfering with the electoral process in anything but an above board fashion. But his conduct during the 1863 gubernatorial elections reveals a side of Lincoln that is seldom appreciated: his willingness to use extraordinary measures to ensure the “proper” electoral outcome.
After a series of battlefield defeats and the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln and his “War Party” were reeling from attacks from Northern “Peace” Democrats who promised, in some cases, to remove their states from the war. The emancipation of the slaves in rebel-held territory was abhorrent to many Northern voters, particularly in the industrial states where competition among immigrants for jobs could be fierce. In Connecticut, incumbent Republican Governor William Buckingham was locked in a tight re-election campaign in a state vital to the Union war effort.
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The central figure in this operation was Lincoln’s favorite political operative, Thurlow Weed, the Republican “boss” of New York and an ally of Secretary of State William Seward. Through his secretary John Nicolay, Lincoln urgently summoned Weed to Washington during the second week of February 1863, asking him to arrive the next morning by train. After meeting Seward for breakfast on February 9, Weed left for a face-to-face meeting in the White House with the president. Lincoln told Weed, “We are in a tight place. Money for legitimate purposes is needed immediately; but there is no appropriation from which it can be lawfully taken. I didn’t know how to raise it, and so I sent for you.” The president asked Weed if he could raise the funds from wealthy New York businessmen, and gave him a note that he could show the potential contributors to prove that Weed was acting at the president’s behest. Lincoln wrote on the note, “The matters I spoke to you about are important, & I hope you will not neglect them. Truly yours, A. Lincoln.” On the bottom of this page and on to the reverse side, Weed was to ask for the signatures of 15 corporations and individuals who would pledge $1,000 each to help the president—a sum over a quarter of a million dollars, adjusted for today.
It was fitting that Lincoln would turn to Weed, a veteran of missions designed to overtly and covertly influence public opinion in favor of the Union cause. In 1861, Weed had traveled to Europe with Archbishop John Hughes of New York, who was asked to use his influence with the Catholic Church in Europe to win support for Lincoln’s policies. According to Confederate agents on the scene, Hughes sought to enlist Irish citizens for the Union army. The United States government paid Hughes $5,200 for his services, and as a bonus the Lincoln Administration informed that Vatican that it would be most pleased if the archbishop were elevated to a cardinal within the Church. While Hughes was enlisting Irish soldiers and working to influence the government of Napoleon III of France, Weed was busy bribing British journalists and planting stories in the European press with a pro-Union slant. These efforts were all part of a large, coordinated covert campaign to deny the Confederacy weapons, markets, and diplomatic support. The campaign involved bribing European journalists, subsidizing pro-union newspapers, sabotaging Confederate ships being built in British shipyards, outbidding Confederate agents purchasing weapons, bribing postal officials and telegraph officers to hand over messages between Confederate agents, and organizing “spontaneous” rallies in favor of the Union cause. Secretary Seward’s clandestine network ultimately expanded beyond Britain and France to include Belgium, Spain, Italy, and Prussia. By war’s end, Seward had spent $41,000 (about $725,000 today) on “special agents” and $1 million (about $17.7 million) on “special activities” abroad. These operations were undertaken in the face of frequent protests from the American ambassadors in these countries who objected to secret operations being conducted outside of their purview. Nonetheless, Lincoln and Seward never wavered in their support.
When Weed was asked to undertake his delicate domestic mission for the president in February 1863, Lincoln had tapped a master of the underside of politics who was capable of acting with discretion. Seward found Weed to be a “very secretive man” and entirely dependable in carrying out these types of operations. According to Lincoln’s Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, Seward once remarked in a cabinet meeting that “Weed is Seward, and Seward is Weed; each approves what the other says and does.” Welles considered Weed to be an “unscrupulous man,” an assessment shared by many of his contemporaries and by Civil War historians. As James G. Randall noted, “the name of Weed connoted tricky politics.” As such, Weed had no problem raising the $15,000, which was distributed in Connecticut and possibly New Hampshire, though there is no indication of exactly how the money was spent.
Gideon Welles gave us some indication of the mission’s purpose, noting in his diary on February 10 that “Thurlow Weed is in town. He has been sent for, but my informant knows not for what purpose. It is, I learn, to consult in regard to a scheme of Seward to influence the New Hampshire and Connecticut elections.” Additional evidence that the money was used to “influence” the electoral process is evident in a letter that Weed wrote to Lincoln on March 8, 1863: “The Secession ‘Petard’ in Connecticut has probably ‘hoisted’ its own Engineers. Thank God for so much.” Weed was likely anticipating Governor Buckingham’s victory in April 1863, over his Peace Democrat opponent, ex-Governor Thomas H. Seymour, which Buckingham would go on to win by 2,637 votes out of a total vote of 79,427. Oddly, the 1863 off-year election generated 9,000 more votes than the previous year’s election (Connecticut governors served one-year terms until 1875), and 2,000 more votes than the 1860 presidential election. As newspaperman Horace Greeley noted, the “War Party” won the election in Connecticut only due to “the most vehement exertions” of the party. In New Hampshire, Republican Governor Joseph A. Gilmore was barely re-elected, defeating two Democratic opponents, one a Peace Democrat and the other a “unionist” Democrat. Because no candidate had achieved a plurality of the popular vote, Gilmore held on to his seat after the election was thrown into the New Hampshire House of Representatives.
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What was Lincoln and Seward’s “scheme”? We can only say with certainty that it was something so sensitive that all of the men involved took the secret to their grave. Was it outright bribery of election officials? The unusually high voter turnout in Connecticut adds credence to this theory. Were payments made to Connecticut arms manufacturers to get out the vote? We do know that these same arms manufacturers were “advised” that future contracts with the government might depend on a large pro-Republican turnout among their workers. If the model developed by Seward for overseas covert operations was followed at home, bribes were paid to journalists, clergymen, and other opinion shapers; and payments of “walking around money,” as modern parlance would have it, were made to receptive individuals. But unlike the European operations, which Lincoln delegated to Seward, the Weed operation in early 1863 had Lincoln’s fingerprints all over it. The president had a Contingency Fund (or Secret Service fund as it was routinely called) at his disposal, but that fund was designated by Congress for foreign use only. Congress had limited oversight of the Contingency Fund, and due to its domestic focus, and its sensitivity, the administration decided to privatize this operation. There would be no “plausible deniability” in this case, as Lincoln was directly engaged in authorizing it. Seward, perhaps recognizing the sensitivity of this operation, wanted “cover” from the president himself.
Abraham Lincoln embraced the idea that the battle to control public opinion, whether in Europe or the United States, was as critical as the battle on the front lines. To win that aspect of the war, he employed not only secret agents, but members of the clergy and the media. Suffice it to say that he would not agree with contemporary observers who insist on a high wall of separation between those two vocations and the government. “Mr. Lincoln’s War” was a precursor to the Cold War and the War on Terror in that many key victories were achieved far from the battlefield using methods guaranteed to offend those committed to ill-defined notions of international law and an unbending devotion to process and procedures at home. We would do well to keep this aspect of Lincoln’s presidency in mind when we judge the actions of his successors in confronting their own crises.