- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 19, 2008



By Harold Holzer

Simon & Schuster

$30, 623 pages, illus.


In a parliamentary democracy such as Britain, the party voted out of office is immediately replaced by the opposition. In the United States, there has always been an awkward period in which the defeated party retains the reins of government even after its defeat at the polls.

Following most elections, this interregnum has been of little consequence. In 1800, however - the first time in our republic that one party gave way to another - the four months between Election Day and Thomas Jeffersons inauguration were tense indeed. More than a century later, during the four months between the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his assumption of the presidency, Roosevelt and President Hoover continued at loggerheads while the country struggled with the Great Depression. It was this situation that brought about a constitutional amendment that moved presidential inaugurations from March to January.

Yet no interregnum was as volatile as in the secession winter of 1860-61, when Abraham Lincoln was elected president even as the Union began to dissolve. For Lincoln even more than Roosevelt, the four months between victory at the polls and Inauguration Day would be traumatic.

This critical period is the subject of a 600-page tome by Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer. The conventional view of Lincoln in this early period has been that he was indecisive; he passed the time in his hometown of Springfield, Ill., and made no major speeches.

Holzer concedes that “the reputation of Lincoln as president-elect remained a matter of dispute for generations” but he now argues that Lincoln handled this sensitive period with great skill. Certainly, the massive data the author has assembled demonstrate that Lincoln was not idle. At Springfield, he was beset by office-seekers and well-wishers. He also was showered with correspondence, most of it complimentary, some of it threatening.

Whereas another person in Lincolns position might have assembled a professional staff, Lincoln depended on two young secretaries, JohnNicolay and John Hay, who would serve throughout his administration.

Lincoln’s most immediate task was to form a Cabinet, and he was determined that it would represent the power centers of the new Republican Party as well as key geographic regions. He made only one bad choice: Simon Cameron, a Pennsylvania power broker who would prove to be a dreadful secretary of war.

He also erred in not naming someone to represent him in Washington, where political observers assumed that secretary of state-designate William Seward would be the “premier” of the new administration.

On Feb. 11, 1861, Lincoln, following the custom of the day, undertook a slow journey through scores of whistle stops from Springfield to Washington. As the party traveled east, the news became more ominous. Representatives of one state after another deserted Washington, and Jefferson Davis was inaugurated president of the Confederacy.

“All through his thirteen-day speaking and listening tour,” Mr. Holzer writes, “Lincoln skillfully avoided one subject entirely: that of slavery. … He offered slavery neither specific support, which would have inflamed the North, nor overt condemnation, which would have aroused the Upper South.” Yet at no time did Lincoln suggest that secession was acceptable.

Lincolns odyssey ended on a sour note. Warned of an assassination plot in Baltimore, he agreed to travel through that city incognito and in disguise - a decision that inspired many cartoons and one Lincoln would come to regret.

Mr. Holzer writes with grace about an important period in Lincolns career. However, by taking 600-plus pages to cover a 120-day period, he accords his subject five pages for each day and drowns the reader in trivia. As a result, “Lincoln: President-Elect” emerges as a good article on steroids.

• Historian and biographer John M. Taylor lives in McLean.

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