- Lincoln and the Decision for War: The Northern Response to Secession
Recent political events and the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth have led to a spate of works exploring presidential character, Lincoln's life and leadership, and executive handling of national crises. Joining the crowd is Russell McClintock's Lincoln and the Decision for War: The [End Page 543] Northern Response to Secession, a detailed review of the personalities and events of the five months between the momentous election of 1860 and the rebel attack on Fort Sumter. McClintock is interested in presidential decision making, arguing that the Civil War could have been prevented if Buchanan and Lincoln had altered their priorities. Believing in a C. Wright Mills-esque "power elite," McClintock's premise is that, despite the roller-coaster ups-and-downs of northern public opinion and the machinations of political giants like Stephen Douglas and William Seward, the final, fateful decisions lay in the hands of the president.
Integral to McClintock's study is his examination of Republican Party operations in the face of disunion. He does a fine job of describing the weaknesses and divisions of the infant Republican organization, and, rather than the "Grand Old Party" of memory, Lincoln's party in 1860–61 is described as tenuous, fractious, and unsure of how to proceed. Republican policy, McClintock argues, was stunted and ineffective due to clashing personalities and rival political agendas. Furthermore, he challenges traditional characterizations of leading figures: Lincoln is portrayed as weak, vacillating, and confused; Seward is painted as the desperate champion of (nonexistent) southern Unionism and the last hope of the nation; and Lyman Trumbull is depicted as a blind partisan obsessed with petty patronage matters. McClintock correctly asserts in his introduction that the subject of northerners in the Civil War era has been neglected by scholars, and that a fresh look is long overdue. He also rightly notes that, despite a recent focus on gender and ethnicity, politics remains at the heart of the secession crisis.
Lincoln and the Decision for War is quite critical of Republicans, particularly those determined to stand up to southern extremism and secession. McClintock asserts that Republican "stalwarts," as he calls them, never acted out of sincere Unionist or free-soil principles, but rather out of partisan and patronage designs. "Even at a critical moment of decisions at the highest level of government," writes McClintock, "Northern leaders found their attention occupied by concerns other than statesmanship" (225). Lincoln, more than any other, receives a great deal of censure from the author. McClintock condemns Lincoln's "haphazard, slapdash approach to governance," concluding that his policy of "masterly inactivity" was disastrous. In the face of great calamity, McClintock writes, "Lincoln would not act. The days passed into weeks and he simply would not act" (225, 237, 247). McClintock places blame for the crisis on Republican leaders, finding their rhetoric disingenuous, labeling [End Page 544] their actions as "naked coercion," and hinting at a nefarious plot to force their economic values on the entire nation (251). Republicans, "with their moral imperialism and their fanatical sectional agitation," rejected every opportunity to save the nation, choosing instead to save their party (276). The firing on Fort Sumter, itself, McClintock argues, was a ploy by Lincoln to keep his party united; Lincoln wanted South Carolinians to attack the federal fort so that he could claim (falsely, according to McClintock) that southerners were the aggressors.
Conversely, McClintock heaps praise upon those who catered to southern demands and sought to find a "compromise" that would heal national divisions. Deeply sympathetic to "conciliationists," McClintock peppers his narrative with vignettes to show the frustration of pro-southern northerners, choosing eloquent Unionists who aimed their poison pens at Republicans. "As the long secession winter dragged on," McClintock writes in a typical passage, "the relentless press of events and constant frustration at what they perceived as Republican obduracy taxed the power of even the most committed conciliationists to sustain either their faith in a peaceful outcome...